Against the week's background of need, and hope, and protest, I balance an incident from Tuesday afternoon at the US-Russia Forum.
Most of the attendees of the Forum had carefully skirted the situation with Ukraine, but one fellow put it right in my face. One of the Russian speakers, Vladimire Kozin, Professor of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences, said to me during a break, that there had been a Russian attempt “to liberate the Ukrainian orphans near Donetsk, who were being shelled, but we failed to protect them,”
I resisted the urge to let my jaw drop. “What do you mean?” I asked evenly.
“We tried to bring them back to Russia to protect them,” he said, his face the color of ripe beets and his shoulders in military line. “They were taken. You know that there have been forty eight deaths of orphans at American hands. (referring to his number for Russian-born children believed abused in the US.) We were trying to keep them safe.”
I clamped my teeth shut.
The topic of orphans in the eastern regions of Ukraine is actually something about which FRUA has been approached about becoming involved (more about that another time), but not from the perspective he described. I wanted to say, “Don't you think Russia has enough orphans already?” But I didn't. Instead I said “I think you may have missed my message here; ninety nine percent of our adoptive families and kids are doing so well in the US. And frankly, those children are Ukrainian citizens and it is the job of the Ukrainian government to decide what is best for them.”
He glowered at me, and opened his mouth to respond but before he could say a word, a tactful professor from Moscow University pulled him away.
The week held a seesaw of news. I had not been able to secure a meeting at an individual orphanage. Then my friend, Daria Danilova, a young and influential Russian journalist (who visited my home in Denver for dinner last December while in the US as a guest of our State Dept) arranged for me to meet Vladimir Petrosyan, Head of the Department of Social Welfare of Moscow. I was delighted; he is in charge of all Moscow's orphanages and if there is ever a chance to begin to change the impression of western adoptive families, he would be it.
Then, the day before we are to meet, he suddenly decides he cannot meet me without proper “diligence.” He requests credentials, an agenda, the purpose of my visit. I comply and hear nothing. By Friday, the day of my departure I take matters into my own hands. If he won't meet me; I'll go to him. I take my packet of materials about FRUA, arrange a cab to Moscow City Hall, and proceed to find the Office of Social Welfare. I find it, but am told he is not there. “That's fine,” I say handing over the FRUA packet. “But here is information about our adoptive families." Russia want's information about the success of our families and now you have some here. I hope Mr. Petrosyan will meet with me next time.”
I get back in the cab and go to the airport. But this is not the end of the story. You see, Moscow is doing something very major with its orphanages. All of them. They are being turned into "social family" homes.
It was explained to me that half the children in every Moscow orphanage are being shipped out to country orphanages, to be warehoused. I cannot imagine that overcrowding, or the confusion of where and why they are moving. Those who remain are about to become “social families” of seven to nine children, sorted into age-ranges, then into social family apartments in the remodeled orphanages; complete with a weekday “mother” and a “weekend mother.” Now I know people sometimes joke that none of us get to pick our families, but this is something else. These kids truly are the luckier ones among Russia's orphans...but what about the ones shipped to the country? Of course, Moscow gets to say that it has reduced the population in Moscow orphanages by half.
Against this backdrop, the Kremlin held a massive rally on Red Square that week; a celebration of Russian “Big Families.” I missed the actual event hosted by President Putin, but for days after on Red Square, they were taking down the the massive stadium scaffolding and young Russian families wandered about pushing baby carriages and holding the hands of multiple children. To complete the celebration, GUM Department store on Red Square was holding a major exhibition celebrating Soviet autos. I'm no expert on the square, squat, notoriously capricious transportation of that era, but nostalgia for all things Soviet is in the air.