Special Theme Edition on the Current Ukrainian Crisis: Volume 22, No. 3 (Summer 2014)
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Natasha and Nastya
Mark R. Elliott
Natasha, I will call her, was 13 in 1999 when her mother was murdered. Her father, who had never been a part of her life, refused to raise Natasha or Alex, her six-year-old step-brother. I met Natasha in February 2000 in an orphanage in the Vladimir Region. Natasha’s eyes were crossed, and she had the beginnings of a weight problem. Worst of all, she told me, her brother was in a different orphanage. Still, he was to be moved from his pre-school orphanage to hers when he turned seven in July. Also, my home church was willing to pay for eye surgery for Natasha if a Moscow eye exam determined her condition could be corrected. This brightened her spirits.
That summer, in July 2000, I led a mission team to Vladimir to host a summer camp for Russian orphans. Just one day before the end of camp I learned that Natasha was attending another camp less than an hour away. On very short notice a Russian friend drove me to meet Natasha. We arrived after lunch while the children were taking naps. A camp worker entered a large dorm room full of beds to tell Natasha an American was there to see her. She came running to me yelling my name, giving me a big hug – and I had wondered if she would remember me. She told me she had expected my visit that summer, which filled me with some wonder because this reunion, in fact, had barely been arranged.
My Russian companion, Natasha, and I received permission to walk around the camp to catch up on news. I asked Natasha about her eye exam in Moscow. She said it did not hurt and she was not scared. I asked her about the prospect of eye surgery. She immediately said she wanted it, and she was not afraid. She said she would gladly do anything to no longer have crossed eyes. Making our way through a beautiful stand of pines, Natasha next shared ugly news. Instead of her brother coming to live with her in her orphanage, she was told in May that back in February, the month when we had first met, her brother had been adopted by an American couple without her knowledge. And the authorities would not tell her where he now lived in the United States. I am told placing a child for adoption without the knowledge or consent of an older sibling is a violation of Russian law. Natasha shared with us that her father did not want her; she had lost her mother; she had lost her home; and now she had lost her brother, the only person in the world whom she loved. She said that just the previous night she had a dream about Alex. I promised Natasha I would try to find her brother so they could at least write.
Natasha’s surgery was scheduled for May 2001 and Western church funds were paid to the hospital, only to learn in Moscow that her operation was being postponed one year in favor of corrective glasses. After traveling from the Vladimir Region, how disheartening this must have been for this painfully self-conscious teen. That same month I had a chance to visit Natasha and her orphanage director. The conversation was tense because Natasha and the director were often at odds. I was told I would not be able to speak with Natasha privately, but when the director was momentarily called out of our meeting on business, Natasha quickly showed me pictures of Alex that she had received from the U.S. Her brother’s adoptive parents had also sent her a birthday present and a letter that said they really loved Alex, but that he missed his sister a lot. I again promised to try to find Alex’s address, but was never able to do so.
Natasha hoped to become a nurse, but her grades were not high enough for that course of study. In September 2001 she entered cooking school in Vladimir. In October Natasha received another letter from Alex in which she learned he might be living in Ohio. He also shared his new parents’ names, but that still was not enough for me to track them down.
In 2002 Natasha again traveled to Moscow for surgery. But, sadly, it was again postponed. I can only imagine Natasha’s deep disappointment. As of April 2002 I was trying to arrange an independent medical opinion at the American Clinic in Moscow. Then I received the saddest news. Natasha had dropped out of cooking school, had moved out of her dorm, and had left no forwarding address. None of my contacts in Russia have been able to locate her since. Already having been sold to men by her own mother as a pre-teen, my haunting fear ever since has been that she may have been reduced again to this extreme, the fate of a high percentage of female orphan graduates. Lord, have mercy.
Nastya, I will call her, was eight in 2000 when my wife and I became her sponsors. When I first met her in an orphanage in the Kostroma Region in February 2001, she was so painfully shy she could hardly look my way. The same was true on my second trip to her orphanage in October 2001. But through letters we learned that she loved math and animals, and in person I discovered that at the orphanage she had a kindly and protective older brother, Artyom.
In June 2002 I recruited a mission team to host another summer camp near Kostroma where my wife, Darlene, finally was able to meet Nastya. Now almostten, she opened up quite a bit, sharing with us that kids at school sometimes teased her about her thick glasses. In the next two years we exchanged letters and pictures and sent presents as our various church teams returned to Kostroma. Darlene began to pray fervently that Nastya would find a family before she had to leave the orphanage.
In the spring of 2004, her caring and dedicated orphanage director chose not to place her with one foster family that she felt was just not right for Nastya. That summer, at our next mission trip camp, she was very affectionate, holding hands, sitting on Darlene’s lap, giving hugs. For several years Nastya had been showering us with doilies and tea cozies she had made in her orphanage. In turn, that summer we were able to buy her a pair of much more attractive glasses, which were quite a hit.
That fall 2004 we received great news that Nastya and Artyom had been placed in a loving foster home, partially supported by a church in Kostroma. Nastya wrote us after just three weeks that her new dad was a pastor and her new mom was also her Bible teacher on Sundays and Wednesdays. She had eight new brothers and sisters, six of whom were also foster children. Nastya was excited about everything in her new family, including its many dogs and cats.
In June 2007 Darlene and I had the privilege of being hosted for a meal in Nastya’s and Artyom’s foster home. We were a bit embarrassed to be treated almost like royalty. We had a delicious, bountiful meal, partly prepared by a proud Nastya and Artyom. But best of all, we found ourselves in a loving, godly home headed by a couple with very big hearts. What a joy it was to be able to meet this giving couple whom we know will love, protect, and prepare “our” shy little Nastya for life. That night I was reminded of John 14:18 where Jesus promised, “I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you.” Thanks be to God.
What do Natasha’s and Nastya’s stories tell us? Not the easy, glib math that some in life lose and some win. For Russia’s children at risk, the Natashas tragically outnumber the Nastyas perhaps ten or twenty to one. What their stories do tell us, in their raw pathos and poignancy, is that orphans are flesh and blood, not merely digits in numbing, even paralyzing, statistics. Still, the numbers and the history, the orphanages and the alternatives, the failed solutions and the best practices, the economics and the politics of homeless children – we need to comprehend them all if we are to have any chance to mourn fewer Natashas and celebrate more Nastyas.F
Edited excerpt 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).