Anya's Orphanage Memories

This is the second of a four-part series on Anya, one of Russia’s unseen orphans who found hope and purpose through Orphan’s Tree. This is a true story, but a few names have been changed. You can read part one of the story here, if you have not yet.  Part 2

What goes on inside an orphan’s mind as the circumstances, environment, and people in her life change? At the core of every orphan experience is loss. The loss of parents is probably the most significant loss any child can experience. Of the world’s orphans, 99 percent will never be adopted, so this loss is permanent and its effects far reaching. Along with this heartbreaking loss comes the sense of abandonment and rejection that every orphan feels. While an orphanage can meet a child’s physical needs, it can never address the psychological and spiritual wounds of loss and abandonment. The orphanage serves merely as a band-aid for the deep wounds of an orphaned child.

This was Anya’s experience when she moved into the Galich Orphanage in the Kostroma region of Russia in 1994. It was well known that children were cold and starving in Russian’s crowded orphanages during this time, but usually no one intervened. The government could not take care of these children, and the general population was unaware, as orphans were out of sight. In Communist times, Russians were seeking a perfect society, which did not include the disabled or the orphaned. This is often why these populations were relegated to rural areas, places where they would not be in the view of everyday citizens.

The universal truth about children, however, is that no matter where they live, no matter how “unseen” they are, they still will find a way to play. Anya and the orphans at Galich found creative ways to entertain themselves. Like most children, they dreamed of having a pet. The kids were often sneaking cats into the orphanage, hiding them under the beds when caretakers came by, and playing with them at night. Sometimes they would rescue injured animals. Anya would sometimes bring injured birds into the room she shared with 12 other girls. She would nurse the birds back to life and hide them in a closet at mealtime. Sometimes she would return after hours playing outside to find dead birds in the closet.

Anya was an entrepreneur from an early age. In the summer, she would hike out into the woods and pick berries of all kinds. Then in the evening she would walk out to a dirt road and sell the berries. She used the money she made to buy tea, sugar, bread, and candy at a small, corner market. The orphans were given around one-fourth of a cup of tea each day, and it did not have sugar, so this was a special treat Anya hid in her room. The bread was an inexpensive way to fill her hungry belly. The candy was a gourmet treat she had never had before.

Children at orphanages often work together, similar to a pack or a gang, which gives them a sense of belonging and identity. They bond over similar experiences, needs, and their desire for power, respect, and protection.  Each child at Galich had a unique story, but together they grew up, attended school, and shared their daily struggles. One way they worked together, Anya explains, was to scavenge for food. The hungry children would often sneak out of the orphanage, crawl over a fence into a neighbor’s yard, and steal produce from their gardens. Anya understands why orphans have a bad reputation in Russia, admitting they were thieves, forced into stealing by persistent hunger. Tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, onions, and cabbage were frequent targets. Since no one enjoys eating raw potatoes, the children would divide up the required tasks to boil potatoes. One child would steal a bucket from the orphanage; another would fill the bucket with water. A different child would be in the woods, making a fire with sticks. As soon as the fire was hot, someone else would carry the bucket of water off to the woods. The team who had stolen the produce would carry the potatoes into the woods and drop them into the bucket to be boiled.

Anya has chosen to forget the painful experiences that went on at Galich—memory suppression is common among orphans—but she can tell stories for hours that make you laugh. You laugh until you realize the lengths these children went to, and the risks they took, to survive. Then it breaks your heart.

Next week, in Part 3 of this series, you’ll hear what happened to Anya when she aged out of the orphanage.