the orphanage in Pavlovsk…..

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 🙂

Resources:

http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/4065169?uid=2134&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=21102423156311

http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3347014?uid=2134&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=21102423156311

inside the orphanage. the cribs where many children spend a good part of their days.

inside the orphanage. the cribs where many children spend a good part of their days.

this photo is so hard for me to look at. but I did take it right before I got this girl to give me a good smile.

this photo is so hard for me to look at for many reasons. but I did take it right before I got this girl to give me a really good smile!

this little man is actually eighteen years old. technically old enough for the adult home, but he requires more care than they can likely give him there.

this little man is actually eighteen years old. technically old enough for the adult home, but he requires more care than they can likely give him there.

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one of the female volunteers and a man from the adult home - he was so full of life!

one of the female volunteers and a man from the adult home – he was so full of life!

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this guy was happily dancing to the band's music.

this guy was happily dancing to the band’s music.

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making pizza, but trying to eat the ingredients first ;)

making pizza, but trying to eat the ingredients first 😉

happy moment with a volunteer.

happy moment with a volunteer.

making pizzas.

making pizzas.

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this is Vova! I remembered his name because I asked his volunteer and so it stuck with me :)

this is Vova! I remembered his name because I asked the volunteer he was with, and so it stuck with me 🙂

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this guy gave me a real good smile when he saw me taking his photo!

this guy purposely gave me a real good smile when he saw me taking his photo!

this little girl LOVED this dog! I think she followed him around for the better part of an hour!

this little girl LOVED this dog! I think she followed him around for the better part of an hour!

what a good dog!

what a good dog!

she loved that doggy!

the doggie made her super happy!

playing dress up.

playing dress up.

another great smile!

another great smile!

learning how to juggle :)

learning how to juggle 🙂

this photo makes my heart so happy! playing dress up :)

this photo makes my heart so happy!

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two volunteers with three of the children!

volunteers and children!

27 thoughts on “the orphanage in Pavlovsk…..

  1. While brash and many times bleak, I have always had a non-connected endearment for Mother Russia. Her constant epidemic and situations – saddening at best. Yet the vehement spirit of her people – sensationally unique. Spaceebo for this angle! Eta Horasho.

  2. Lindsay, Your photos brought these beautiful children to life. You captured their hearts which makes it so easy to look past their handicaps. God must be so pleased! Thank you.

    • Thank you Brenda 🙂 I have decided that if I ever live in Russia again, I’m going to try to regularly volunteer at one of these orphanages.

  3. I would not want to live in Russia and have no intention to. I accidently came across this blog and cannot help but be touched by this blog – I love how the internet can inspire people to make changes in one’s life and I will certainly speak about this to more people. It’s worth the effort and energy!

  4. A very sensitive and poignant account, a glimpse into a part of Russian life we rarely get to see. Beautiful photos that capture the resilience and dignity of these disabled persons and the volunteers. Thank you.

  5. I came across this blog on Freshly Pressed…thank you for sharing with us your experience. The expressions on the faces of these children and teenagers…opens one’s heart…You did well by awakening our spirits with them! I worked as a teacher in Kenya some forty years ago…and now my daughter is in Togo, as a Peace Corps volunteer…these blogs have affirmed within me how we are all ONE…and whatever we can do…regardless of how little…we each are called to BE LIGHT for one another. You have been the LIGHT for us through your photographs! Thank you! I will reblog this on my site: pedalpushingthoughts@wordpress.com

  6. I will also post it on my Facebook page. We have many injustices cropping up everywhere in this country…but we also still have it better than 70% of the world…I am hoping by sharing your blog that we will appreciate more what we do have….and then be pushed to help those who have less…and SHARE more with each other. IF each person did one sharing a day, what a world it would be!

  7. Reblogged this on johannisthinking and commented:
    We have many injustices cropping up everywhere in this country…but we also still have it better than 70% of the world…I am hoping by sharing your blog that we will appreciate more what we do have….and then be pushed to help those who have less…and SHARE more with each other. IF each person did one sharing a day, what a world it would be!

    • Thank you so much! And that is really amazing that you got to work in Kenya and now your daughter is in Togo – how wonderful! I think it’s important to see how people live across the globe – it puts what matters in perspective, I think.

  8. These photos impress me. I can see the disability, but there is also so much more to the subjects in the picture that it almost dwarfs it. You captured the essence of the people. Excellent work. Though you know that life for these people is off to the side of their mainstream culture, the pictures are full of Russian life, in the clothes, styles, especially the eyes and faces. Magnificent portraits.

    • Thank you Lee 🙂 I truly appreciate your comments and I thank you for taking the time to read what I wrote and to see the pictures in their entirety 🙂 Many many thanks!

  9. It’s a very astute observation that people with disabilities are invisible in Russia, which almost smacks of eugenics. One Russian celebrity recently said she was asked if she wanted to leave her son, who has Down’s syndrome, in the maternity ward. I applaud your courage in going to the orphanage. Not many Russians do.

  10. such an amazing post. thanks for sharing your thoughts. I too, have visited these orphanages and it is a real shame that disabled people are Still excluded from Russian society today. How I wish that could soon change..

    • I just came across your blog too. We visited Russia this past summer and I have always been attracted to Russian history, music, literature, language. Your pictures and story of your day at the orphanage were inspiring and touching. I volunteer at an academy my friend started three years ago for children who do not fit into regular school; the students are handicapped, autistic, or mentally ill. They are all vulnerable, to say the least. I look forward to learning more about Russia through your blog.

  11. How sweet they all are 🙂 Your pictures capture each persons individual personality and humanity with respect and compassion. This was a beautiful post, I just found your blog and will continue reading.

  12. Wow, I’ve just come across, your blog, and this post is incredibly moving. I have been travelling in Russia for the last three weeks, and I have also noticed how people with disabilities are almost invisible. It really broke my heart to see physically disabled people missing arms and legs begging for money. In the west, people are taken care of in a better way. I was also incredibly sad to see, at the other end of the spectrum, it was also incredibly sad to see old people begging for money. I just really hope that things change for the better soon. Thank you for this thought-provoking post!

  13. Thank you for showing the ‘unseen’ side of Russia. I’m planning to travel there next year and am learning a lot from your blog. Not looking forward the heart-breaking aspects but will have time to prepare myself.

  14. спасибо за фото и информацию.Я думаю много есть таких детей в других странах.Жалко их,но такая жизнь не всем можно быть здоровыми.Государство беспокоится.Я живу в России очень люблю свою страну.

  15. These photos are priceless and the article is amazing. I’ve red an article from Newsweek last year about handicapped and developmentally disabled children in Russia. Your article has made me learned more about it. I must say it also also given me a smile. Keep doing what you’re doing, best regards from France.

  16. Thank you for this wonderful and eye opening post. I have for a long time been very interested in Russia, but haven’t had an opportunity to visit. I often come to your blog to read some of your updates and they are always so interesting! I particularly like this post because I believe in the importance of travelling and culture through visiting the day to day realities of a place. As much fun as visiting popular sites are, it’s these kinds of experiences that really help you understand a country. Your pictures are both fantastic and heart warming.

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