They are happy, healthy children, but just three months ago, Vera and Sasha were growing up in orphanages in Moscow. Both had been abandoned by their mothers, who handed them over to state institutions because they weren't able to bring them up themselves.
'Opportunity To Help'
Now they live in a loving family in a large house on the edge of a village just outside Moscow, after Natasha and Sergei Petrov and their two older children adopted them.
"My wife and I thought about it for a long time, and we came to the conclusion that we had the opportunity to help some other children," Sergei said. "I don't mean by giving money or buying presents, I mean by taking some children into our home and raising them as our own. We discussed it for a long time, and when we got the chance, we seized it. And now we've adopted two children and are bringing them up, and that has given us enormous satisfaction."
According to UNICEF, about 750,000 children in Russia are growing up without their biological parents. The majority live with relatives, but almost 200,000 are being brought up in institutions.
"For different reasons, these children have been abandoned, have been handed over to the state. And we all know that the outcome of this process is not very effective," said Carel de Rooy, UNICEF's representative in Russia. "A large proportion of these children, about a third, does not adapt to social life once they graduate from the institution when they're 18. Ten percent of them commit suicide, a large proportion of them end up in prison. So it's not a success story."
Children are placed in orphanages in Russia for various reasons -- because their families can't afford to bring them up, because they have been taken away from alcoholic or abusive parents, or because they are HIV positive.
Now, UNICEF and other children's support groups are working with the ministries of health and education to try to move children out of homes and into families that can provide the emotional support they lack.
Family Is Family
As Natasha rocks six-month-old Sasha to sleep to the sound of his favorite toy, she remembers the day they brought him home from the orphanage.
"He just lay there like a mummy. He didn't move his hands, he didn't move his feet, he didn't smile. He didn't take any notice of people. It was only after two or three days that he began to take toys from us, he started saying 'goo!' and smiling. Because in the orphanage, they just lie there and no one plays with them," Natasha said. "The first day we saw him, and we picked him up, one of the women who worked there started shouting at us and saying, 'If you pick the children up, then they'll start asking to be carried.' You know, a family is a family -- nothing can replace that."
But despite the large numbers of children like Sasha and Vera growing up in institutions, adopting them is a complicated and drawn-out process that has to go through the courts.
"The mechanisms for adoption are Byzantine. Because there are Russian parents wanting to adopt, but the procedure is still very, very complex," de Rooy said. "The other point is that abandoned children frequently can spend up to 18, 24 months on a hospital ward, for bureaucratic reasons, basically. By not having them put into children's homes early on, their chances of adoption dramatically reduce. Parents who adopt children, they normally want very, very young children; so the longer a child lingers on a hospital ward, the smaller the chance of adoption becomes."
He says part of the problem is that Russia doesn't have a tradition of adoption: during the Soviet era, abandoned children were taken care of in state institutions until they were 18.
In other parts of the world, relatives often take care of children whose parents aren't able to. But in Russia the concept of extended families looking after children is relatively rare.
"Those who are prepared to do so, like the grandmothers, they frequently live on very meager pensions, and they simply don't have the capacity and the conditions to do so, although they would want to," de Rooy said. "There is rarely a brother or a sister prepared to do that, because families are very small."
One Of Their Own
Sergei and Natasha say they hope more Russians will start to adopt. But they warn that apart from the complicated legal procedure, parents should think carefully about bringing a child into their home. They say they have made the decision never to tell Vera and Sasha they are adopted, which is why they asked for their names to be changed in this article.
"We aren't trying to prove that we've done these children a favor by adopting them, or something," Sergei said. "No, we simply adopted two small people and are bringing them up as our own children. So that they know in the future that we are their parents and we raised them, not just that we took them on temporarily and then got rid of them. These are our children, and we will keep this a secret from them till the end."
And, when Vera and Sasha are a little older, they would like to adopt more children. By then, they say, they hope that the current legal procedures that put so many people off will be changed to make it easier for them, and others, to adopt.