Fall 2008

 Vol. 16, No. 4

 Russian Children at Risk

 Mark R. Elliott

The Number of Orphans and Street Children

Approximately 700,000 children reside in Russian orphanages, the largest number for one country worldwide.1 In addition, estimates for much larger numbers of street children swell the total of at-risk Russian children to some 2.5 million, or 5.8 percent of youth under 19.2 Only African nations dealing with HIV/AIDS have higher percentages of children at risk.3

For Russia the problem of abandoned children is not a new one. Heavy Russian losses in World War I (3.8 million deaths) led to soaring numbers of homeless children: two million by 1917 and an estimated seven million by 1922-23 in the wake of two revolutions and a civil war.4 Because of forced collectivization of agriculture and widespread famine, Russia still counted between four and seven million orphaned children by 1932.5

In the 1930s ongoing collectivization and Stalin’s purges and deportations further swelled the ranks of orphans to an estimated seven to nine million.6 Making matters much worse, the 27 million Soviet fatalities in World War II left additional legions of homeless children. From 1941 to 1947 the number of orphanages in the Russian Republic alone increased from 1,661 to 3,900, with the number of children cared for more than doubling from 187,780 to 422,600.7

Postwar decades saw a gradual reduction in institutionalized orphans such that by 1987 the state was caring for 284,000 children.8 More recently, in the 1990s, Russia endured the failure of numerous industrial enterprises, rising unemployment, bouts of soaring inflation, and a collapsing social safety net – all fueling, once again, the ranks of children at risk.

To cope with additional hundreds of thousands of homeless children, the number of Russian orphanages more than doubled from 560 in 1995 to 1,420 in 1999.9 By 2007, Russia’s 700,000 orphans were being cared for in 1,600 institutions of various types, with even larger numbers of street children still homeless.10

Trend One: Networking and Collaboration

In the 17-year span from the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991-92 to the present, various trends may be noted in conditions faced by Russian orphans and in efforts to ameliorate their plight. First, networking and collaborative efforts on behalf of Russian children at risk have increased substantially. Especially noteworthy has been the role of Mission Specialties (Atlanta, GA), Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries (Wheaton, IL), and

 Viva Network (England) in launching systematic networking and coalition building, illustrated by a series of conferences between 1999 and 2007 that were organized in Russia and the United States to address the needs of Russian children at risk. These gatherings served as the catalyst for the establishment of a Western networking body called the CoMission for Children at Risk (CCR), which developed an impressive database of 427 churches, NGOs, and agencies with concerns for Russian children at risk (http://comission.org/organizations.)

After a number of false starts, RiskNetwork, a Russian-based CCR counterpart, came into being in 2004. Its Russian-language database of 150 groups (www.risknetwork.ru) is likewise a helpful means of identifying personnel, information, and resources for the benefit of children at risk. 11

Collaborative efforts on behalf of Russian children at risk may be categorized as follows: (1) partnerships between Western church and parachurch agencies (example: Buckner International and Children’s HopeChest); (2) partnerships between Western and Russian church and parachurch agencies (example: Russian Ministries and Evangelical Christian-Baptist churches); and (3) partnerships between church and parachurch groups and government agencies and NGOs (example: USAID, Assistance to Russian Orphans, and Children’s HopeChest).

Trend Two: A Strengthening Russian Economy

A second trend with a significant impact on Russian children at risk has been a strengthening Russian economy. In recent years rising oil and gas revenues have provided more reliable government funding for orphanages. In addition, some Russian businesses have increased their charitable donations for children at risk. Also, partly because of the improved economy, Western agencies now place less emphasis upon direct humanitarian aid in favor of greater efforts to better prepare orphans psychologically and spiritually for the trauma of graduation, often as early as ages 15 or 16.

Trend Three: More Help for Older Orphans and Orphan Graduates

A third trend has been an increase in Western efforts to assist older orphans and orphan graduates. In the 1990s, it did not take long for Western NGOs and Christian ministries to recognize that as difficult as conditions were for Russian orphans, circumstances faced by orphan graduates were infinitely worse. A Russian Interior Ministry orphanages annually, 40 percent were soon unemployed and homeless, 30 percent committed crimes, and 10 percent committed suicide.12 Also, a recent study estimated that 40 percent of orphan graduates become addicted to alcohol or drugs,13 while estimates for prostitution among female orphan graduates run as high as 60 percent.14

Examples of Christian ministry and NGO efforts to address the needs of older orphans and orphan graduates include the following: (1) Children’s HopeChest (George Steiner and Tom Davis) established its first group home, known as a “family center,” in the Vladimir Region in 1998 and has since added supervised transitional living programs in the Vladimir and Kostroma Regions and ministry centers for orphan graduates in the cities of Vladimir, Kostroma, and Ryazan. The latter offer graduates a safe haven including emergency shelter, life-skill classes, Bible studies, counseling, recreation, and fellowship. CHC reports that 1,000 older orphans and orphan graduates participate in its various transitional living programs, with very low rates of substance abuse, unemployment, or criminal offenses.15

(2) Miramed (Juliette Engel), a Moscow-based NGO with U.S. headquarters in Seattle, Washington, has published two excellent survivor guides for orphan graduates, one edition for Moscow and one for St. Petersburg. Miramed has also produced a puppet show performed in schools and camps warning orphan graduates that promises of jobs in the West very often prove to be bait set by sexual traffickers.16

Trend Four: “Deinstitutionalization”

A fourth major trend in efforts to assist Russian children at risk may be categorized as “deinstitutionalization.” Examples of this trend include adoption, family-style group homes, independent living homes for older orphans, and increasing support for foster care and guardianship programs.

One alternative to institutions is, of course, adoption. Between 1991 and 2007, Americans adopted 54,730 Russian orphans. From 12 children adopted in 1991, the number peaked at 5,865 in 2004. In 2007, American families adopted 2,207 orphans from Russia.17

In 1998, in the wake of cases of adoption profiteering, Russia passed legislation to more closely monitor international adoptions and to encourage domestic adoptions. Since then, periodic moratoria on international adoptions and stringent reaccreditation requirements for adoption agencies have significantly reduced placements of orphans abroad.18 In addition, fewer children find permanent homes abroad because of the skyrocketing costs of international adoption, as much as $25,000 to $40,000 per child.19 These exorbitant charges are largely a function of bribes extracted all along Russia’s bureaucratic pipeline.F

Editor’s note: The conclusion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.


1 700,000-Zhanna Danilova (RiskNetwork), interview, 2 June 2008; 700,000-Judith L. Twigg, “What Has Happened to Russian Society?” in Russia After the Fall, ed. by Andrew C. Kuchins (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2000), 151.

2 Estimates of 500,000 to 2.8 million: Kelsey Hoppe, “Bezprizorniki: Street Children in the Former Soviet Union,” Children of Crisis Project, 2003, www.radstock.org; Linda Delaine, “Plight of Russia’s Orphans,” Russian Life (15 March 2007), 2; Susan Hillis (Centers for Disease Control), interview, 10 January 2008; Karmen Friesen (CoMission for Children at Risk), interview, 4 January 2008.

3 UNAIDS, UNICEF, and USAID, Children on the Brink: A Joint Report on Orphan Estimates and Program Strategies (Washington, DC: The Synergy Project, 2002), 22; Cristi Hillis, “What Do They Need to Survive? Addressing the Needs of Adolescent Russian Orphans,” senior thesis, Davidson College, 2006, note 8.

4 Judith Harwin, Children of the Russian State, 1917-95 (Aldershot, England: Avebury, 1996), 11; Hillis, “What Do They Need?” 32; Thomas P. Whitney, “Postscript” in Vyacheslav Shishkov, Children of the Street (Royal Oak, MI: Strathcona Publishing Co., 1931), 145; Alan Ball, “State Children: Soviet Russia’s Bezprizornye and the New Socialist Generation,” Russian Review 52 (April 1993), 229.

5 Hillis, “What Do They Need?,” 35; Svetlana Gladysh, Deti bol’shoi bedy (Moscow: Zvonnista, 2004), 28.

6 Hoppe, “Bezprizorniki,” 6. In 1926 the government ceased publication of orphan statistics. Harwin, Children, 10; Hillis, “What Do They Need?,” 36.

7 Catriona Kelly, Children’s World; Growing Up in Russia, 1890-1991 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 246.

8 Elizabeth Waters, “ ‘Cuckoo Mothers’ and ‘Apparatchiks’: Glasnost and Children’s Homes” in Perestroika and Soviet Women, ed. by Mary Buckley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 124.

9 Svetlana Stephenson, “The Abandoned Children of Russia – From Privileged Class to ‘Underclass’” in Education and Civic Culture in Post-Communist Countries, ed. by Stephen Webber and Ilkka Liikanen (London: Palgrave, 2002), 189. See also Hoppe, “Bezprizorniki,” 13.

10 DeLaine, “Plight,” 2.

11 Anita Deyneka (Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries), interview, 14 January 2008. While some organizations hesitate to sign on for such public exposure, many others overcome their initial uncertainties: at present an average of two to three new groups join Risknet weekly. Zhanna Danilova interview, 2 June 2008.

12 DeLaine, “Plight,” 2. See also Kathleen Hunt, Abandoned to the State: Cruelty and Neglect in Russian Orphanages (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1998, www.org/reports98/russian/).

13 Mike Hollow, “A Contextual Analysis of Poverty in the Russian Federation,” (Tearfund HIAF, 2007), 46.

14 Tom Davis, Red Letters: Living a Faith that Bleeds (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2007), 112  report estimated that of the 15,000 children leaving See also Mark R. Elliott, “Faith-Based Responses to Trafficking in Women from Eastern Europe,” Bogoslovskie razmyshleniya/Theological Reflections No. 5 (2005), 147-91; Mark R. Elliott, “Christian Responses to Trafficking in Women from Eastern Europe,” East-West Church and Ministry Report 13 (Spring 2005), 1-4; and 13 (Summer 2005), 5-6.

15 CHC website: http://www.hopechest.org; Korvan Funk (Children’s HopeChest), interview, 18 June 2008

16 Miramed, “Progress Report – 2006,” http://miramed.org/social.htm; video of puppet show in author’s possession.

17 U.S. Department of State and Holt International Children’s Services: http://www.holtintl.org/instats.shtiml (holt-1992-2002 stats). In 1999, in addition to 4,300 Russian orphans adopted by Americans, 1,900 additional Russian orphans were adopted by families from other nations. Delaine, “Plight,” 1.

18 DeLaine, “Plight,” 1-2.

19 Karmen Friesen interview, 4 January 2008.

Edited excerpts reprinted with permission from Mark R. Elliott, “Russian Children at Risk,” Religion in Eastern Europe 28 (August 2008), 1-16.

Mark R. Elliott is professor of history at Southern Wesleyan University, Central, South Carolina, and editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report (www.eastwestreport.org).