Friday, September 21, 2012

The Invisible Ones: the street children of Russia

In my last post about the real-life inspirations behind my new book, The Dogs of Winter, I introduced you to those smart, adaptable street dogs of Russia.

Today, I want to tell you about the street children of Russia, one of whom was Ivan Mishukov, the child who inspired my story. Like the dogs, they too were abandoned by their families because they required more of everything--food, drink, shelter, and love--than the adults could give.

Within just a few short years after the fall of the Soviet Union, there were tens of thousands of children living on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg. By 1996, the year Ivan Mishukov was abandoned at age four, there were an estimated 80,000 children and teens trying to survive on the streets. Most of these children were known as "social orphans" because they had at least one parent still living.

Living in an abandoned building
An article on the BBC in 2002 does a much better job than I can describing the plight of these children:

"Slouched against the station wall, Dima takes a defiant drag on his cigarette.
His fingernails are encrusted with dirt, his oversized red anorak grubby and torn. He is now 13, and has been living rough in Moscow for four months.
"My stepfather's an alcoholic. He used to shout at me and hit me. So I left. Now I live here, at the station. I sleep on central heating pipes, or on a train. The police sometimes pick us up, but they always let us out again."

Russia is perhaps the only country in the world where a policeman, when he sees a child in the street, tries not to notice him

Boris Altshuler
Rights of the Child
Leningrad station, like most in Moscow, is dotted with tiny figures like Dima. They wander among the crowds begging money, or loiter near cafes angling for leftovers.
In the darker recesses, boys - some are just five or six years old - bury their noses in plastic bags, sniffing glue.

Officials here estimate there are as many as 50,000 children living on the streets of the Russian capital, begging, stealing and sometimes selling themselves to get by.
That is more than were left homeless and orphaned after World War II.
Today though, the majority of them have at least one living parent. While they have turned, in most cases, to drink or violence, the authorities have turned away.

Unless the authorities address the root causes of poverty and misery in Russia, thousands of children will continue to choose the hardships of life on the street over life at home."

Street child sniffing glue
Since the years Ivan lived on the streets and even since 2002, there has been improvement for the homeless children of Russia. As of 2006, the Russian government had committed almost 6 billion rubles to federal and child homeless and crime prevention act. There has also been a 100% increase in the number of orphanages and shelters for these children. Still, the numbers are disheartening.

Some have said that my book is "too dark" and gritty. I felt very strongly when I worked on Ivan's story that it would be disrespectful not only him but to all the street children if I "Disneyfied" their world just to satisfy an American audience. I am so very grateful to my editor, Arthur A. Levine, for supporting my decision to tell Ivan's story with honesty and compassion.


  1. You did very well not to "disneyfy" it. For a summer I worked for street children in Romania and I could share a few stories; some of them are even nice; but there some images I can't still forget, nor want to, to be honest.

  2. I used to be a street child myself in St. Petersburg, but now I am adopted to America. I am going back to my former orphanage and am keeping up a blog. Is it okay if I use some of your quotation? I would also love to buy your book!

  3. I am a big fan of Boris Altshuler's! I reached out after reading an article on the Russian adoption ban in which it became clear that he is not supportive of the ban. My family and I have two boys (brothers ages 6 and 7 now separated) that we met last November while in St Petersburg filing to adopt them. We have not been able to bring them home due to the ban. Boris has become not only a friend I have never met, but my hero as well. Thank you for writing this book, and for quoting this champion of children's rights in your blog post.

  4. What can i do to help pass legeslation rhat will lift the ban on us citizens who want to adopht homeless russian kids

  5. What can i do to help pass legeslation rhat will lift the ban on us citizens who want to adopht homeless russian kids

  6. My nine year old daughter began reading the book then came to me because the opening scenes troubled her. That led to a good conversation about domestic violence although after reading the entire book myself I have decided she isn't ready for it. It is a well written story with engaging characters but I think the unflinching realism (an asset to the story) moves the reading age up. I look forward to revisiting it with her in a few years.