Russian trains bombard all the senses with stimuli, and this one was no different: Acrid smoke from the cheap cigarettes that teenage soldiers bummed off each other mixed with the charred smoke of the coal-burning samovars used to brew tea aboard the trains. From all sides, an echoing voice barked about departures and arrivals, while aboard the train, babies cried, fathers yelled at their boys, and a few people complained about the heat.
We had stepped out of an infernal Moscow aftemoon into an olive-drab-green steel oven, an open car of wooden sleeping berths, where sweat dripped from the tired but enduring faces of elderly women, and condensation covered the windows, all but one of which were stuck closed. I had the good fortune of being seated next to the working window. Unfortunately, I was also seated next to a woman who feared that her daughter might catch a draft, and vehemently insisted I keep the window closed.
So I endured the heat, and looked forward to reaching my destination: the orphanage-school, where five others and I would be spending June and July. It is situated in Sosnovka, a tiny “labor town” of 12,000, which, at that time, had no paved roads (they have since built one), no stoplights, and is located in one of the poorest parts of the south-central Russian heartland.
We knew the kids needed our love and affection. What we didn’t expect was how much of it they had to offer us.At the entrance to Sosnovka, a larger-than-life painting of Lenin loomed over the administration building. Across the street, a statue of a fierce-looking soldier wielding a machine gun stood poised to defend the town against enemies. Around the neighborhood were billboards that read “Glory to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union,” “Glory to the great Russian nation,” and “Glory to labor!”
The orphanage-school was located at the end of a dusty road, next to a forest. I had feared we might find a dank, rotting bunch of cells, but found instead something like a summer camp.
We had loaded ourselves with as many clothes, toys, sports items, medical supplies, and other donated items as we could possibly carry. In addition, several volunteers had individually arranged for large shipments of aid to be sent to their orphanages. But while we knew these things would help the children, we also understood that what they really needed was our love and affection. What we didn’t expect, however, was how much of it they had to give, and how much of an impact they would have on our impression of this strange country.
Five kids on each hand
The children overwhelmed us on our first day at the orphanage. They brought us flowers, put on a concert, taught us how to wash our hands properly before eating. When we walked, they held our hands, five or ten kids holding onto each of our hands. These children had a physical need to be close to people.
The employees of the orphanage, although very warmhearted, rarely displayed their affection for the children overtly. I had hoped to find a place populated by children who see each other as brothers and sisters and run by a caring group of adults who do their best to fulfill the roles of parents. Since most of the adults are teachers, though, they keep to a reserved, teacher-student relationship with the kids. While this looked like coldness to me at first, I later came to see that the kids loved many of the teachers and that the teachers did show affectly, in their own subtle way.