St. Petersburg, 24 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- An international human-rights organization earlier this month released a report condemning the brutal treatment of children in Russia's extensive system of state-run orphanages. Instead of blaming Russia's financial problems for the problem, the report found its origins in the very nature of the system and the mentality of the people to whom care of these children is entrusted.
The 214-page report, titled "Abandoned to the State: Cruelty and Neglect in Russian Orphanages," was issued by Human Rights Watch. Its author, Kathleen Hunt, says: "The abuse in orphanages cannot simply be attributed to Russia's economic crisis. The problem of scarce resources cannot justify the appalling treatment children receive at the hands of the state. It wouldn't take more money for Russia to change these policies immediately."
Marina Levina agrees. She has been a child-rights advocate in Saint Petersburg since 1988 and is head of the organization Parent's Bridge. Levina told RFE/RL that "such abuses are typical of our Russian mentality where, after 70 years of Soviet violence and repression, we do not respect human life. It is useless to put money into this system because it is a Gulag that cannot change."
According to the report, about 200,000 children reside in state institutions in Russia, even though 95 percent of them have at least one living parent. While most parts of Russian society have undergone change in the past 10 years, the orphanage system has resisted all attempts at reform, in large part because of vested bureaucratic interests.
In Levina's words, "state bureaucrats benefit from this system. The Government will not work for change because there's big money at stake. Orphanages do not exist for children, but rather these children exist for the benefit of those controlling the orphanage system."
Indeed, even though many bills go unpaid in Russia, orphanages almost always receive their funds on time. Before the August crisis, the state was spending an average of $400 a month on each orphan, 10 times more than what the average Russian family spends per child. But just how much of this money ever reaches the orphan is anyone's guess.
Still, Levina cautions that there are some orphanage workers fighting for improvement, and that the situation often depends on the director of a particular orphanage. She says: "The heart of the problem is that there is no effective independent control over orphanages."
According to Human Rights Watch, physical abuse is common in state orphanages, but it may be the least of their problems. The greatest damage comes from psychological abuse. Many orphans are too easily labeled retarded, or "oligophrenic" (small-brained), around the age of four.
These children are then herded off to special, so-called "psycho-neurological" orphanages where no effort is made to provide proper care. Rather, they are subjected to even greater abuse and neglect.
Levina says that "such diagnoses are readily made because the psycho-neurological orphanages, and those working in them, receive 30 percent more money per child than they would with healthy orphans."
According to official statistics, about 30,000 children live in these closed psycho-neurological orphanages, which resemble prisons. They have poor food and medical care, no hope of a proper education, and many die young.
The orphans are sometimes restrained in cloth sacks, strapped by a limb to furniture, left to lie half-naked in their own waste, and may be administered powerful sedatives without a medical prescription. Children who try to run away are sent to a psychiatric hospital for punishment.
Eventually, Levina says, such conditions do indeed lead to retardation in even the healthiest of children.
The Russian General Prosecutors Office says that some 15,000 children leave state orphanages annually. Within several years, 5,000 of them will be unemployed; 6,000 will be homeless; 3,000 will have criminal records; and 1,500 will commit suicide.
Levina has herself adopted five orphans who were previously classified as retarded. Our correspondent reports that, after several years in a family environment, all are now healthy and doing well in their studies.
Levina used to work in an orphanage, but left when she realized the system was inherently flawed. She now believes that the only way to alleviate Russia's problems with unwanted and abandoned children is to provide more assistance to families in trouble and encourage the development of a foster-care system, as in the U.S.
Her organization, Parent's Bridge, has been working to implement foster care in Saint Petersburg since 1994.