Driving fast, Maxim Timotin jolts us along the pitted and potholed road to his old orphanage. The route is deserted except for a horse and cart, plodding through snow drifts toward the Moldovan border. Bitter frosts tear fresh scars into the tarmac each winter, but scars are often left neglected in rural Ukraine.
This home wasn’t that bad, Maxim says. The worst abuse was over by the time he was 11. “When I was very small, life there wasn’t so good. There were as many bad teachers as good ones. But I grew up and it became easier and easier for me,” he explains. “Until the fourth grade a teacher could beat us. But after that she stopped because we could hit her back.”
Timotin is skinny, pale and unkempt, but talks with a brash assertiveness that belies his 22 years. Born in 1994 in Odessa region, Ukraine’s south-western corner, the Soviet Union had collapsed just three years earlier. Gangsters fought gun battles in the streets as their oligarch bosses raced to strip apart and swallow state enterprises relinquished by communist Ukraine. To Timotin’s small-town parents, the future must have looked bleak and uncertain.
“They were drinkers, their lifestyle was immoral,” Maxim tells me, although the only details he has about them come from the government. “My mother gave birth to me and brought me straight to an orphanage for babies.”
Despite being born in independent Ukraine, Timotin’s future would be decided by Soviet design after entering the welfare system. At age seven he was moved to the small town of Kotovsk, where he entered an internat — a mixed boarding school for orphans and children from families living in poverty. The schools were developed to accommodate the massive number of children in the USSR whose parents had been killed by wars and famine. Their goal - to take vulnerable children and mold them into patriotic workers equipped with the skills to work in heavy industry.
Other residential schools catered for children with disabilities or those with a unique talent the state wanted to nurture, such as sporting prowess. Potential Olympians were persuaded to part from their families for a strict training regime. The impact on young minds of growing up deprived of a family’s affection was neither considered nor catered for.
“The biggest problem with the system is that it’s Soviet, it’s not designed to look after the children’s interests,” says Mykola Kuleba, Ukraine’s Presidential Ombudsman for Children. “Back in the Soviet Union, it didn’t matter that the child was not in the family, the main thing was to train him to love the motherland and to be obedient.”
Little appears to have changed since independence. At Timotin’s old school, patriotic poems and drawings are plastered on the walls. The pictures are annotated by messages of support for Ukrainian troops fighting Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine, scrawled in children’s handwriting. The compound in which the children spend all day, every day, is as spotless as a military barracks. Each child has half a shelf for their neatly folded clothes and a single toy laid across their small, perfectly made beds. The teachers and some of the older children are all smiles when we arrive, but many of the younger ones look subdued and achingly sad. It’s so cold in their classrooms that students are still wearing their outdoor jackets.
Today, Kuleba’s office counts 106,000 children living in 750 institutions similar to Timotin’s. Every three days one of them dies, he says. “A lot of children with disabilities die because they don’t get the necessary medical support. Most of those deaths could have been prevented if they had been transferred to a medical care centre.”
The number of children in care is rising. On average, 250 enter the system each day, significantly more than the number graduating. The government says there are now 9,000 more children in internats than there were two years ago.
Coupled with Kiev’s statistics on what happens to children after leaving the system, this trend is alarming. Twenty percent of children graduating internats at 16 end up in prison. Ten percent go on to commit or attempt suicide. Others embrace alcoholism and produce a new generation for the internats.
Less than one percent make it to a university.
For these teenagers, the jarring adjustment from complete dependence to sudden adulthood is too much. “When children leave an internat they don’t know how to cook for themselves, even fry eggs or boil pasta,” says Tetiana Semikop, director of Faith, Hope, Love, an NGO which works to support vulnerable children in Odessa. “They don’t know how to budget. They come to a shop and buy chocolates and biscuits without thinking about the rest of the week. They’re used to everything being provided for them.”
Twenty-five years after the demise of Soviet industry, internat graduates are still encouraged to enter a technical college and train for jobs now no longer in demand. Without the means to find an alternative future by bribing their way into one of Ukraine’s increasingly corrupt universities, many look for other ways to make ends meet.