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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Orphans: In a Closed, Brutal World

Second in a series of articles revealing the poor state of Russia's orphanages and other institutions for children.


Pacing back and forth in front of the rusted playground, blowing in their hands to keep warm, the armed guards in the shiny black uniforms are the only signs of life outside Moscow's orphanage No. 98, just a kilometer or so away from the Kremlin.


As with any Moscow orphanage, you cannot come in to the 98th without an appointment. The guards see to that.


The orphanage administrators say the guards are here to provide protection for kids in dangerous times. But Yevgenia Dudko, city councillor for the 98th's district, says they are posted to keep nosy visitors from seeing what goes on inside. She was turned away in 1994 when she showed up without an appointment.


And what does go on inside? To listen to the young men and women who have grown up in orphanages, and to some of their former teachers, an orphanage is a place where teachers and administrators regularly administer beatings to children, long trips to mental institutions are prescribed as punishments, infants are fraudulently diagnosed with severe disabilities in order to earn additional funds for the staff, and sexual abuse occurs frequently, affecting children of both sexes and all ages.


Although people who have lived in orphanages say the problems are widespread, they have seldom been publicized, and have never been investigated seriously by any international human rights organizations.


"Everyone knows about the problems in Romanian orphanages, and our organization has just finished a nine-month investigation of abuses in Chinese children's homes," said Rachel Derber of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, a human rights organization. "But to my knowledge, there's never been any investigation at all into Russian orphanages."


Sergei Smolya, 20, is a graduate of the 98th, which was temporarily closed in August 1994 after a scandal involving a young boy named Sasha Yegorshkin who died mysteri death, concluded that the boy had been beaten, the hospital Yegorshkin was transferred to diagnosed him with leukemia. And although police eventually launched an investigation, the official explanation is still death by natural causes.


As a result, none of the employees of the 98th orphanage were ever disciplined. Although the home was eventually closed Aug. 10, 1994, due to what the City Prosecutor's office described as "crude financial violations" and an "unhealthy moral-psychological climate imposed on the children by employees and teachers," all of the employees remained on the city rolls, transferred to other orphanages -- particularly the 4th, the 80th, and the 72nd.


Furthermore, rather than rebuke the institute director, Svetlana Tasich, Moscow Education Minister Lyudmila Keysina instead named Tasich Moscow's best orphanage director, and took her to an international conference on child care at an Illinois Bible college.


Keysina declined to be interviewed for this report.


According to the Social Security Ministry's latest data, there are more than 482,600 orphans in Russia today. Of those, some 112,600 live in state orphanages and kids' homes.


Conditions in these orphanages are difficult for a number of reasons. For one thing, a lack of funding is resulting in school closings and overcrowding. As the ministry report writes, "despite the fact that the number of orphans is not decreasing, there were 30 orphanages which were closed or reclassified for other uses in 1994 alone."


The ministry's 1995 report on the Condition of Children concluded that, "due to overcrowding and deficiencies in medical care, the level of illness in orphanages is twice as high as in regular schools."


But overcrowding and poor health are relatively small issues compared to physical and sexual abuse, which is harder to define in statistics, but which former orphanage residents and teachers say is a serious problem.


"It's pretty bad where I was," said Sasha Dvukolov, 18, who just got out of orphanage No. 3. "They hit us and all that all the time. All the places are the same."


Vladimir Krivolapov, a teacher who has worked at four different Moscow orphanages, said, "violence is the norm. Kids are treated there not as human beings, but as animals."


Krivolapov is now an assistant on children's affairs to a Duma deputy, Alexander Vengerovsky, who recently proposed a resolution on children's rights.


Valentina Khaitova, a spokeswoman for the Moscow Department of Education, was brusque when asked if physical abuse occurs in the city's orphanages, which her office runs.


"If the kids say that these things are occurring, then there must be some way for them to prove it," she said. "So let them prove it."


Tatyana Maximovna, the director of the Moscow Children's Affairs Inspectorate, a wing of the Moscow Police, takes a more fatalistic view.


"What can I say?" she said. "An orphanage is an orphanage. Sometimes people who shouldn't be working in them end up working in them."


According to Smolya, his friend Pasha Rozhkov and another 98th graduate, Sergei Davidov, there is another type of abuse in orphanages for which they can point to themselves as evidence. All three are bright, alert and obviously healthy young men, who until very recently were diagnosed as autistic.


Emil Gushansky, an assistant director of Moscow's office of the Russian Association of Independent Psychiatrists, is familiar with some of the diagnostic abuses committed by orphanage administrators. Smolya and other orphanage graduates turned to him to have their autism diagnosis removed from their medical history.


"I can't speak of a mass problem, because I've only treated a half-dozen or so of these kids," he said. "But of the ones I've seen, their diagnoses were totally unfounded."


Why would orphanages diagnose kids incorrectly?


"Look," he said. "These institutions for disabled kids, they need to have patients. Without patients they have no funding. So they find patients. It's that simple. And it's enormously harmful to the psyche of these kids to grow up being told they're retarded or autistic. Also, it damages their credibility if they make charges of improprieties."


Khaitova dismissed the charges of fraudulent diagnosis, saying "it's absurd to believe in such a conspiracy."


Life does not necessarily get better for orphans after they come of age. Many have trouble receiving propiski, or residence permits, without which it is difficult to get a job and impossible to receive social services.


Although the government is obligated to help orphanage graduates find rooms or apartments, the wait is often long.


Vladimir Gerasimov, another 98th graduate, was homeless for nearly a year before he turned to crime and mugged an elderly woman on the street.


Since then, he's been imprisoned three times. Now he's out and homeless again.


"I don't want to rob. But there's no place for me," he said. "I suppose there never was."a