‘She called me daddy from day one’ Jailed human rights activist Yuri Dmitriev explains how he took in an orphan named Natasha, whom he’s now accused of sexually assaulting
This publication is part of a partnership between Meduza and 7x7. The only changes made here are to the subheaders.
“Even then I was estimating that we wouldn’t have enough money to pay for the child’s education”
Russia declared 2008 “The Year of the Family.” On television, they ran an ad saying, “There’s no such thing as somebody else’s kids.” It got in your head. I spent my entire adult life with an eye out for children who’ve lost their parents for the simple reason that I know I was adopted myself. Even when I wasn’t married, when I was just 25, I decided that my wife and I would take the first opportunity to adopt a child from an orphanage, when I had my own family. And when this ad was airing, I thought about how my kids had all grown up, how we now had a dog and a cat, and how I could basically do what I wanted now.
God didn’t grant my second wife any children. And then this ad starts running, and I see how she’s tossing and turning, and how it eats at her. She groans all the way to New Year’s, and then she says shyly, “Yura, let’s bring a child home from an orphanage.” “Let’s do it,” I tell her. She couldn’t believe it. This was too wonderful. How could it be that I would say “Let’s do it,” without even hesitating? She didn’t know that I’d been thinking about it for a long time, too.
I went online and read everything there was about registering documents and legal guardianship and raising kids like this, and we settled on becoming legal guardians. Something like adoption isn’t really suited to people my age, and I realize that my income will start to decline around the time the child would need to go to college. That’s why even then I was estimating that we wouldn’t have enough money to pay for the child’s education. But something like legal guardianship would allow the child to go to a state school. This was key to us deciding on going the legal guardian route.
We started preparing: I read what I did, and my wife picked up some literature on psychology, and then we traded what we’d learned. We decided to apply for guardianship of a boy between the ages of five and six, so we could keep him at home for a year before he started school, to give him a chance to acclimate, so he wouldn’t stand out in class. And, of course, we understood that a child who grew up in an orphanage would need some time to adapt. I also made a few renovations to our home, updating all the appliances in the kitchen. We knew, after all, that child services would come look at the apartment.
I like to test everything for durability, so after the upgrade we invited another family to come visit. They have a little boy about the same age as the one we wanted from the orphanage, and I wanted to make sure he wouldn’t get caught on anything, and that I’d secured everything properly. So this little boy stayed with us for about four hours and he tore apart everything! And Lyudka turns to me and says, “No I can’t handle a boy. Let’s get a girl — they’re calmer.” I tell her, “That’s not a fact, but I don’t care. I can just as easily teach a girl to drive a car and fish.”
“If you don’t want to be a foster parent, you’ll never become a legal guardian”
We got together all the required paperwork, and studied the Domestic Relations Law and the Family Clause, and looked at comments from lawyers saying to watch out for corruption, if they ask you for anything more. So I grab all these documents; I go to the Child Protective Services office; and I say, “Is this where they give out the boys and girls?” They tell me, “Come on in. We can already tell that you’d make a great foster parent.” I say, “No, I’m not looking to foster. My wife and I talked it over and we decided on legal guardianship.” They say, “No no. Only foster care will work for you.” I ask them what the heck they’re talking about, and point out that the Domestic Relations Law doesn’t even mention this kind of custody. They tell me, “We’ve got our own law here in Karelia. That’s the one we follow.” I say, “I may make a rotten lawyer, but I can tell you that your law doesn’t hold water.”
[In foster care] it turns out that the director of the orphanage is responsible for the child, and the foster parents are considered his staff. In fact, you don’t even have the right to take the child outside the city or to send him to the store for a simple transaction, and you can’t even go to his school to talk about his grades. That’s because the law grants these rights only to the guardian, and in this case that’s the director of the orphanage. You’re left completely clueless, without any rights whatsoever. So I told them no, and they answered, “If you don’t want to be a foster parent, you’ll never become a legal guardian.”
But I left my paperwork with them, anyway, and I said: you’ve got 10 days, according to the law, to come inspect my housing conditions, and only then will you decide if I’ll become a guardian. The housing conditions were fine, but they wrote on my form: “Cannot be legal guardians because they didn’t submit the legal guardian paperwork.” I told them that these requirements weren’t based on the law. So I file a complaint with the prosecutor’s office, and I challenge the rejection in court. The city court sides with the orphanage, and so does the Supreme Court.
Then, 10 days later, I find out that my appeal has been sent back to the original court for a retrial. So I get together the pile of paperwork all over again, but this time the court badgers me about needing to pass courses for legal guardians, saying that I don’t have child rearing experience. I tell them, “Hello? I have two children and I have grandchildren! Have you completely lost it?” But between hearings I went to the Education Ministry and asked about the classes for legal guardians and how I could pass them. It turned out that enrollment wasn’t even supposed to start for another several months! But they said I could take the classes meant for the teachers at the parenting school. They enrolled me, I went to all the classes, I passed all the exams, and they gave me a certificate documenting that I can teach legal guardians.
When the guardianship issue finally came up again in court, I pointed out that, one, we don’t have classes for legal guardians, and, two, I can actually teach the guardians myself. At that point, the orphanage’s director threw a complete fit, saying, “That’s the wrong certificate. He forged it.” The court actually had to summon the deputy education minister who signed my certificate and was on the enrollment board for the exams. He confirmed that the certificate was real.
In the end, the court granted me the right to become a legal guardian, but it rejected my wife. She didn’t have it in her to sue again. No kids and they were rubbing her face in the mud, she said. They wouldn’t let her have a child. So I come back to the Child Protective Services office, and they say, “Understand, Mr. Dmitriev, that with your attitude toward us, no child in the city of Petrozavodsk will ever be found for you.” I say, “Is that supposed to scare me? Give me the paperwork allowing me to be a legal guardian, and I’ll sort out the rest.” That same day, I went to the Education Ministry, where they keep a database of all the children in Karelia up for adoption. And we started looking at the girls.
We came across some six-year-old twins. I say, “No. There’s no way I can manage two — no matter how big I’ve been talking. There’s no way I can provide for two young ladies with my financial resources. We’re talking about doctors, schooling, textbooks, bows, stockings, all kinds of hair bands, and other thingies. Girls need a lot, after all. It’s not like dressing a guy.”
We looked and we looked, until we found a girl who was three and a half. Our criteria were the following: I’d already hit my 50s, and I knew that I’d have to raise the kid before she turned 22 or 23, because my upper limit is about 70. After that, it’s all basically a crapshoot for me. So alright, I call my wife and tell her that there’s a girl, but she’s a bit younger than we’d discussed. Without hesitating, she says, “Let’s do it!” So I file our request, and they tell me again, “Ah, well, you’ve got a long way to go!” I ask, “A long way? How long?” They say, “600 kilometers [373 miles].” I tell them, “Hand over the paperwork!”
At first, they only wrote out a visitation order. According to the law, you can just meet at first, to get acquainted with the child, and afterwards you can get a second form to apply for guardianship. Well, I tell them, “Write me the second form, too.” My wife, of course, said, “But what are you thinking? They say you should meet before anything.” I told her, “We’re not window shopping! We’ll take what God has given us!” And the next day, at five in the morning, I set out.
“She called me daddy from day one”
The first thing they did was scold me for coming late. It was about six o’clock in the evening. Yeah, oh well. The director was there to meet me. The mood there was… Let’s just say there are prisons today that are cleaner and nicer than what I saw there. It was a public building with peeling plaster and unfinished floors. I hand over my documents, and they ask if I want to see the child. Of course I do. So we go out into the game room: It’s two rooms where a dozen or two children of different ages are all busy with something or other. And sitting there is this little June bug — I can see her now — in a gray sweater, brown pants, and shabby boots.
They call her over, and I kneel down so I can look her in the eye and say, “Little girl, what’s your name?” She says, “Natasa.” I ask her, “Will you come be my daughter?” She thinks it over for about five seconds, and then hops up and puts her arms around my neck, saying, “I will!” I knew right away: that was it. There was no backing out now. I spent the whole evening with her on my shoulders, while I completed the rest of the paperwork. I asked the doc there if everything in her records was current. “Honestly, I don’t know,” she said, telling me that her grandmother also worked there. “Maybe she can tell you.”
They introduced me to the grandmother, and we talked about this and that, and she asked me if I had anywhere to stay that night. I said, sure, I’ve got a tent in my car, and then she invited me to stay the night with her. This was even better for me: now I’d have a chance to get the family’s medical history: who got sick with what, find out about any social or antisocial behavior, and so on. I remembered well what they’d taught me in those classes! So I ended up finding out how Natashka ended up in the orphanage, and about her past illnesses, and her mother, and about her family’s health on her mother’s side.
Later, when I’d taken Natashka home, the first time her grandmother called, they talked on the phone. She even sent her a birthday present — a doll. Then things started going south. The grandmother turned out to be erratic: She would call late at night, when Natashka was already sleeping. Or she’d call, but there’d be some terrible racket and drunken screaming in the background. I wouldn’t hand over the phone when it was like that. And there was no news from her mother, who’d lost her parental rights. Child Services made me open a bank account in Natasha’s name, saying there would be alimony payments. But her mom had gone on to have two more kids, and she wasn’t working. So the bank account stayed empty. Natashka’s grandmother has another four grandkids — all in different families. She raised only one of them. She wanted to raise another, but Child Services said no for some reason. She asked me to help, and I even tried, but it didn’t work out.
This year, her grandmother has made news headlines a couple of times, first for complaining that they’re not paying her enough for Natasha. “Is it more profitable for the state if I give the child back to the orphanage?” she said. Then she complained that there’s no medical aid in her village, and she’s forced to call the paramedics at her own expense. And that's true.
Anyway, after the first night, I went around and put together all the necessary documents, and at lunchtime I come back to the orphanage for the kid. When I get there, the director walks up and said, “Mr. Dmitriev, do you have any money on you? Could you go buy Natasha some clothes? If you take her in what she’s wearing, we won’t have anything to dress the other kids in.” Well, what was I going to do? Her grandmother and I went around to the local shops and I bought everything, except for shoes (we couldn’t find her size). So I dressed Natashka, and put her in the back seat of my Lada Niva with Greska (our dog), and we started the 600-kilometer drive back to Petrozavodsk.
From day one, she called me “daddy” and clung to me, like back at the orphanage. She also started calling my wife “mommy” immediately. She was just skin and bones. It took her a month to get used to normal food. She had no idea about fruits, and she was eating bananas constantly. The first time she saw pasta, she started shaking and then she inhaled it before we could even cook it. She spent the first year with us at home. I’d work, and she’d play on the carpet, building something or doing a puzzle, developing her small motor skills, because her fingers were still underdeveloped. Then one of her legs started growing slightly dislocated. It might have been something congenital, but a friend told me that we should treat it with a special massage. My neighbor, who has a child with cerebral palsy, helped out and gave her what were basically professional-level massages, and after six months everything was back to normal.
And that’s how we lived. The first year was here, and we did all we could to bring her up and raise her. We’d go to the doctor, and after a year she went to kindergarten. She’s growing up and coming into her own. And I have plenty of interesting visitors to my home: journalists, writers, filmmakers. Vasily Firsov would read her his stories, and they even wrote some together. Vasily Veiki dedicated poems to her, taught her how to write her own, and how to take photographs.
“The woman still plays a certain niche role in my household”
At first, everything was good — wonderful even. Later, just before she finished [kindergarten], we started having some problems [in our family]. I’ll be honest: my wife loved the cats more than Natashka. That’s just how it was for her. And she kinda tried to “train” Natashka, but it’s only through love that you can teach a child anything. Lecturing and punishing them won’t get you anywhere. Then [my wife’s] mom broke her hip, and my wife started spending a lot of time over there. They ended up having some kind of falling out, and then she announces to me: “Let’s send her back.” I ask her if she’s made up her mind. “Yes,” she says. “Well it's good bye then,” I say, and I pack her bags, put them downstairs, and give her the keys to the new car. “Is that enough?” I ask. “It’s enough,” she says, and goes to her mom’s. She’s never been back — not even to wish the girl a happy birthday.
I’ll be straight with you: I’m pretty handy and there’s a lot I can do, but the woman still plays a certain niche role in my household. When it all suddenly fell on me for the first time, it was difficult. It wasn’t even that it was hard, but that I was accustomed to my own routine. I could sit at the computer from six in the morning until past midnight. And some household things weren’t that much trouble. Obviously the child has to be fed, brought to the potty, and so on. That was no sweat. But my wife was in charge of everything else. And I had to adapt. To tell you the truth, I don’t really like ironing, but I had to do it; the dresses need to be ironed. The worst were the stockings! [Laughs] Katya helped out, of course, and Danka and Sonya came over often. So it wasn’t even that hard on Natashka, though sometimes she would ask where mommy went.
After she turned five, I started teaching her some structure: “Natasha, sweetie, you’ve got to put away your toys when you’re done playing. After painting, you need to grab a rag and wipe it up.” Baby steps. By the time she was seven, she was sweeping the floors like it was nothing. Sometimes, some of her little friends would run over and ask, “Can Natasha come out and play?” I’d say, “Yes, but first she has some chores to do. You can help her out, if you want. Do you know how to sweep?” They’d yell, “We know how!” And this little shrimp, no taller than the broom, once grabbed it and told everyone, “Let’s get cracking!” clearly never having held a broom in her life. [Laughs] Then she made another friend, also in our building, who was a year older. This time, everything was very mature: they’d play, drink tea, and make themselves lunch, if they wanted.
At the age of eight, Natasha started doing the dishes and she learned how to use the washing machine. Because she was always messing around, it was simpler just to teach her how to turn on the machine than try to chase after all her dirty clothes: “This is how you close the lid. Here’s where it spins. You push this button.” She asked me to repeat everything a few times, and then the washing machine was no problem.
After the first grade, she started going to the store, with me at first, and then on her own. Of course, she couldn’t carry anything that heavy, but she could pick up a loaf of bread or a bag of sugar. I let the girls at the store know in advance. “No problem,” they said. In the evenings, I’d stop by and the clerk would say, “Your girl came in and bought this and that. And two Snickers and two bubble gums.” [Laughs] Then I taught her how to use my debit card.
“My job was to teach her how to learn”
I had a small stash of cash in some box. I don’t remember what it was for, actually: either I was saving for a car or to pay off some debts. One day, I notice that the box has been moved. This was when she was in the second grade. I open it up and — holy moly — there’s a lot missing. Nobody else had come by the house, so I thought, alright, I’ll wait for Natashka to come home from school. But before that happened, I got a call from her teacher, asking me to come to the school. I show up and she says, “Now… you’re not going to come down too hard on Natasha, are you…?” I say, “For what? For what?” So we go through the whole story. “Did Natasha take the money?” She did. “What did she do with it?” She passed it out to her classmates. “Why??” “Well, pops, we’ve got a lot of them.” [Laughs] And we laughed, but the teacher never took her eyes off me — apparently she didn’t believe that I wasn’t going to smack Natasha upside the head. The next day, a young woman from Child Services came to my home. I had to explain all over again that everything was fine.
I’ve never really hidden money from my children. When Katya and Egor [Dmitriev’s biological children] were growing up, I also had money lying around in a box, but maybe it was a different box. They’d run up to me and say, “Dad, give us some money! We want to go out dancing!” I’d tell them, “The box is right over there, as you know. Have a look and see if there’s enough to live on until the end of the month, after you go dancing.” They’d decide on their own, and sometimes they decided not to go out dancing. So Natasha knew about money and she understood its value.
We got back almost all of the cash. The teacher managed to get some of it, and the parents returned some, too. There was one bill we never found, but the lesson learned was worth more. [Smiles]
In the first grade, she signed up for soccer. She had a friend who played on the team. “Daddy, I want to play, too!” she said. “Sure! Okay!” I bought her cleats, knee socks, and a uniform. She went somewhere and practiced for about six months, but then she lost interest and started going to а kids’ recreation center for something about filmmaking. The teacher there was trying to make actresses of all the girls, but I thought they were going to learn how to film. I could use a stabilizer on my expeditions and I got excited. [Laughs] But that’s not what this was. So she went to this for a bit, and then she said she would stop. Okay, don’t go — that’s fine. Sit at home, read books, and draw. She’s become a very talented illustrator, by the way.
Then Danka (my grandson, Katerina’s oldest son) started going to sambo classes, and we tagged along for a few practices. He also had some competitions. I see how Natasha is really into it, squirming on the bench next to me, so I say to her, “Want to do it, too?” She says yes, and I get the ball rolling. First, I agreed with the coach on paid lessons, and exactly a month later he tells me, “She’s pretty good. If she’s going to stick with this, how about I take her to a public class?” Of course, this was a bit of a trick: In the public classes, there was one coach for 20 kids. What is he going to be able to see? He’ll show them how to do a throw, and the kids will repeat after him as best they can.
When Natasha comes home from practice, I ask her to show me what throws she’s been working on. She shows me. I correct her, saying no your hand isn’t supposed to go here, but a bit higher, or a bit lower, and then here. And so on. That’s how we practiced at home.
Three months later, the coach tells me that he wants to enter her into competitions. Right away, she takes second place in the city tournament. The city has another contest three or four months later, and she comes in first! Then there are the regionals, and she finishes first in her age group for girls! She won a trophy bigger than she is. [Laughs] Was I supposed to be against this or something?
I never punished her for her grades, and she got all kinds. My job was to teach her how to learn. It wasn’t for somebody to spoon feed her or be some kind of tutor. No, she had to want on her own to learn. So by the fourth grade, I’d almost forgotten to work on homework with her. Of course, sometimes there were difficult assignments, and she’d come to me herself and ask for help. But the rest of the time she did it on her own. In 2016, she finished the first quarter with all A’s, except for one B. I had nothing to do with that. It was her accomplishment and her hard work.
“Daddy, I want to be baptized”
There was one problem: from first grade to third grade, my child didn’t grow. She was still wearing the same dress — she wouldn’t get any bigger, no matter what you tried. First, I turned to the doctors where the foster children get their annual checkups. But that place is like an assembly line: from eight in the morning until the end of the day, they see 120 kids. So that didn’t do much good, though I told them, “Look at her! The poor kid is obviously underweight.” But they said, “Don’t worry about it. Some kids are a little late. We’ll keep an eye on it.” We kept an eye on it for a year. Then it was two years. Then three. In the end, I said screw it, and went to the central hospital.
The new doctors spent a month going over every inch of her. They said they found some small issues, but nothing serious. Later, when she started to grow a little, they found some problems with her girl parts. And this winter they were supposed to have looked at her again to decide how to correct this: hormonally or surgically. The problem needs to be addressed now, while it’s still possible without surgery. The Lord made us as we are without a knife or an axe, so surgical intervention is extremely undesirable, but nobody was going to make this decision without me. I was recently going over the documents here and I found this paperwork. She needs to continue this treatment!
At some point, [Natasha] comes up to me and says, “Daddy, you cross yourself and pray. I want to, too.” I say, “Natasha, you know, to be baptized and pray, first you’ve got to be baptized [in a church].” “Yes, that’s what I want,” she says. I tell her, “Well I can hardly explain to you correctly what all this means and why you have to do it. Of course, I can give you the simple version — you need to get baptized so God will protect you — but that’s somehow simplistic.” All winter, she went to Sunday school at the “Zhuravushka” Orthodox center. At some point in May, she said firmly, “Daddy, I want to be baptized.” “This is your own decision?” I asked her. “Yes, it’s my decision,” she said. Well okay then.
We baptized her in August. She was nine years old. We did it in the Solovetsky Islands, at the Voznesensky Monastery on Sekirnaya Mountain. You could count on one hand the number of men who have been baptized at this monastery throughout its almost-200-year history. There had never been any girls. [Natasha] was the first and only. When they were preparing for the ceremony, the weather outside was terrible: wind, rain, freezing cold. Father Matvei was great: he did the first part of the service in the church, and then he brought her to the lake for the second part of the ritual. She wasn’t a baby anymore, so it was all done like it’s supposed to be: they made her a christening shirt and took her into the water. And a godmother was named.
After the water, they dried her off, dressed her, and brought her back to the church. They also trimmed her hair, in accordance with the rite. And as soon as the ceremony was done, the rain stopped, the wind died down, the storm clouds scattered, and the sun started shining. I turned to her and said, “Well, Natashka, you’ve been baptized in a very holy and very frightening place. So, on the one hand, your life will be very challenging, but on the other hand you’ll have powerful protection.” And that’s pretty much how it’s turned out. Once at practice, she took off her cross, put it somewhere, and lost it. I bought her another one, of course, but… Three months didn’t go by before — bang! [The arrest.]
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about her”
I started taking Natashka on my expeditions when she was nine. The first place we went was the Solovetsky Islands. Of course, I go on other expeditions, where there’s a lot of walking around, and it can be physically taxing. I didn’t take her on those trips, of course. On expeditions, I always know what I’ll need to do and where I’m going to live. When I know the conditions will be more or less decent, then why not bring the kids? I started dragging along Katya and Egor when they were seven or eight.
She behaved pretty well on expeditions, and she never got bored. The kids who came with me were usually older (a lot of students from the Moscow International Film School), but there were always friends for her. Early on, she was maybe a little shy, but then she realized that these people were just like her, if only a little taller. That’s the whole idea behind the Moscow Film School: it’s a unique institution where there’s no hazing and they’re not sorted by age. Everyone is equal, and at the same time everyone has their own duties, their own coursework, and the kids help each other out. I don’t remember what group she got put in on that expedition, and generally I’m a pretty strict dad in this respect: if everybody is equal, then that means everybody is equal and on equal footing. On that expedition, they started teaching her how to draw, because they’d taken classes in animation.
The next year, the first place we went was Lodeynoye Pole (a town in the Leningrad region, where a group of inmates from the Solovki prison camp had been executed). We spent two weeks there. Then she asked me if she could go visit some film school friends in Moscow. Well, why not, if they’ll have her? They ended up going to the zoo, to an amusement park, to Red Square… She came home very happy, because right after Moscow we went back to the Solovetsky Islands on the next expedition. That’s when she told me that she really wants to study at the film school. Well, I say, if you finish seventh grade with good grades and Ms. Olga Kerzina (the head of the Moscow Film School) decides that you’re a sufficiently intelligent, sensible, and independent young lady, then maybe the school will take you. From that moment, she was especially driven. And she started drawing even more, being very serious about it now, using what the film students had taught her.
Her testimony presented in court (which is formally why the acquittal was overturned)... I don’t believe it! Either they somehow took it out of context, or this is her grandmother’s doing, and she’s managed to sink her claws in. Over the past year and a half, she could have tricked [Natasha] into believing that she was somehow dishonored. It’s possible that she managed to wear her down. Nobody from our family is able to talk to Natasha now. Her grandmother hopes they throw me in prison. But I have no idea why she wants this. Is it for the money? How is she taking care of the girl’s health? If she doesn’t eat fish at my house, then I’m not going to force her to eat fish. At the first hearing, her grandmother was outraged that the girl doesn’t eat fish.
Not a day goes by that I don’t think about her. This is a part of me. She’s my daughter. I can’t just leave her there. I wanted to talk to her about family and her relatives, before she gets her passport. After all, she can choose her surname herself. If she wants to be Dmitrieva, I’ll be happy.