COME WITH me, for a moment, to No. 72 Orphanage in the Sevastopolskii District of Moscow. Come with me because I can no longer see objectively. For six years, my family and I have tried to help the orphans living there. Sometimes I wonder if we have done any good.
Today, in the Soviet Union, there are more children without parents than there were in 1945, at the end of World War II, in which 20 million Soviet citizens died. Every large city has dozens of orphanages. Every small town has at least one. Only the government knows how many of thousands of children live in them.
Most of these children are not technically orphans. Instead, they were abandoned by their parents, who came themselves from broken families and often became alcoholics, drug addicts or criminals.
Many of the children were left in hospitals after their unmarried mothers gave birth to them. Our society had to take care of them because we had had too many cases of infanticide by young mothers unwilling to raise their babies.
Why are there so many unwanted children in my country? I believe it is because we lack housing and contraceptives, and because two important institutions -- church and family -- have lost influence. Young people have become rudderless and undisciplined. They have no self-esteem. The struggling Soviet economy has caused drastic increases in crime, drug abuse and alcohol abuse by young people.
An exception is Armenia. Most Armenians are devout Christians. Families are close-knit. Despite the massive earthquake of 1988, which killed tens of thousands of people, Armenia today is one of the few Soviet republics without orphanages.
When you visit a Soviet orphanage, it is hard to keep your composure; 7- and 8-year-old children look like they are 5 or 6. They are intelligent, but their social and physical growth has been retarded by the lack of a central adult in their lives.
My daughter Olga, who is now 23, has tried to become such a person. Six years ago, she began visiting the orphanage weekly as a volunteer to read to the kids, tell them bedtime stories, and just give them hugs.
My friends and I joined Olga. Informally, we "adopted" a group of 23 children. The children lived strictly organized lives and had little contact with the everyday world. Some had no idea how to make tea; many had never been to the post office, to the subway or to food stores. We tried to relieve the barracks-like atmosphere of the orphanage by throwing birthday and New Year's parties and by taking the kids on outings around Moscow.
We have grown to love the children, but have become frustrated with the orphanage bureaucracy. Strict fire regulations, for example, do not permit us to teach the children to cook. The teachers and nurses in the orphanages are selfless but overworked to the point of exhaustion.
Worst of all, our family has shrunk. As the children grow older they are sorted according to their level of development and moved to other orphanages. Five lucky kids from our family have been adopted by foster parents. Most of the rest have been scattered to different orphanages.
We try to keep in touch with our kids, but it is hard. Sometimes I can't sleep because I worry so for their future. As they enter their teens, they will go to vocational schools. They will live in hostels with older teens and adults. They will forget the manners we taught them, and learn to smoke and drink. They will have to work in factories. They will be unable to raise families of their own.
Several years ago, the Lenin All-Union Children's Fund was organized by Soviet writer Albert Likhanov. With the help of Soviet citizens and foreigners, the fund is trying to model the Soviet system of orphanages after the European and American system, in which unwanted children live with foster parents, instead of in orphanages.
Such a change couldn't come too soon. As Soviet orphans come of age, they will become more bitter over their lost childhood, and they will become a threat to all of us. To realize this is to help ourselves.
Galina Rybchinskaya is a visiting professor of Russian at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.