Thursday, March 22, 2012

Russian Orphanage Life: Scene Two

Two of the kids in the orphanage hallway;
the boy put on one of the orphanage's suits,
 hoping to impress us.
I didn’t curse the potholes as we bounced south over pock-marked roads nearing our most far-flung orphanage, since they forced our driver Sergei to stop recklessly passing other traffic. Three death-defying hours after leaving the regional capital, we were in Peter’s city, a town still the region’s fourth largest despite 40 years of declining population.  Founded in 1552, it borrows its name from Russian folklore, after a magic stone with healing properties, though today there is little to suggest healing anywhere.  The road leading to the orphanage was flanked by small frame dwellings; weathered stick fences guarded tiny vegetable gardens. On the road’s shoulder a hunched babushka led a dairy cow on a leash.  Sergei was still irate at my leaping unannounced from his Volga sedan at a stop sign for a photo hours ago, so I bit my tongue as I fingered my camera and looked wistfully out our rear window as the cow and her mistress grew smaller.

There is little to commend Peter's hometown
When we arrived at the orphanage, several kids bolted out the doors to welcome us.  One was Peter, a cheery, animated lad I knew from his recent Lighthouse Project trip to the U.S.  Inside, several others lined the halls to see us.  Nowhere else did kids show such interest, or desperation.  Their rampant desire notwithstanding, I knew there would be precious little hope we could impart here.  But while this orphanage is one of the most deprived we work with, and several adoptees have characterized it as preferable to life on the streets only because three daily meals were served, Peter, now 12, remembers life there in fonder terms. 
He arrived on a bus at about age five from the detsky sod, or baby house orphanage.  Several other orphans were with him, having graduated the sheltered environment of the baby house.  As the newcomers disembarked the bus, older orphans heading to lunch encircled them, gawking at the smallness of the detsky sod kids.  Peter was frightened, but soon found his caretakers kind, unless he disobeyed.

Peter's orphanage
Peter’s new institution was gargantuan, with enough kids to warrant separating them into rooms both by gender and grade. A caretaker awoke each group between 7 and 8 a.m.  Before she was done, Peter’s roommates were already pillow fighting or playing with toys.  The caretaker would remind them to make their beds and brush their teeth; most orphans brush after rising, not eating, and have mouths full of cavities to show for it.   Once everyone was ready, they left for a breakfast of porridge, served inside a neighboring building.  Kids washed their hands before eating, and sat at assigned places where their food awaited them.  When they finished, bigger kids descended on the tables to eat the leftovers. 

Soviet-era safety posters welcome visitors in
the entrance to Peter's orphanage.
After breakfast, the kids queued up for school outside a third building on the orphanage grounds.  As an all-orphan school, the kids were largely spared the condescension of “home kids,” their term for children with families.  Peter spent fourth grade, his final year at the orphanage, studying reading, writing, math, and painting; science and social studies were omitted from the curriculum, leaving kids ignorant of the larger world outside the orphanage.  While some students fussed during class, Peter rued the time wasted as the teacher struggled to calm them.  As part of their lessons, kids sang once per week.  Gym class was Peter’s favorite; depending on the season, they might play soccer, ski, run, or bicycle. School was in session Monday through Friday, not Saturday as many Russian schools were.  When I asked if they wore uniforms, Peter told me they wore their own clothes, proudly adding he had “more than one outfit” to choose from.
The orphanage dining hall

Mid-morning, the kids enjoyed polnik, a snack time of tea and cookies served in the dining hall.  Unlike kids from a nearby orphanage we work with, Peter had a break from school for a soup lunch; he regarded days when borscht was served among his happiest there (Russian Orphanage Life, 1/28/12).  For dinner, bread and an evil-looking white sausage called sausiskii were on the menu. Only adults ever helped with meals.

On Sundays, Peter’s group cleaned their room, a task he considered the bane of orphanage existence.  He had a shelf for his clothes, though older kids sometimes stole from him the things they coveted.  His bed was “good and comfy”; at nighttime, the boys in his room feigned sleep until their caretakers left for the evening, then pillow fights broke out.  One caretaker remained at the orphanage overnight in case of emergency.  Kids caught misbehaving were banished to a dark basement and left to stand there for an hour; Peter learned obedience after a few trips.  Some kids would fight, but Peter avoided it, since he was too little to win. 

A bedroom in Peter's orphanage
There was a place in the capital reserved for kids Peter said could not hold their tempers.  Every three months, doctors visited the orphanage, taking an entire day to examine the children and to critique their scholastic progress. About twenty orphans were sent there for three month-stints based on the doctors’ recommendations.  Returning kids brought reports of being locked up, sometimes even tied up for severe infractions, which made every doctor’s review feel harrowing.  Kids sent away there four times stayed permanently, and forfeited any possibility of adoption.

Cigarette smoke clouded the orphanage bathrooms; Peter attributed his frequent illness to the omnipresent fumes. By 6th or 7th grade most orphans smoked, a vice he found "gross.”  Though he had no idea where the money originated, the staff gave kids 50 rubles per month (about $1.70) as allowance, enough to keep the older kids puffing and the restrooms stinking.

Sometimes the environment around the orphanage terrified Peter. Once, at age seven as he walked alone outside, a drunk staggered up and tried to take him home. Finally the drunk’s lady friend intervened and forced him to let Peter go.
The orphans freshened up occasionally in the banya, a Russian sauna with birch twigs and leaves bundled together and hung above a steam source; unlike the bathrooms, the smell was pleasant.  Steam and the resultant perspiration helped loosen the dirt from their bodies; afterward, they took a bath.

Most of the time Peter enjoyed orphanage life, though room cleaning times and mad teachers equaled bad days.  Peter’s happiest memories were of his borscht, and of a caretaker taking him to the store to spend his allowance on candy.  

During the summer, orphans left to live with foster families.  Two boys in the first family Peter stayed with were cruel; in his second foster home, Peter remained with Tota Luda and her husband three months, pulling weeds in a garden overgrown with tomatoes.  He disdained that work, but liked life outside the orphanage, once attending a wedding with Tota Luda.   
Kids at the orphanage
Orphanage kids longed for families, though with no social studies classes and no knowledge of the United States, they had no aspirations of adoption by Americans.  But as he saw others leave, Peter thought them lucky, and wished them happiness.  After his trip to America with the Lighthouse Project, he realized a family wanted him; thus, he began to implore his orphanage director daily, “Director, are they here yet?”   While she reassured him, obstacles which delayed his parents’ coming rendered him disappointed and with dwindling confidence as the wait dragged on.  After all his questions, when his turn to go finally came, Peter thought he noticed the director “was a little glad that I left!” 
In court for his adoption, the judge’s serious appearance when she entered the courtroom intimidated Peter.  He agreed with a simple “Da” when she asked if he wanted to be adopted, then let his nerves silence him further.  He’d made the right decision, he told me, reckoning he was the fifth child from his institution to find a forever family; nonetheless, it was a hard day when his new parents took him back to the orphanage to bid everyone farewell.  As teachers cried, it pained him to leave his friends with nothing but bubblegum for their futures.

Peter's arrival at the airport in the United States overwhelmed him.  But his new cousin waved a sign of welcome, quickly teaching him to high five and give knuckles, and to his profound relief, he found America wasn’t scary for long.  As other kids from his orphanage followed him into local families, Peter relished the chance to reconnect with them.
Kids outside to see us off

I asked Peter what he would tell his friends left behind. “If you want parents from America, that’s a really good choice.  But it is going to be hard to learn the language.  That was the hard part when I came here.”  To help him, his parents worked on his English on the summer afternoons following his homecoming.  Even Uno games provided opportunities for lessons, he noted with a hint of disgust.  But he was delighted when I praised his English. “Thank you!” he gushed.  I had to [learn] because I didn’t have no one to speak to me in Russian!”

Kids waving goodbye at the orphanage
Peter wondered what my plans were for his interview.  I promised I’d post it on our website, to share with others about Russian orphanages and the kids who wait in them.  He brightened when I hoped his story might help some of his old friends.  “Oh, that’s nice! I hope they get adopted.  If you do get adopted, I am really happy for you guys!”

So Peter’s orphanage days are a memory, but my mind’s eye vividly sees him there, the brain-jarring day we left him.  He and his friends spilled out the orphanage doors behind us, aching to seize every moment with us; some of those dear ones, like Vasily, still wait just to be chosen (Solid Gold, 12/1/09). After we’d hugged our goodbyes and collapsed into the Volga, most of the kids filtered back to the orphanage.  But not Peter.  As we drove away, I glanced out the rear window again. He was waving to me.  Smiling and waving.

1 comment:

  1. Peter sounds very precious. Thanks for sharing his story with us! May dear Vasily be blessed with a family, too, before it's too late.


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