Russia is suffering an alarming drop in population yet it is throwing away potentially useful lives by in carcerating children with minor disabilities
and conniving at baby trafficking. Alan Philps met one child who escaped.
Newspaper headlines are always shouting that the Russian bear is eternally waking up, growling, or on the prowl. When Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, announced that the defence budget was to rise this year by 26%, the bear was said to be on the rampage. These bear stories, usually with pictures of massed tanks and missiles, always make me cross. I want to ask, who is going to drive these tanks? If Russia is going to be a world power, who will man the factories, design the weapons and march into battle? The truth is that there just won’t be enough people to do it all. Russia’s population is declining, and figures in this year’s UN Human Development Report, the work of Russian academic experts, make this startlingly clear. Every year the country has some 800,000 fewer children: in 1997, for example, it had 36 million children and teenagers at school. When the 2010 school year starts in September, there will be only 15 million, meaning that classrooms all over the country, except for Moscow and a few other oil-boom cities, are emptying. “For the foreseeable future,” the report concludes, “there is no way of halting decline of Russia’s population at large or of its economically active groups.” The effects will be dire. Putin’s plans to make Russia the world’s fifth economic power by 2020 will stumble due to the lack of energetic young people. The numbers of these lost children are huge. But I am fascinated by them because I have spent the past three years investigating the life of one child, a boy called Vanya, whose story encapsulates many of the problems his country faces.
Vanya was born in 1990, in the dying months of the USSR. The following year, just as the old communist state collapsed, his parents abandoned him and his elder sister, leaving the neighbours to rescue them. Social services separated Vanya from his sister and placed him in a baby house, a state orphanage for infants up to five years old. As he was born prematurely, he failed to meet his development milestones and was confined to a room for the so-called “incurables”. Assessed by the Russian medical experts as an “ineducable imbecile”, he was sent just before his sixth birthday to an adult mental asylum where he was confined to a cot 24 hours a day and starved of food and human contact. He was not expected to survive.
The story has a happy ending. Thanks to his engaging character and refusal to give up, he recruited a range of people to his aid – both Russians and expatriates – and eventually escaped a likely slow death in a mental asylum. He is now in America, where he is known as John.
I got to know Vanya when I was working as Moscow correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in the 1990s, and wrote about him as an example of the abuse and neglect of children in state care. At that time, the only part of Russia untouched by revolution seemed to be the world where Vanya was confined. In 2007 I decided to find out what had happened to him, and the result is The Boy from Baby House 10. This is a worm’s eye view of a closed world, one rarely seen by foreigners; it is an attempt to recreate the real texture of life at that time. When I returned to Moscow to research Vanya’s early life, I had expected to find the children’s gulag being torn down. President Putin, in 2006, called Russia’s declining population “the most acute problem facing our country today”. He called on local authorities to take action to reduce the number of children in such institutions.To read the rest of the article please subscribe to the Frontline Broadsheet. Its only £15 per year for four issues.