Post-Soviet Sojourn

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Some of the counselors and teachers, unfortunately, lacked the skills necessary to raise these children into emotionally developed, grown-up human beings. Perhaps it was due to a lack of specialized training, or perhaps for some of them this was simply a job — and those people put in the same effort as they would for any nine-to-five job. I believe they were the exception, and that most of the teachers do care for the kids a great deal.

Still, one thing troubled me: the faces of little children who, after falling down and hurting themselves, don’t cry. Why? Maybe because there’s no point. Rarely does someone come to pick them up and comfort them.

The children always wanted to do things with us: swim, walk to town, buy us ice cream, play basketball or dodgeball, and we were eager to please, though we didn’t always know the rules. On the second day there, a group of about twenty boys and girls wearing bathing suits told me they were on their way to the river and invited me along. I raced back to my room and retumed in a flash wearing swim trunks. As I marched the group out of the gate toward the river, a voice boomed at me, “Where are you taking those kids?” I froze in my tracks. The supervisor was a bit miffed; no one had authorized a trip to the river — I had been hoodwinked.

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Except for playing sports or doing other very physical activities, the boys kept their distance from us. They had a very strict code of what real men do, such as carry bricks, dig ditches, and play basketball, and what they don’t do, like let women do their work for them, cry, or show their feelings.

The girls, on the other hand, were very affectionate. Each day they brought us big bowls of berries they had collected for us in the forest. They filled their pockets with wild hazelnuts for us, or gave us sunflower seeds. They brought us beautifully arranged bouquets of wildflowers, or long strands of berries strung on thin reeds. Occasionally they even brought us unusual insects and, once, even a hedgehog.

A dog’s life

They played with their affectionate dog, Palma, and gave her bits of food they saved from their meals. Palma feared all males, though, and when I would approach her to pet her, she would rim away with her tail between her legs.

The girls loved the dog, especially the eight- and nine-year-old girls, with whom Palma slept each night. And Palma loved them. But one moming the girls approached us and said flatly, without emotion, “Palma is dead.” Katya Potapova, an eight-old-girl, recounted the story for us:

On the evening before, the girls had been sitting on their front porch, reading and relaxing with Palma, when two older boys grabbed Palma by her ears and began to drag her away, squealing and yelping. When the girls screamed, “What are you doing?” one boy, the oldest at the orphanage, answered curtly, “Palma ate some farmer’s chickens.” They continued to drag her by her ears through the dust.

These eight- and nine-year-olds followed, wailing desperately. They looked on as the boys brought the screaming dog into the yard of the slaughterhouse, where the day before they had helped slaughter several pigs. The girls peered under the fence, their wide eyes filled with tears, as the brick in one boy’s hand came crashing down above Palma’s eyes. These girls, who had no one, were losing a good friend, right before their eyes. The brick came down again and Palma fell. Then the boy lifted Palma’s head off the ground by one ear and plunged a knife into her throat. He moved the knife from side to side. Palma’s white fur became saturated with blood. The boys walked away.

Katya and the other girls felt it was unfitting for a friend to lie in a pool of blood and mud in front of the slaughterhouse, so they lifted the heavy carcass and carried it away toward the woods, staining their hands and clothing, to find a nicer resting place for Palma.

I gave Katya a hug when she finished her story, and she began to cry, uncertainly at first, because rarely do these children find a shoulder to cry on. But her tears fell faster as she finally began to let it out.

“Potapova! Why aren’t you working?” a shrill voice demanded, addressing the child by her last name, as was always the case. I tumed around to see a tall, black-haired, black-eyed teacher.

“Palma is dead,” I said. “Katya is very upset.”

“We have rules around here,” the woman growled, ignoring me. “This is work hour.” And she led Katya away by the hand.

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