Last Sunday I went to an orphanage with Laura, who does social work research and volunteers at orphanages and "rehabilitation centers" (homes for children who the state has seized on a temporary basis from parents deemed unfit to raise them) here. Russian orphanages seem to hold a measure of fascination for Americans; witness the number of U.S. adoptions of Russian orphans, as well as the fact that several Fulbrighters (myself included) either planned to do or ended up doing something orphan-related, if only in their free time. I suppose it has to do with our not having an orphanage system, the seeming backwardness of it, as well as that general Soviet/post-Soviet mystique that attracts Americans to Russia in the first place. Not to mention the fact that everyone (ok, not everyone) loves children, or more specifically loves to feel like they're doing something to help children in need.
So, having initially planned to get involved with orphans but having, up to this point, failed at it (there's a lot of red tape involved - shocking, right?), I jumped at the chance to tag along for what was ostensibly "American Culture Day." (This did not pan out. We didn't even manage to teach them the Hokey-Pokey. But I think deep down, all of us knew that's how it would end up; attempting that degree of organization with a group of thirteen two- to seven-year-olds is futile.)
This orphanage, attached to a hospital of internal medicine, was for children with HIV. After a slow start (or an allegedly slow start) in the '80's and '90's, HIV is now a big problem in Russia, spread to a large degree by needle-sharing among the country's significant population of drug addicts. Consequently, a lot of children are not only HIV-positive, but also "social orphans" – their parents may be living, but as narcotics abusers, they're unfit to care for them and have either abandoned them or had them taken by the state.
You would expect that the double whammy of orphans with HIV – especially in the context of Russia's orphanage system, which by Western accounts (many firsthand) is anywhere from foundering to completely in shambles – would be just about the most depressing thing on earth. But, like many things in life and almost everything in Russia, the truth turned out not to be all that black and white. To comment on how well the system cares for the children after only one visit would be to put myself at risk of ridicule by future historians (hey, if I can't be a number-one bestseller, I can at least hope to someday be a primary source), so I'll just say that the orphanage was not the complete hole that I think many of us probably imagine when we think "Russian orphanage." Except love and attention, which probably no orphanage on earth offers enough of, the kids seemed to have adequate amounts of everything they needed.
Besides, none of the children was obviously sick, at least not in the sense you'd expect. There were no hospital beds or dripping IVs; there was a courtyard with swings and slides, a soft foam jungle gym, books and television. On the other hand, almost all of the kids had obvious developmental issues, such as what Laura called "attachment disorder," a psychological problem that apparently arises from neglect or inadequate human contact in very early childhood, and causes the kids to do everything they can – including kick, bite and push competitors – to remain in physical contact with you at all times. I gave SO many piggyback and shoulder rides that day, most of which involved carrying one child while trying to get another, who insisted it was her turn, to detach from my leg.
Even so, actually interacting with the kids was, as with most children, frustrating, hilarious and heartwarming by turns. They were excited to have new adults around, and the older ones were amused by this "смешная тетка" ("Silly Auntie," "auntie" or "uncle" being the standard Russian child's appellation for any unknown adult) who didn't always understand or communicate adequately. An older boy named Artyom was particularly clever about this, catching onto the fact that I can't pronounce the Russian rolled r and making not-so-subtle fun of me for it:
Artyom: Do you speak Russian?
Me: Of course I speak Russian! Aren't I speaking Russian right now?
Artyom: Well, yes... but if you can really speak Russian, say my name.
Artyom: No, no, no. It's Arrrrrrrtyom.
Me: Argkh... Argpdh... Arr-tyom?
Artyom: Pfft. Not even close. Call me Tyoma.
So, I had a lot of fun; it was only actually thinking about the situation, these children's likely lot in life, that depressed me, and now I haven't been able to keep my mind off them for several days. The most depressing thing is knowing that these children will probably never live in a family again. Adoption isn't encouraged in Russian culture – much less adoption of invalids – and foreign adoption of children with HIV is, I've been told, illegal. Because of this, one particular interaction has stuck in my mind:
Andryusha (the endearing form of Andrei) is a sweet little boy with chubby cheeks that I'd guess is about 3 or 4 years old. He had a toy cell phone that we played with together for a while; it would "ring," and I'd pretend to be getting a call from Ded Moroz (Santa), a crow sitting in the tree overhead, Laura, etc. Later, I was playing with someone else and Andryusha ran up and handed me the phone.
"Who is it this time?" I asked.
His face lit up by a grin, he announced, "It's papa!"
"Yes, it's my papa!"