September 01, 2004

The Forgotten Ones

Nina has the normal worries of most 13-year-old Russian girls: clothes, boys and friendships. She wonders about her future after secondary school and would love to see the new Harry Potter movie. There is however, a major difference between Nina and the average Russian teenager. Nina is one of Russia’s 700,000 registered orphans. She lives with 106 other children aged six to 18 in a two-story brick building several hours outside of Moscow.

The spartan bedroom Nina shares with five other teenage girls is decorated with a few Jennifer Lopez posters and a small collection of worn, stuffed animals. Outside the single window, the fields roll endlessly towards Smolensk, and a smattering of tiny wooden dachas make up the local village. For nine months of the year, Nina walks daily past a row of abandoned farm equipment to the orphanage school, where she receives the equivalent of a sixth grade education by the age of 16. There are no computers, library books or class trips, and the sewing room where she is to learn her future trade has no sewing machines.

Despite the complexity of her life, Nina is motivated to study. She is enthusiastic about her school. Nina loves to paint and read and dreams of becoming a teacher someday. At 13, she has not yet grasped the fact that she is in an internat – an orphanage for those labeled “learning disabled.” This fact means that, once Nina leaves the internat at age 16, her only option will be to attend a vocational school, to receive training as a seamstress. Her learning disabilities are defined as an “inability to focus,” and appeared around the same time her family relinquished their parental rights, when Nina was eight.

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