RIGHT TO BE LOVED
By Anna Ostashevskaya-Gohstand
It is disturbing to read about orphans. It is disturbing to write about abandoned children. It is only natural to choose not to be disturbed. It takes courage to get involved. It takes guts to get on the plane, fly to the other side of the world and work at an orphanage. Californian photographer Fima Gelman did just that. He spent three weeks of the coldest winter in the last half century in the heart of Siberia teaching children he had never met the art of photography.
“I wanted to help these kids remember who they are, so that when they grow up, they have at least one photograph of their childhood,” remembers Gelman. He tells me about Project Hope. The idea to teach orphans photography belongs to the Chidren’s Hope International. CHI is a full service, licensed, not-for-profit adoption and humanitarian agency, accredited by the COA and Hague pursuant. The international office of CHI located in Tomsk provided assistance with logistics. After testing his cameras in a walk-in freezer and packing the warmest clothes he could find, Gelman launched on his unusual trip.
We are in his sunlit studio in San Francisco, looking though piles of images.
“Look at this one.”
Ten-year old boys are throwing snowballs in – 40C weather, frost-bites on their cheeks. “Do you know you can’t make a snowball in this temperature with your mittens on?! Bare hands only! Here, take a look at these two girls, all braids and bows. All smiles. They are posing. You let them be, and their expressions are different,” says Gelman. I look deep into children’s eyes and remember the famous quote from a great Russian writer Gogol, “tears invisible to the world beneath the visible laughter”. It would take a Gogol or Dickens to tell these kids’ stories. Gelman’s portraits are stories without words. He likes to repeat, “An image is worth a thousand words…” What is a photograph? A glimpse of life… We drink Russian black tea, and look through the pictures. Gradually, these kids become real to me; their life unfurls before my eyes.
Siberia… Tomsk: rows of wooden houses. Four hundred years of cruel temperatures had twisted and crooked the windows and doors, giving the city a Siberian Gaudi look. Fires are burnt to thaw the soil for road work… Red flames in the dark… Black soot on the white snow… A yellow candlelight trembling in a small corner kiosk; pale pink carnations blossoming behind the frosted glass... Delicate Siberian flowers… Clouds of steam born at lips with every breath… It is cold, very cold in Tosmk. But in every house there are glossy pictures of emerald oceans, golden beaches, and sunlit skies. Dreams, dreams… Eternal Russian juxtaposition of dreams and reality.
According to statistics, there are more than 1,000,000 orphans in Russian orphanages. Approximately 12,000 orphans are adopted annually by Russian citizens, and only 3,000 children are adopted by foreigners. 99 out of 100 Russian prospective adoptive parents will not adopt children with any hereditary risk. This group includes children with a family history of substance abuse or mental disease. According to the same sad statistics, 9 out of 10 orphans belong to these two categories. Those not adopted stay in orphanages.
The tradition of raising children in big groups takes its roots in pre-communist Russia. However, collective farms, pioneer camps and giant orphanages are the legacy of Lenin and Stalin. Although the latest Western research studies show that children in orphanages suffer from developmental delay due to the lack of individual attention, public opinion in Russia is unperturbed by its orphans’ fate. If children are fed, dressed and educated, they are fine. But are they?
Gelman visited 10 orphanages; two in the city of Tomsk and eight more in the countryside. Each orphanage has its own structure and routine; each has its own atmosphere. Some do better, some do worse. With a warm smile, Gelman talks about a “family” of ten children aged from five to sixteen. I can see them making beds, neatly tucking coarse woolen blankets underneath rusty iron mattress frames; setting a table with red-and-white checkered plastic tablecloth, then blowing on hot oatmeal with golden specks of butter in the middle of the plates… Laughing, teasing each other, like brothers and sisters… Only their parents are not there. 0063, 0054
The space can be tight, and in some places twenty kids have to share one room. As a rule, though, there are three to four kids per bedroom. There are showers and central heating. While it can be minus 30 C outside, inside the buildings are baking.
And then, there is the food. The kids are well fed. Although typical Russian diet is bland, it is nutritious and filling. It’s always kasha – buckwheat, oats – for breakfast. Soups for lunch – scarlet borsch with a dash of sour cream, sour cabbage soup, barley soup; always with black bread, lots of bread. There are sausages – Russian hot dogs – with mashed potatoes. And then, there are desserts: pirozhki with apples, candies, and fluffy white and pink birthday cakes. I remember my grandmother’s miracle filled kitchen. Her soft, round hands covered with flour, cinnamon sprinkled apron, and the joy of licking the spoons. Those cakes were confessions of love… How does a birthday cake from an orphanage kitchen taste? A cake sans love… 0083
There is no lack of clothes. In the freezing temperatures one has to bundle up. You either feel and look like an astronaut or pay for it with severe frost-bite. It’s a hat over your forehead, a scarf over your nose, a fur-coat over sweaters, three pairs of pants, and valenki – felt boots that look like elephant’s feet. You can’t bend your foot in it, but they are indispensable in the Siberian winter. And to add to the comfort, your mittens are sewn to long rubber bands and hang out of your sleeves, like puppet’s hands. Not much has changed in Russia in this department in over hundred years – except for now the orphans’ hats and scarves are made in China and come with fake Nike and Coca-Cola logos.
Children attend school, and must complete eight years of study. School programs are academically challenging, and teachers are generally caring. There is a 30 or 40 to 1 kids/teacher ratio. There are special programs for disabled children. Russian law doesn’t permit the mentally retarded to attend college. Therefore, handicapped children and teens learn practical skills at farms, so they can then make living.
A wonderful Hobby Center in Tomsk provides extracurricular activities for all children, orphans and non-orphans alike. I look at them in the photographs, playing basketball and laughing side by side. They all look so happy, and I can’t tell orphans from other children… The Hobby Center is sponsored by private corporations and offers many clubs like chess, sports, dance and drawing.
Photography was an entirely new project and children took to it enthusiastically. Gelman taught them to use the equipment and think about composition. There were photographers and models, camera-shyness and posing, and just lots of excitement. “They were so happy to have cameras,” smiles Gelman.
I listen to Gelman, look at the pictures, and try to grasp why his story is so sad. I see no poverty, no starvation, no violence; if there is any, it is well-covered. There is one major missing link in this chain: it is love. Like you, like me, these children have a right to be loved. I’m looking at the picture of a young girl, Katya G., holding a drawing of a beautiful woman with fancy hair. Beneath it in big shaky letters: MAMOCHKA, Dear Mommy… Why did she want to show it to the man with a camera? So her mommy would see? So her mommy could find her? So her mommy could love her? Dreams, dreams…