A visionary new father for motherless Russia

DIMITRY Morozov stares intently at my face as he shows me a photo of a little girl on his laptop. Her brown eyes are wide with fear and an old misery stretches tight across her young features. I frown, her expression is hard to witness, and Morozov nods, satisfied with my response.

"This is my daughter. Now look at this." In the next image the girl is a little older and laughing with unselfconscious childish enthusiasm. He grins with approval.

The child is not Morozov's biological daughter – her real father was an Ethiopian drug dealer – but she is one of 90 orphans he has helped raise through an unusual but effective community of foster families he established in the Kaluga region of Russia more than 15 years ago. It has been supported from its earliest days by the Scottish charity Ecologia, run by Liza Hollingshead, a member of the Findhorn community who was one of the first volunteers at Kitezh. Other Scots childcare professionals who have offered support and advice include David Dean, OBE, who in the late 1970s founded Raddery School, a therapeutic school for children with special needs in Scotland.

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Kitezh has been built by Morozov, other community members and volunteers, literally from the ground up, since the first families arrived there to share a single home, with an outside toilet, back in the icy Russian winter of 1992. It is a place where everyone's aim is to provide a safe and supportive environment for children, where important decisions are made on a communal basis, where orphans are free to choose their own foster families, and where older children act as mentors to younger and newer arrivals.

"Just see the faces of the children and feel how this new (view of the) world is coming (into existence) for them," urges Morozov.

And you can see what he's talking about in the photos of those living at Kitezh, once pinched, defensive little faces blossom open into glowing smiles over the years.

Morozov has just published his first book in English: Kitezh, a community approach to raising children in Russia. And the story of Kitezh is the story of a dream come true. Morozov was a respected broadcast journalist in his early thirties when he realised that his future lay not in the media, but in working with children. In particular he wanted to help the country's orphans who have long suffered the deprivations of institutional care, and are, in Morozov's and many others' eyes, condemned through a lack of proper support to grow up and continue the cycle of drink and drug abuse which caused so many of them to lose their parents in the first place.

"The children who are placed in Kitezh have endured extremely unpleasant and painful experiences from which even adults might find it impossible to recover. These children do not believe in the rationality and primordial goodness of the world. Drunken parents may have deprived them of food and rewarded them with beatings. They may have been caught by the police in a basement and sent off to child detention centres... By and large, the adult world is a hostile and alien place for these children."

Which is why taking care of them takes such special skill.

I tell him of a popular British newspaper which delights in publishing lurid tales of "nice families" who adopt "little angels" then give them back to the authorities after they turn into "demonic children". Morozov shakes his head and sighs the word "humans" like a curse of despair.

Yet he freely admits that he himself has learned many hard lessons and come a long way from the early days of Kitezh when he believed that simply loving these children would be enough to make them happy, content little individuals.

In Russia around 95 per cent of "orphans", have been declared so by the state after they are abandoned by their parents for alcoholism, explains Morozov. "Their parents are not dead but almost dead," is how he describes their plight. Morozov dreamed of creating a community where these children would be able to flourish.

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But caring for such injured young people requires a great deal of understanding. Being a foster parent is a job, and like any profession those taking on the task need to be educated. That is why Morozov called on the skills of those such as David Dean, to help develop Kitezh's therapeutic approach to child rearing.

Over time, those in Russia have learned through their own experience and consulting with experts that, by combining individual support through play therapy, providing a strong safe family environment, peer support and a sense of community – the children at Kitezh are given tasks and encouraged to take on responsibility for themselves and the wider community – a sense of faith and trust is developed, explains Morozov.

Now older foster-parents act as guides to younger ones, ensuring lessons learned are passed on and providing vital support to parents at more difficult times – which are inevitable for anyone caring for children, never mind those with such troubled backgrounds.

"Sometimes a mother will be desperate, saying 'oh, he has done this, I can't cope any more' and an older foster mother will say 'do not worry, we have all experienced it, and it will pass'. Then the mother will ask 'when', and the older mother will say 'in two or three years' and the mother will groan 'oh, no how will I survive that long...", Morozov laughs. He's seen it all before and knows that the mother will survive, but that the support of the other parents make it much easier for her to do so.

Having overseen the raising of around 90 children – there are currently ten families and 35 children at Kitezh – Morozov believes he now knows the principals of good parenting: Talk as much as possible, to understand anything that might come up and be constant in applying rules and discipline so a child always know what to expect and doesn't receive mixed messages, are his principal guidelines.

He believes that children should be allowed to explore danger to learn life's lesson, and cheerfully shows me a picture of one of his children climbing up a tree. The child might well fall and get a fright, and learn that can happen when you climb trees – but Morozov is ready to catch him and ensure no serious harm occurs.

So greatly respected has Morozov and the achievements of Kitezh become within Russia, that he was awarded the Order of Honour (similar to an OBE) while experts from the community are invited to events across Russia to advise on child care and foster issues.

And the lessons learned are being shared with those in Britain. Kitezh has been endorsed by the Charterhouse Group of therapeutic communities in the UK and takes part in exchange programmes encouraging the passing on of ideas and expertise.

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"Kitezh Children's Community (symbolises) the potential dawn of a new era in addressing the needs of Russia's orphan children," according to David Deans .

It is a place "designed to empower the most disempowered of children", he adds. "The foster family he has joined is not 'administered' from a distant social services office, but supported and nourished on an hour by hour basis, year round, by others carrying out the same role for other children and enhanced, by the dynamic presence of their natural children whose contribution to the process cannot be overstated."

Perhaps the greatest testament to Kitezh's success is that a second community, Orion, led by a young woman, Masha Pichugina – who was one of Kitezh's original children and is now foster parent herself – has been established as an offshoot of the original community.

Those same young people who, before Kitezh, faced spending their most formative years in a government institution and a dark future, are now in a position to offer a home, hope and happiness to the next generation of vulnerable youngsters. Morozov's dream has indeed become a reality.

• For more information visit the web at www.ecologia.org.uk or www.kitezh.org

Connections of peace and co-operation

ECOLOGIA Youth Trust is organising a Youth Exchange with Kitezh in July and October this year, funded by Youth In Action Connect Youth (British Council). In July 12 young people from the Findhorn Youth Project will travel to Kitezh where the young people will take part in all sorts of challenges and adventures together.

In October 12 young Russians will come from Kitezh to spend a week with their new Scottish friends at the Findhorn Foundation, where they will be involved in a Youth Leadership in Community programme. They will then go together to the Hebridean island of Erraid for a second week to experience an entirely different community and way of life.

The exchange will culminate with a theatrical production to be performed at Findhorn.

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Liza Hollingsworth, founder of the Ecologia Youth Trust, and one of the first volunteers at Kitezh, said: "It is the most rewarding privilege to be able to have been involved in the development of the Kitezh Community since its birth.

"Through our various programmes, professional training for the Kitezh staff, sending young volunteers there, finding British 'godparents' for the children and of course raising funds to help Kitezh to grow, we are able to make a difference in the world in a very concrete way. That is what is inspiring about supporting a project like Kitezh. We can see how much the children change as they grow up, we see how much our contribution has achieved – the beauty of the village as well as how many homes for families we can build.

"Ecologia Youth Trust is building bridges between the United Kingdom and Russia all the time and we feel sure this contributes to building peace and cooperation in the world."

• For further information about the Youth Exchange, visit the web at www.ecologia.org.uk

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