By Tom Disney
My doctoral research largely draws upon my ethnographic work as a volunteer in an orphanage for children with severe intellectual disabilities in Russia. The institution is a part of the state system of orphan care and is home to just over 400 children.
Such institutions in Russia have been the focus of a number of documentaries (see for example BBC 2013 documentary here), reports by NGOs (Human Rights Watch 1998/2014) and press publications (Altshuler 2011, Rankin 2012). Investigations of these environments have importantly highlighted worrying aspects of these institutions, the resistance of the state system to change, and the continued tendency in Russia towards large-scale institutional state care of orphaned or abandoned children.
However part of my research in Russia has also involved investigating attempts to move away from such more traditional Soviet forms of orphan care. This has partially been to understand to what extent alternatives might be developing in Russia, but also to highlight the complexity and heterogeneity of spaces of orphan care, something I feel is currently lacking in the literature on orphanages (see Disney 2015), particularly in Russia. In an attempt to learn more about alternative forms of orphan care I visited other state run institutions, NGOs who are working in collaboration with the state to meet the needs of children within the state system and those who have left, and also non state environments of orphan care such as SOS Children’s Villages (for an overview of the SOS villages system see here).
In particular I have drawn upon my experiences of working with a therapeutic children’s community, which I have worked with for just over nine years now. It is in many ways very similar to the SOS children’s villages; the environment is designed so that children live in families in contrast to dormitories, and in houses rather than large institutions:
I visited the therapeutic children’s community just as I was finishing my fieldwork, and it was a rather fitting end as it was the place that initially sparked the interest for my PhD research.
Throughout my time working in the state institutions, and meeting with various participants in order to understand the processes of state orphan care in Russia, I often found it interesting to consider the contrast between the state system and some of the ways non-state actors where developing their own forms of orphan care. Many of these reflections constitute the final empirical chapter of my PhD, and what I hope will help me to draw some interesting conclusions as I near the end of writing up.
Altshuler, B. (2011) ‘The Orphan Factory’ Russia Beyond the Headlines Available at: http://rbth.co.uk/articles/2011/11/21/the_orphan_factory_13777.html (Accessed 30/03/2015)
Disney, T. (2015) ‘Complex Spaces of Orphan Care – A Russian Therapeutic Children’s Community’ Children’s Geographies 13(1): 30-43.
Human Rights Watch (1998) ‘Abandoned to the State: Cruelty and Neglect in Russian Orphanages.’ Accessed July 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/russ98d.pdf
Human Rights Watch (2014) ‘Abandoned by the State: Violence, Neglect, and Isolation for Children with Disabilities in Russian Orphanages’ Accessed 18/10/14. Available at: http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/russia0914_ForUpload.pdf
Rankin, J. (2012) ‘Russia Struggles to Reform Soviet Era Orphanages’ The Moscow Times Available at: http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/russia-struggles-to-reform-soviet-era-orphanages/455659.html (Accessed 30/03/2015)
Rare access to the closed world of Russia’s orphanages (2013) Tim Whewell. UK, BBC. [Documentary] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-22004986 (Accessed 30/03/2015)