In remote Russia, 'Murziki' bring cheer to orphans
Children pour out of Rybinsk's orphanage No. 72, laughing and waving, when the Murziki pull up in their mud-spattered convoy of cars. The kids know many of these adults from distant Moscow by name, and they hurry to help unload the cars, stacked with boxes of toys, sports equipment, and coats – as well as cutlery and a new VCR with a selection of cartoons, needs the Murziki carefully noted on their last visit.Skip to next paragraph
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The Murziki tell the kids that they come from the mythical country of Murlandia, a kind of cross between Neverland and Santa's Village. In reality, they're something almost as rare in Russia, where the volunteer spirit has been dead for the past century: a self-organized band of middle-class people devoting their resources and spare time to a sustained effort to change hard facts for a few hundred children.
"We decided not to sit around waiting for the state to do something about the human crisis we saw unfolding," says German Pyatov, a Moscow surgeon who founded the group after the 1998 financial crash in Russia.
It's now grown to about 700 supporters, connected by the Internet, and a hard core of several dozen Muscovites who regularly make the 300-mile drive out to the chain of poor Volga towns, with their teeming orphanages, that they've targeted.
"I've found that interacting with these children charges me with the energy to keep going," says Mr. Pyatov. "It's enough to look in their eyes to realize that not enough is being done."
They have their work cut out for them. Russia's orphan population has ballooned in the past 15 years, particularly in the economically blighted hinterland beyond booming Moscow.
Rybinsk, a formerly closed defense-industry town of 250,000 on the Volga River, had one orphanage in 1991; now it has six. This reflects a widespread post-Soviet tendency of impoverished families to abandon children.
Forty out of the 52 inhabitants of orphanage No. 72 have living parents who won't, or can't, care for them. "Most of the factories around here went bankrupt, and people lost everything," says Nina Kornyushkina, the orphanage's director. "Many people sank into despair and alcoholism, and the children were just lost."
About 760,000 children are classified as orphans in Russia, according to the Ministry of Education, while a further 1.5 million are thought to be "homeless." Statistics cited by Pyatov suggest that existing institutions do little to help them.
"Roughly 45 percent of children land in prison within five years of leaving the orphanage, 35 percent become drug or alcohol addicts, 10 per cent die – of accidents and suicide – and just 10 percent are considered relatively successful," he says.
"Being sent to an orphanage is a catastrophic route for any child," says Sergei Korobenko, the Russian head of Hope International, which runs programs in large cities to persuade parents not to give up their children to orphanages. "There are very many families at risk, and we try to work directly with them, to find ways to ease their problems and keep the children in the home setting."
Pyatov says the Murziki are beginning to follow children who "graduate" from the orphanages they sponsor to find them jobs and help them deal with problems of real-world adjustment.
"Most of our supporters are professionals or business people, and that makes a practical network," he says. "We have a few successes already."