As a 7-year-old girl, Kristina stood on the steps of a bleak and dreary building, looking up with sad eyes at the large, cold bricks that towered above her. Born in Novokuznetsk, Siberia, she had come to live at an orphanage, a place she could never truly call home. The building, Kristina would find, brimmed with other children who had no home to live in, no family to love them and no future to look forward to. For the next eight years, the run-down building would come to be Kristina’s life, the place where she would eat, sleep, study and work without end.
Kristina was born in 1990, just after the fall of the Soviet Union. While the western world glorified the end of Communism, those who resided in the government-controlled region were suddenly thrust into a world of personal responsibility and food shortages. Kristina’s family was no exception. Her father Natole fell deathly ill, fighting a losing battle with tuberculosis. Her mother Nina, a once-vibrant beauty had lost that beauty and ultimately her life to a battle with alcoholism.
Kristina had her mother’s eyes, a shade of hazel that showed an intelligence and wisdom far beyond her years. It came as no surprise to Kristina, the youngest of five children, that when her mother died she would be sent away.
Life in an orphanage
Standing on the steps of the orphanage, Kristina could not have imagined how much work she would have to do to earn her keep. She would have to peel potatoes or paint rooms, and each day meant more work. Each day caregivers would remind Kristina and the other orphans, “No work, no food.”
Kristina’s daily meals consisted of milk porridge for breakfast, thick soups and potatoes in broth for lunch, tea and a type of shortbread cookie for a midday snack and baked potatoes, and fish or pierogi (a Russian dumpling that is fried) and a piece of chicken or sausage for dinner. The daily cost of feeding the orphans is about 15 rubles, or 50 cents. Because there are an estimated 1.3 million homeless children living in Russia, roughly 700,000 of them living in orphanages with very few caretakers to watch over them, orphans must clean and care for themselves and attend classes on their own.
The orphanage’s schoolrooms afforded Kristina an opportunity, however minimal, for education, and while the environment wasn’t the most hospitable, Kristina would always be grateful for the education she received in the orphanage. There she encountered Tolstoy’s “Crime and Punishment,” among other books. Literature would always be her favorite subject. The ability to lose herself in books helped Kristina endure the unfavorable conditions of the world she had come to live in.
Kristina’s first years living as an orphan were the most difficult because she bounced from one orphanage to the next, four orphanages and one homeless shelter in all. Not until her final seven months living as an orphan did she finally end up at Orphanage 74. Along the way, she met a young boy named Kirill, and the two quickly became close, almost like brother and sister. Kirill’s mother had abandoned him when she immigrated to Germany. He had been raised entirely in orphanages. Kristina’s own brothers and sister visited occasionally, taking her out for holidays and outings. But they couldn’t keep her. They couldn’t take her from the orphanage unless her father recovered from his illness.
When Kristina was about 10 years old her father died, making her an orphan in the full meaning of the word. After her father’s death, visits from her brothers and sister eventually stopped. Feeling guilty and being penniless, Kristina’s family could only hope perhaps someone someday would adopt her and take her from the orphanage.
One day when Kristina was 11 a woman came to the orphanage with a camera wanting to take pictures of the children to put on an adoption Web site. While some of the other orphans had their pictures taken holding stuffed animals or favorite books, Kristina held a sign. The sign had four simple words written in Russian: “Mama, please find me.” The photo showed Kristina at her saddest state. She had short black hair and dark circles under her eyes. She looked in dire need for a home, but no one ever came.
Adoption was her only option, although unlikely. As each year passed her chances of finding a loving home dwindled.
“People don’t adopt big kids,” Kristina said.
Since the spring of 2005, 121 orphans ranging in age from 17 to 20 have graduated from Orphanage 74, moving on to technical schools and living in hostels around Eastern Europe. However, 40 percent of the orphans turn to drugs, 40 percent become criminals and 10 percent commit suicide, according to a Sept. 2004 Detroit Free Press article. The average life expectancy of a Russian orphan is 30 years old.
If Kristina wanted to beat the odds and have a future, she would have to earn it, so she continued to work and studied hard.
Despite her grim circumstances, Kristina grew up as a happy and loving girl. At Orphanage 74 she shared a room with three other girls and quickly formed strong friendships. In the bedroom small beds lined up along the sides of the room and had to be neatly made every day; beds are the only things these orphans considered to be their own. The girls in Kristina’s room had no other possessions, no magazines or books or pictures, except for one of the Olsen twins tucked away in the closet.
Every morning the orphanage’s director, a fat woman with blond hair and a troll-like appearance, would make her rounds to wake the children. She would yell at Kristina, her three roommates and the other 270 orphans to get up and work long before sunrise. At Orphanage 74, Kristina would be trucked out to the fields to pick apples in the orchards and do migrant work.
Kristina, who maintained a sense of humor despite her grim reality, became a ringleader of sorts of a group of children that became legendary throughout Orphanage 74 for their pranks. The children were not malicious. They simply got their kicks by playing pranks on the troll lady and other administrators who sought to make their lives miserable. One time, Kristina and her band of pranksters targeted the orphanage director and placed a dead rat inside her purse. Her blood-curdling scream of surprise mixed with horror could be heard across the orphanage.
Such pranks didn’t go without punishment. One day, Kristina’s younger friends decided to ice the steps in front of the orphanage, causing the troll lady to slip and fall. Afterward, she singled out Kristina, assuming the charming little girl with the strong spirit was responsible for the prank. Only this time she wasn’t. Kristina knew that her friends had pulled the prank but instead of revealing them to the director, she took the punishment upon herself. She went three days without food and was forced to stay inside the orphanage because of her silence.
“I took it upon myself because I was sorry for my friends and it was just a prank, they didn’t want to hurt anyone and I knew they were sorry,” Kristina said.
Finding a family
Even though Kristina found ways to make her life at the orphanage a little more entertaining, she still longed for a loving family to adopt her. She was now 15, and soon enough she would be turned out on her own unless a family decided to take her into their home. Without warning, one morning her prayers were answered when she was suddenly awoken by the troll lady who told her to get up and get dressed.
“They have come for you,” the orphanage director said.
She dressed quickly, still rubbing the sleep from her eyes and still confused as to where she was going or who had come to see her. She headed to the director’s office where a short, brown-haired girl, 22-year-old Cal State Fullerton student Suzanne Sullivan, and her parents sat smiling at her. The director handed Kristina a letter translated from English it read simply, “We have found you.”
As excited as Kristina was to find out she would finally have a family of her own, she was even more excited to discover that the Sullivan family was looking to adopt a little boy from Orphanage 74 as well. The orphanage director brought in a book listing the names of all the orphans. Kristina beamed and nodded when the Sullivan’s settled on 8-year-old Kirill, her young friend who had come to be like a little brother to her.
It would be extremely difficult for Kristina to leave her friends and her native country behind, but America held such hope and opportunity, and above all, America offered a place for Kristina to call home.
Suzanne Sullivan contributed
to this story.