Russia Needs to Awake To a 'Lost Generation'

Living in Moscow, it's easy to get wrapped up in concern about the lack of playgroups, educational choice, decent emergency services, or worry that the nanny is secretly giving the kids sugar or meting out Soviet-style punishments behind your back.

But then driving past a toddler the same age as your own begging at a busy road junction, scavenging on rubbish heaps or sniffing glue in the park pulls you up short: Our chauffeur-driven, baby-sat children with their health insurance, brand new clothes, holidays abroad and, above all, caring parents are a million miles removed from what even Moscow officials are beginning to admit might be an entire "lost generation" of Russian children.

Following a damning report on the plight of children in the former Soviet Union issued by the International Child Development Center in Italy, UNICEF consultant June Kane says that if action is not taken to turn the situation around soon the "outlook is almost too horrible to contemplate."

She says that Russia could soon fall into a "pre-Victorian situation where children simply have no future."

In the former Soviet bloc where the collapse of communism, according to the United Nations Children's Fund, raised hopes that children's needs would be better met, there has instead been a universal increase in teenage suicides and poverty during the transition to a market economy.

UNICEF's stated aim is to prevent millions more entering the cornerstone and supposed panacea of communist child care: the state institution. Particularly in the Soviet Union, mothers were encouraged to hand over their offspring to state care as soon as possible so that they could rejoin the work force. And almost every Russian was at least partly brought up by a babushka rather than mum and dad: Sasha is by no means unusual in having been periodically raised by his grandmother while his parents worked abroad and even today at Vita's kindergarten more grandparents than parents turn up for school concerts.

UNICEF believes that reviving the family bond between parent and child is the answer to Russia's massive problem of teenage crime, substance abuse and delinquency. UNICEF is advocating redirecting funds into providing maternity and parental pay and instigating tax concessions to allow parents to stay home and bond with their babies.

Frankly these recommendations, lovely as they sound, strike me as naive. Most street kids in Russia are there because their parents are alcoholic, because extreme poverty means they are going hungry at home, or they are refugees from war-torn former republics. "Reviving the family unit" won't be possible until wages are paid on time and the root cause of alcoholism is treated.