Many children - but little else


Family: They don't have much money, and they don't have much room. But Irina and Nikolai Kuznetsov count themselves wealthy in kids.

April 23, 2001|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Their neighbors can't figure out whether Nikolai and Irina Kuznetsov are religious fanatics or simply dissolute: At a time when the average couple is too poor, too cramped for space and too uncertain about the future to have more than one child, the Kuznetsovs have 10.

They are, they insist, driven by neither religious fervor nor drink. "We are optimists," Irina says. "And we love children."

Certainly, they have neither the space nor money for such a large family. Nikolai, 52, works in an accordion factory and earns just enough to buy food, nothing more.

They live in a small apartment on a busy street where Irina, 41, grew up, on the Avenue of Enthusiasts, in an industrial neighborhood near a chemical weapons laboratory. "I can't let the children play outside," Irina says. "The apartment becomes a prison for them."

The Kuznetsovs have been waiting for a larger apartment for seven years, during which time six more children were born. Children swirl in and out of the living room like tussling and very playful puppies. One girl wears snow pants, another shorts. Two boys wear only shirts. A small boy wears nothing at all.

"Kristina, don't run," Nikolai says in even tones to his 5-year-old daughter. "You're big. Don't run."

Diana, 14, picks up a crying baby, sweeps up crumbs, smoothes the cover on the sofa and brings in a plate that has broken in the kitchen. "That's all right," her father says. "Just put it on the table."

Watching her work, he adds, "She practically brought up all the others."

Nikolai sleeps on the couch in the living room. "He needs to sleep," Irina says. "He's the one who works and earns money, so we provide all favorable conditions for him." The rest of the family sleeps in two rooms - the small ones two or three to a bed, the larger ones on mattresses on the floor. They cover themselves with coats.

"For me," Nikolai says, "the most difficult thing in life would be to be alone. Children give you a rich emotional life."

The Kuznetsovs are in no danger of being alone, not for many years to come. Their oldest child, Oleg, is 17, their youngest, Dima, is 5 months. In between are Diana, 14, Kseniya, 10, Vasya, 8, Petya, 7, Nikola, 6, Kristina, 5, Danila, 4, and Nikita, 2. And of course, there's the 11th child, 16-year-old Oksana, whom they took in two years ago when she was orphaned.

This is no easy life. They can rarely afford fresh fruit or much milk. They never buy clothes or toys, depending on kind acquaintances to provide them castoffs. And cheerful as they are, there's an underlying worry about providing for so many children.

"The material side is hardest," Nikolai says. "Nothing else is a problem because I love the children. But when I wake up in the morning, the first thing I think about is how to make money."

Nikolai supplements his income by taking special orders and working at home, making concertinas and accordions. They have a budget of about $14 a day.

"The fact is, food is a complicated problem," says Irina, who makes a great deal of soup. "They eat whatever they're offered. We seldom eat meat. We don't have money for sweets.

"Some people have erotic dreams. I dream of food, sometimes even of sunflower oil," she says.

She shops every day, buying tea, sugar, at least five loaves of bread and 12 pounds of potatoes. She leaves the 5-year-old in charge of the younger ones while she is out. "Of course, I run some risk by leaving them alone," she says, "but I have to do it. Every day, they eat everything in the refrigerator."

Irina owns one dress and one nightgown. Dima, the baby, has one outfit, a quilted cotton zip-up suit that covers him from head to foot. At home, the children go barefoot. Outside, they wear light jackets.

"Our apartment is in a state of collapse," Irina says. "We have 13 people and one toilet. Yet the children are clean. When they go out and people see them looking neat and clean, they never know how many pains I take to make them look that way."

The apartment is dusty from falling plaster. The bathroom is uninviting, full of pipes and uncovered brick, smelling of mildew. They don't have a washing machine - clothes are washed in the bathtub. But Irina refuses to see her life as anything but happy and fulfilled.

"Even with one child, you have problems," she says. "Families with two children also complain they don't have enough."

When she had her first child, Irina gave birth in a hospital full of cockroaches and staphylococcus infection. Her last one was born at a renovated and modern hospital, though the old rules are still enforced - no visitors, including fathers, allowed.

Her children would appear, five or six at a time, to wave and call to her from the street. Irina would climb up on the windowsill and throw notes to them.

"And there's a very short list of what they can send you," she says. "Only Soviet juice - nothing imported. One banana at a time. One apple at a time."

Irina is a conservatory graduate who studied the piano and composition. They have shelves of books and an inherited television and piano. A friend of Irina's father brought the piano back from Berlin at the end of World War II.

"Our main hobby," Irina says, "is bringing up 10 morally and physically healthy children."

Though Nikolai insists they are a happy family, they do worry about the future. They fear their sons being drafted into the army. They worry about the economy, and what kind of jobs their children might find one day. They admit that their one great dream is to emigrate to the West.

Then Irina sits down at the piano, and six children join hands around her, singing happily, swaying to the music.

"We are rich people," Irina says, "because children are our wealth."

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