Before the Soviet Union, before Lenin, before Stalin, Yeltsin, and Putin, the prophetic Russian author Dostoevsky, through his intellectual character Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov, asked a question that still plagues Russia today. Ivan asked, “Listen: if everyone must suffer, in order to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what have children got to do with it? It’s quite incomprehensible why they should have to suffer, and why they should buy harmony with their suffering.” The suffering of children has been prevalent throughout Russian history and can be seen in the orphaned, the homeless, the abandoned, and the neglected youth of today. These are the children that SunErgos works to bring Hope, Warmth, and Food. To understand their current situation it is helpful to learn the historical reasons abandoned and neglected children remain part of Russian society.
The Russian nation before, during, and after the Soviet Union has had social and government systems that contribute to the vast number of children orphaned. In pre-revolutionary Russia a foster care system, called “forming out,” placed orphaned children in peasant families. This program led to a steep rise in child mortality, while draining the rural families and villages of material resources. As resources depleted, parents died, leaving more unwanted and destitute children behind. The terrible cycle only served to increase the problem.
Children that were not placed in foster care systems were housed in state institutions. These homes had such high mortality rates they were dubbed “Angel Factories.” Poverty and lack of resources in rural areas set up situations where mass amounts of children were orphaned. The forming-out program and the institutions created horrible living environments for the children. These systems caused the children—who survived—to grow up in atrocious situations that disillusioned them from a healthy understanding of family and unity within home and community. Orphans had a more likely chance of death than life.
Thus, when the Bolsheviks came into power, the Soviet Well-Fare system said: “[it is the] states responsibility for the well-being and upbringing of children and on a preference from the public raising of orphans over private methods, regarding the pre-revolutionary experience in fostering as unacceptable in every respect.” Yet, this lofty Soviet goal of communal upbringing was difficult to enforce, which meant that in 1918 adoption was forbidden because it was a privatized system. However the government did not regulate foster care. The goal of the Soviet government was to turn these “angel factories” into “Palaces for Children,” however these “palaces” required time and resources to create, two items the Soviet government did not possess.
Instead, they placed children “temporarily” in peasant families, in a program similar to the “forming out” system reminiscent of Tsarist Russia. Of course this situation had major problems. The peasants often did not have enough material resources for their own family and would reduce the foster children to servants, being hardly fed and never clothed. By the end of the 1920s mortality among the foster children population reached “catastrophic proportions” according to government accounts. Although the Soviet government continually attempted to reform the foster system, a mixture of famine and war maintain a recurrent lack of resources, continuing the cycle of orphaned children placed in peasant families who did not have the means or desire to take care of them.
By the 1990s the USSR had broken down the idea of a family unit through the ideal of communal living. Then, because of a lack of resources, more corrupt and highly inadequate systems were created for the abandon children of the Soviet Union. The disillusionment, hurt, and pain these children felt during Tsarist Russia continued through the reign of the USSR. Thus, when the chaos of the 1990s struck during the dismantling of communism, the neglected children only fell further into the margins. This societal system has lead to a phenomenon in Russia right now of social orphans and children with infectious diseases such as HIV and Tuberculosis.
Today SunErgos works mainly with social orphans. In next weeks blog we will further explain what makes an orphan a social orphan and why there are so many of them currently in Russia.
Written by Hilary Morris, former Creative Writing Intern.