MOSCOW, Russia — Misha Yershov spent 11 years living in an institution in Russia's Pskov region. Since he moved into a rare space in a children's village, life "is leagues better," Yershov said. He is quick to name the charity workers who took him out of the system — Dima and Yulia — as well as a caregiver at the orphanage who gave him rest by occasionally letting him stay at her house.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev would like more children to laud their upbringings as wards of the state, with his name at the tips of their tongues.
Medvdev’s November state of the nation address was widely criticized as bland, boring and beside the point. But few focused on his advocacy of children's rights, which has become something of a personal campaign.
"Serious problems remain with our correctional orphanages," said Medvedev to the assembled audience of ministers, deputies and top-level officials. "Unfortunately they are more conducive to the isolation of children than their socialization."
Tackling the problems of Russia's state system for childcare, he added, will "demand new decisions and approaches."
Medvedev returned to the theme in December during a discussion of the year’s events with top television presenters. He put "our new look at the problems of childhood" second in a list of five important themes of the year.
Whether or not this theme is a convenient substitute for more controversial political territory, the president's words have raised hopes among social organizations that changes to Russia's institution-dependent care system are being pushed at the highest political level.
According to the most recent available data compiled by UNICEF, there are almost 700,000 young people in Russia who have been abandoned by their families — one out of every 27 children. Less than 15 percent of these children are orphans in the full sense of the word; the majority have living relatives.
Ludmilla Sorokina, the Russian director of international charity EveryChild who has over a decade's worth of experience in the field, thinks Medvedev's words will have a powerful effect.
“When people receive such a strong message from above,” she said, “then they begin to move in that direction.”
International attention was drawn earlier in 2010 to Russia's enormous orphan problem by the case of Artyom Savelyev, the 7-year-old boy whose adoptive American mother sent him back to Moscow on his own in April.
Torry Hansen from Tennessee said in a note dispatched with Savelyev that he had severe behavioral difficulties and that she had been lied to by orphanage staff. Russian officials described as “complete nonsense” claims that the boy had any psychological problems. The case caused an outcry in Russia.
Russia was the third most popular origin of adoptive children in the United States in 2009, after China and Ethiopia. However bureaucratic hurdles mean that the numbers of children adopted from Russia have been falling in recent years.
The total amount of adoptions of Russian children in 2008 (the latest year for which figures are available) was just 13,173, of which 45 percent left the country. Medvedev has said that over 60,000 parents were deprived of their parental rights in 2009.
Low adoption levels are hardly surprising if you take a look at the Ministry of Science and Education's official adoption website, which lists about 134,000 children.
The list includes at least one dead child as well as many children whose photographs have been so warped that they look like cartoon aliens. Details on hair and eye color are listed but only one or two words describe character. Those words include such negative terms as “noisy,” restless” and “aggressive."
Almost all the children on the list live in state-run institutions, which house almost 20 percent of Russia's orphans — some 125,000 children.
The childrens' fate usually does not improve after they leave state institutions.
Olga Tikhomirova is the director of the “Step Up” Educational Center for orphans and orphanage graduates in Moscow. She said that when children leave orphanages, though they may be entitled to a state apartment and a stipend, “they do not know how to live independently or how to take responsibility for their own lives.”
For these reasons, she added, as adults they often remain “closed off from society.”
The institutions themselves, which number about 5,250, are accused of subjecting children to emotional deprivation and of being obsessed with self-preservation.
Orphanages often bring large amounts of money and jobs to deprived rural areas and can be an easy target for corruption.
Dmitry Markov, who works for the NGO Rostok in the Pskov region, said institutions “are only too willing to receive money” from charities but are highly resistant to any systemic changes.
Some have been skeptical about Medvedev's commitment to altering the fundamentals of Russia's institutional structure.
Svetlana Rozanova, Director of the Children Homes Fund, said she in no way values Medvedev's pronouncements on the subject.
Though funding for institutions has doubled in past years she said, “enormous quantities are wasted on the upkeep of buildings and salaries for personnel and not spent on placing children in families.”
“The lives of children have not got any happier,” she added.
Social welfare experts say a change in attitude and policy is what is required, not more investment. UNICEF underlined in a statement that the problem of children's institutionalization “will not be resolved unless a new social protection system is designed to efficiently support families in vulnerable situations.”
Sorokina, however, sees reason for optimism.
“Institutions are changing gradually," she said. "But it's not easy and it won't happen overnight.”