When I first moved to Russia in 2011 during the depths of winter, it became incredibly apparent to me that life in Russia is not for the faint of heart. Perhaps it is because I arrived at the end of January when there were twelve foot snow piles and twelve inches of ice covering the sidewalks; killer icicles hung from the buildings, bitter cold temperatures pierced through every layer of clothing, and dark overcast days seemed in abundance. There were days when I would wake up ready for a warm shower only to find that the hot water was off, again, and it was -30°C outside. Over time, you begin to see how incredibly difficult life can be for many Russian people and it is not uncommon for one’s skin to thicken in response. Russian people are very tough and if you do not toughen up yourself while living there, it is not always easy to get by.
While I consider thickening of the skin a good thing at times, it can also have it’s negative aspects as well. For instance, in winter time, it is not uncommon to see homeless or severely drunken people lying on the sidewalks and, as a foreigner, not knowing if there was something you should do about it. And there are numerous veterans of war wandering the streets asking for money, many of them missing arms and legs and rolling around on little roller boards (even on the metro), and you just wonder how they manage to get by on peoples’ loose change. After time, it is not uncommon to feel a bit jaded by the difficulties of daily life (especially in winter!), to the point where you can seriously lose any empathetic spirit you might have once possessed.
But for all the harshness one might see and find in Russia, the people are always willing to be generous, helpful and kind. If you don’t pay attention to these moments, you will truly miss out on a whole other aspect of the Russian people. For all the cold faces you will come across, for all the hardship and suspicion, you will also find a large number of people who light up at the littlest things, like a sunny day and a bouquet of flowers. And for all the melancholy hours, days and months of winter, the summer is full of joy and life!
This being said, on our recent trip to Saint Petersburg we were invited by a Russian friend to visit an orphanage for handicapped and developmentally disabled children in Pavlovsk, Russia. Not far from one of the pristine palace parks outside of Saint Petersburg is a childrens’ home for about 300 – 400 orphaned children with developmental and physical disabilities. I must confess, it was not an easy visit, but I’m very glad we ventured out – in fact, it is one of the highlights for me of our recent trip, because it was very interesting to observe. I genuinely thank our friend for asking us to join her! Bolshoe spacibo ;)!
The orphanage was yet another reminder of how Russia is a land primarily for the capable….. it doesn’t take one long to notice the lack of public access for handicapped people in Russian cities (and from what I gather, this is common in many post-Soviet states); in fact, in 2011 handicapped people were actually banned from using the metro in Saint Petersburg altogether, and it’s the second largest city in Russia! It is a rare occasion when I have actually seen a developmentally or physically disabled person out in public and every time I have, my heart always felt heavy, imagining how difficult it must be for them to survive in Russian society.
Seeing the orphanage was another reality check. My husband and I were actually relieved to find better facilities than we were expecting, but seeing the existence of many of the children was heart-wrenching. While the facilities were quite clean and in good condition for old buildings, the smell walking into the orphanage was similar to that of walking into a nursing home in the U.S. – the kind that gives you a sense that life inside is declining. When we went to see the upstairs rooms of the orphanage, we found large rooms filled with numerous cribs – lying in the cribs were some of the most developmentally handicapped children I have ever seen….. one of the volunteers there spoke to me in English, as we stood by a little girl trying to make her smile, and she said that they can feel things like we do, but they do not know how to communicate their feelings to us. In another corner of the same room was a boy who appeared to be in his early teens – he was lying in a crib playing with a tambourine and he was wearing a diaper.
In order to not get my facts misunderstood or lost in translation, I did read a couple of scholarly articles written about Children with disabilities in Russia. According to the authors, and in line with what the volunteers at the orphanage told me, many of the children end up at the orphanage because it is too difficult for families, both socially and economically, to raise these children in Russian society and the only seemingly viable option for many of them is to institutionalize them at some point, giving them up to the state. This was so different to me, because in the U.S. I am so accustomed to seeing children with disabilities able to survive within the family and be integrated into society. Many of them can even hold jobs and be contributing members once they reach adulthood. And we have handicap access everywhere in the U.S.. My husband regularly took pictures of the handicapped ramps on his first visit to Russia because he couldn’t believe they could ever serve any viable purpose (although we did see someone pushing a stroller up one once…..)
One of the volunteers at the orphanage asked me about the United States – did we have “Detskiye doma” (children’s homes) there and what was it like for orphans. Not knowing much of the terminology in Russian, I tried to explain to her our system of foster care – how children will often live with one family (or a series of families), with the end goal being eventual adoption. But in Russia, it is a bit different. Many of these children will spend their adolescence in institutional care lacking the special attention that might help them develop and become integral members of a community. And many of them will not live to be adults. Another volunteer told me that, on average, one child in the orphanage dies every month. There was one “little” guy there who looked no older than a four year old – but it turns out he is eighteen and is suppose to be moved to the adult home because he is “technically” deemed an adult….. however, there may not be enough proper care and attention for him there, with only two nurses on staff for the seventy adults residing in the home.
My purpose in writing this post, however, is really to give everyone who follows my blog (and any new readers) a glimpse into the lives of some of Russia’s unseen people. I had trouble taking photographs at first – I didn’t want to feel like I was making a spectacle out of these children and adults. But my friend reassured me that it was okay (and there were others at the day’s event taking photos) and now I am so thankful to have these images – both as a memory for myself and so that I may share them with others. And I do have to say that I was wowed by the number of volunteers who regularly come to take these children out for walks on the weekend – one of the few chances these children have to socially interact with outsiders and get some fresh air (for those children who are healthy enough to go out in the open air, that is). Additionally, the day we visited the orphanage was a very special day which happens once per year – the children and adults (from a nearby home for adults with developmental and physical disabilities) are given a summer party of sorts, with many fun activities and a live band. It was truly heartwarming to see – the faces of both adults and children were lit up as they were given such personal attention from so many volunteers! Even entire families came out with their children (and dogs) to participate in the festivities!
That being said, here are some of the children we saw at the orphanage and summer event in Pavlovsk that day. I’m so sorry – I only remember one child’s name, as I am terrible with names and even more so when not in my native language! Vova (which is short for Vladimir)- I have one picture of him in here 🙂