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In a Fairy-Tale Village, Russian Orphans Thrive

August 17, 2010, 17:00 3448 Author: By MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ "The New York Times" www.nytimes.com The founders of Kitezh, an experimental orphan community, hope that their village can be a model of reform for Russia’s decrepit child welfare system

Children in a role-playing exercise in Kitezh, an experimental community for 30 Russian orphans and their adoptive parents

KALUGA REGION, Russia — Standing in a row, sweating in the bright sun, a group of boys hammered on the outer wall of a partially built log cabin. Nearby, two others painted a picnic table while another pack of children scurried by dressed in green tunics, wooden swords drawn for a play battle.

Kitezh consists of half a dozen houses built in Russian-folk style, a school, a dining hall and a small Orthodox church

Work and play often commingle in Kitezh, an experimental orphan community about 190 miles southwest of Moscow that combines features of an orphanage with those of foster care. With its colorful wooden cottages, Kitezh appears as distant from the cruelty of the children’s frequently alcoholic and abusive parents as it is from the stale, often crowded government institutions where many Russian orphans still live.

“If we can, we try to create the atmosphere of a fairy tale,” said Mikhail S. Shchurav, who has lived at Kitezh for three years and has an adopted son. “Fairy tales help these kids forget what they’ve been through.”

The founders of Kitezh hope that their village can be a model of reform for Russia’s decrepit child welfare system, little changed since Soviet days. Though perhaps hard to replicate on a large scale, Kitezh still stands as one of the few largely successful alternatives here to institutional care for orphans.

Russia’s orphan problem stretches back for most of the last century: wars, revolution, Stalin’s purges, famine and disease all thinned the adult population. Even now, as Russian wealth accumulates, alcoholism and social decay prompted by the Soviet collapse continue to plague the countryside, destroying families.

Russia’s Education Ministry has classified about 750,000 children today as orphans. Most have been abandoned or taken from their parents because of neglect or abuse. Thousands more are homeless, living in the dank, freezing train stations and fetid stairwells of Russia’s cities.

Foster care, widespread in the United States and Europe, has been slow in coming to Russia. About 510,000 children cycled through foster care in the United States in 2006, and it took an average of 28 months for them to be adopted, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. While increasing numbers of orphaned Russian children are entering foster care, 200,000 are still housed in orphanages — often living there until age 18 — and thousands more enter the institutions each year.

Kitezh was named for a mythical Russian city that escaped decimation by an invading army by disappearing, leaving only the peal of church bells behind.

Dmitri Morozov, a former radio talk-show host, founded Kitezh in 1992 as a kind of orphan collective, building it with the help of volunteers and adoptive parents on a rural plot donated by the Kaluga Region government. Today, there are about half a dozen houses built in Russian-folk style, a school, a communal dining hall and a small Orthodox church.

The 30 or so children who live there study, work and eat together, and live in private homes with their adoptive parents, who are also trained teachers, psychologists and medical personnel.

“We are trying out the latest methods in psychological therapies: play therapy, art therapy, drama therapy,” Mr. Shchurav said. “We even play economic games. No one in Russia has tried what we are doing with these children.”

The experiment has yielded notable results. Of the 40 or so children who have graduated from Kitezh, about 60 percent have gone on to higher education and all have found good jobs, parents in the village said.

Vasily V. Burdin spent four years in an orphanage after his parents died from complications related to alcohol abuse when he was 4. He said he was treated fairly well there, but gained “an understanding of the world” only when he moved to Kitezh.

With almost fluent English picked up from British students who at times volunteer in the village, Mr. Burdin, now 18 and enrolled in a Moscow law university, described his struggle to overcome his past, and — something few Russian orphans have — his hopes for the future.

“I will proceed with law for my business, for my career,” he said. “But after I have stability, I will do something with music — maybe open my studio. It’s a dream.”

Maxim Tarasenko, 7, the village’s youngest resident, described his life before Kitezh as “very bad.”

“My parents were very drunk, and didn’t understand anything,” he said. “They didn’t understand that you’re not allowed to drink only vodka and that you’re not allowed to smoke.”

The founders of Kitezh see it as a model for reform

At first he was antisocial and picked fights, said Tamara B. Pichugina, his adoptive mother. But after a year in Kitezh, he has become something of a social butterfly, fluttering about and chatting with whoever will listen.

Despite the successes, few have been able or willing to follow Kitezh’s example.

“Our experience is not being put to use because it requires that adults receive a significant amount of training,” said Mr. Morozov, the founder. It also requires a strict allegiance to the collective that can be at odds with Russia’s new materialistic and individualistic ethos.

But the government has begun to revamp child welfare services, promoting adoption to ease the strain on orphanages.

Government funds allotted to adoptive families, including the parents at Kitezh, increased by 28.2 percent in 2007, and about 120,000 orphans left state institutions to join foster families, an increase of 7,000 over 2006, according to the Education Ministry.

Still, those removed from orphanages were replaced by some 120,000 new orphans registered by the ministry last year. Adoptive parents also give back thousands of children each year.

Most of the adults and children at Kitezh said they hoped their project could be replicated throughout the country. Mr. Morozov collected enough donations this year to begin building a new orphan village about two hours from the original.

During a lunch break from his internship in Moscow at the American law firm Baker Botts, a large Kitezh sponsor, Mr. Burdin said he was considering starting a business with Mr. Morozov, his adopted father, to help finance Kitezh’s development.

“I think Kitezh is like a fairy tale,” he said, adding, “You need to work to hold this beauty.”

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