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Svetlana Trubnikova and Igor Trubnikov in Igor’s grandmother’s home. Vorobyovka, Voronezh Oblast, December 2018

Before their time When children become caregivers

Source: Meduza
Svetlana Trubnikova and Igor Trubnikov in Igor’s grandmother’s home. Vorobyovka, Voronezh Oblast, December 2018
Svetlana Trubnikova and Igor Trubnikov in Igor’s grandmother’s home. Vorobyovka, Voronezh Oblast, December 2018
Kristina Brazhnikova for Meduza

When a parent contracts a serious physical or mental illness, the responsibility of caring for that parent can fall to a teenager or even a young child. Such cases are especially common when children are raised by one parent or another older relative. In the United States, there are more than one million child caregivers. In Russia, their number is unknown: no organization or government agency collects statistics on the issue, and families with child caregivers receive aid from just a few charities and nonprofits. The government tends to approach these cases by pulling families apart: adults are institutionalized or hospitalized while children are sent to an orphanage. But that isn’t always the case. Meduza special correspondent Irina Kravtsova reached out to children in Russia and Kazakhstan who were forced to grow up before their time when their relatives needed them.

In March of 2011, 11-year old Igor Trubnikov was helping his older cousin deliver ice cream to kiosks near his home village of Vorobyovka when his cell phone rang. The call was from the hospital, and it was about his mother, Svetlana: her leg had just been amputated below the knee to stop the spread of gangrene. A couple months afterward, Svetlana Trubnikova lost her other leg, and some time later, she unexpectedly went blind.

Igor grew up without a father — a drunk relative stabbed him to death when Igor was three years old. When Svetlana was released from the hospital, the entire family moved in with Igor’s older sister. Half a year later, Svetlana decided that she would live alone with her son. Her daughter and son-in-law lived with their family in a small house that could not fit two more residents.

Svetlana and Igor returned to the dormitory building where they had lived before. It had previously served as a communal housing space for a Soviet collective farm. The long, one-story structure was spilt among four families, with one room and one kitchen set aside for the Trubnikovs. There was no gas or running water, and the only toilet was an outhouse.

That first winter, Igor woke up at six in the morning. He chopped wood, tended the stove, brought his mother a few buckets of water from the well, took out her urinal, and then went to school. When he got home, he would make dinner, massage his mother’s stumps, chop more wood, and sit down to do his homework. Just outside the dormitory, there was a sharp incline that taxi and ambulance drivers would refuse to scale when it was icy. When Svetlana had to go to the hospital, her son took her there in a sledge.

The Trubnikov family is far from the only one in which a child is forced to become the primary caregiver for their parent and practically become the head of the family in the process. In most cases, the only option the Russian government can offer these children is to pull apart their family. Yulia Kurchanova, a family psychologist for a foundation called Volunteers to Help Orphaned Children, said that “as a rule, child protection services remove the child to an orphanage and send the parent to a nursing home for people with disabilities [if they come across a situation like this].”

Igor Trubnikov managed to stay out of the orphanage. He started caring for his mother when he was in fourth grade and still lives with her today. He recently turned 18.

“I calmed down and grew up”

While Igor was learning to live with his mother after her hospitalization, his school friends broke into adolescence. They started going to parties in the village club, going out alone, and having their first romantic relationships. “Of course, I wanted to go with them,” Igor recalled, “But at first, after Mom’s legs were amputated, she was really scared to stay home alone even for a little while.”

Svetlana Trubnikova in her apartment in Buturlinovka. December 2018
Kristina Brazhnikova for Meduza
Igor Trubnikov in his grandmother’s house in Vorobyovka. December 2018
Kristina Brazhnikova for Meduza

At first, Igor asked his friends to hang out near his house so that he could run over to his mother when she called out to him for help. It quickly became clear that this system wouldn’t work: “Mom needed me almost all the time, and there was a ton of work to do around the house.” Igor almost never went out, and his friends soon stopped inviting him. “Well, yeah, it hurt a little,” he admits. “I was at an age when everything is just getting started, and I was already a homebody. But that’s all right. At this point, the urge to go out has kind of gone away on its own.”

Trubnikov does not believe that he had no childhood. “Childhood is when a person is five or seven years old,” he explained. “At 11, when they called me and told me that Mom didn’t have a leg anymore, I was still a kid. I remember being so scared to see her like that that I tried to refuse to go to the hospital. And when we came back [to the dorm] from my sister’s place and started living on our own, that was when I calmed down and grew up.”

Igor quickly stopped feeling sorry about the absence of his friends. He was far more nervous about whether he would be able to handle all the housework and about the possibility that someone would discover them: then, the boy thought, he would be sent to an orphanage, and his mom would be sent to a nursing home.

The family of two had a lot of complications to deal with, especially in that first year. In the winter, when there was not enough wood or money (Svetlana received a disability pension of about $420, and Igor received about $260 more to compensate for his mother’s lost income), Igor had to burn pieces of the fencing that surrounded their house to keep them warm. He couldn’t even gather wood in the forest nearby: his sleigh couldn’t carry enough of it, he had no proper cart, and he “was too shy and scared” to ask for help from adults nearby.

Gradually, the situation began to improve. In the fall of 2012, Svetlana Trubnikova’s sister wrote a letter to the regional government of Voronezh Oblast, and administrators set aside 90,000 rubles (about $3,000) for the family and built a gas line to their home. That was also when child protection services first came to visit. As Svetlana recalled, they asked what kind of help she and her son needed, and the conversation that followed led the agency to assign a social worker to the Trubnikovs. For 900 rubles (about $30) per month, she helped the two clean, cook, and pay their communal housing dues. The head of Vorobyovka’s administration, Mikhail Gordienko, also began looking out for the family. At his request, a streetlamp and a dumpster were installed outside the house. One year later, in 2013, the city also installed running water for the Trubnikovs. “They didn’t think to separate me from my Igor,” Svetlana said. “They saw that we were living poorly, but we were stable.”

Mikhail Gordienko told Meduza that he “made efforts to show the Trubnikovs someone was paying attention.” He made arrangements to encourage running water and gas line installations in their home, and while those efforts were still underway, he helped in other ways. Once, he provided wood for their stove himself. “I would never allow our child protection services to separate a mother and her child under my watch. That would be inhumane,” Gordienko said strictly. “My position is unequivocal, so that was never even a topic of discussion.”

In 2014, Igor learned that children living in difficult circumstances could use the local government’s website to send a “letter to Santa.” He wrote to ask for a bicycle that would make it easier for him to bring groceries home from the store. “Santa” got the message, and in early January of the following year, Igor received a new green bike in Vorobyovka’s House of Culture.

Several months later, Igor was on television: his family’s situation was featured on the talk show “Pust Govoryat.” There, Igor explained that his greatest fear was falling ill because no one would be left to care for his mom. Shortly after the segment aired, employees from a nonprofit run by the acclaimed pianist Elena Rostropovich took Svetlana Trubnikova and her son to Germany, where Svetlana received prosthetic legs and learned to use them to walk. Doctors also attempted to restore her eyesight, but they were unsuccessful. One year later, the same foundation gave the Trubnikovs a new two-room apartment in Buturlinovka, Vorobyovka’s neighboring town. The pair finally moved out of the dormitory.

Svetlana and Igor Trubnikov in the mid-2000s
Kristina Brazhnikova for Meduza
Svetlana Trubnikova in a German rehabilitation clinic
Kristina Brazhnikova for Meduza

After the Trubnikovs made their TV appearance, Igor’s classmates started asking him to go out with them again. “That hurt a little: one second nobody wants you, and the next everybody does,” he recalled. He had trouble finding romantic relationships. When Trubnikov studied for a couple of months in the Moscow suburbs while his mother was receiving treatment, he invited one of his female classmates to take a walk with him and told her his story. A few days later, when he turned around in his desk to talk to her, she said, “Turn back around. Don’t look at me.” “I don’t know whether that had anything to do with what I told her about my life,” Igor said, “but she didn’t want to talk to me anymore.”

In the end, school was a total disappointment for Igor. He wasn’t interested in the material and struggled to make it through the tenth grade. He was held back from the eleventh, which is the final year of high school in Russia, because of a couple failing grades. Trubnikov dropped out of school, and ever since then, he has spent most of his time helping his mother. When there is no housework left to be done, he says, “I zone out on my phone.”

The young man did not want to go to college; he didn’t feel a pull toward any particular profession. As a child, he had thought of becoming a welder or a cook, but “for that, you have to move to a big city, and I’ve got my mom,” he said. His current dream would also require him to move: he would like to become a professional boxer. However, Trubnikov himself believes a more realistic option would be to become a taxi driver. Several months ago, he used money donated by his sister and TV viewers who saw the “Pust Govoryat” segment to buy a used Lada. On the weekends, he has started driving to a nearby village to spend time with his second cousins.

Last spring, Igor Trubnikov turned 18, which meant that he stopped receiving a government allowance meant for families living without a breadwinner. Now, the family lives solely off of Svetlana’s pension. Military service is mandatory for young Russian men, and Igor’s local recruitment office has determined him to be fit for service, but both he and his mother say the office promised to delay his enlistment. In late fall, the recruitment office called Svetlana Trubnikova to say that her son would have to serve in the military in the short term after all. Igor himself is not opposed to becoming a soldier, but he is certain that his mother would not be able to get by without him. On December 6, the Vorobyovka district military commission decided to give its new recruit time to collect documents testifying that his mother needs him in order to live. The commission’s members said even they do not know who is supposed to sign the forms, but they pointed out that Trubnikova technically has a daughter who could help her while Igor is in the army.

“When they told me [that my son was drafted], I was in the hospital for two weeks afterward with hypertension,” Trubnikova said. “I told the commission, ‘My son has been taking out my bedpan since he was 11. How’s he going to take it out now?’ They told me, ‘Drive over to your daughter or have her come to you.’ I said, ‘If you take away my helper, I might as well come live with you in the military office.’” Mikhail Gordienko, the head of the local government, told Meduza that Trubnikov will definitely have his enlistment delayed at least until this spring.

“They would have put him in an orphanage right away”

Nobody knows how many families in Russia include a child who becomes the primary caregiver for an adult who is unable to work. A representative of Moscow’s Department of Labor and Social Protection told Meduza that the government does not collect statistics on the matter. There are also no funds set aside in Russia’s federal budget to help families like the Trubnikovs; officials said sources of aid “differ by region.” The agency declined to provide additional details about how local governments in and near Moscow support these families.

According to the attorney Anton Zharov, who is also the scientific director of the Institute for Family Education and Rights Programs in Russia, Russian government officials simply do not have the tools to help families like Svetlana and Igor’s either on the federal level or in regional administrations. Essentially, all the government can do is institutionalize adults in hospitals or nursing homes and send children to orphanages. “When child protection services sees an 11-year-old boy, and his mother has a serious disability, they see two people who are both incapable of independent life,” Zharov explained. “There are certain benefits for people with disabilities — health care, pensions — and there are benefits for working members of the family who care for relatives who are ill or disabled. That said, there are no benefits available at all for children who care for their older relatives. It’s assumed that the child should be in the care of an adult and that there’s just no other way things can be. Russian law just doesn’t cover that kind of situation, so there are no practical mechanisms to deal with it either.” Representatives for Russia’s children’s ombudsperson, Anna Kuznetsova, did not respond to questions from Meduza.

Igor Trubnikov speaks with a local military commissioner after a recruitment meeting. December 6, 2018
Kristina Brazhnikova for Meduza
Svetlana and Igor Trubnikov leave a meeting with military commissioners. December 6, 2018
Kristina Brazhnikova for Meduza
Igor Trubnikov carries his mother into their home to keep her off their icy courtyard. December 2018
Kristina Brazhnikova for Meduza

In the United States, about 1.4 million children are responsible for part or all of an older relative’s care. Usually, their families are low-income. The majority of these children have experienced problems at school, sleep issues, and anxiety issues; depression is not uncommon. Like Igor Trubnikov, they tend to have trouble finding friends and almost never participate in any activities outside of school. The obstacles they face started receiving widespread attention in the U.S. after a 2006 study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. That research made clear that almost a quarter of American children who drop out of school “for personal reasons” did so to be able to care for their parents full time.

Also in 2006, Connie Siskowski, who had cared for her grandfather since she was 11, founded a nonprofit organization called the American Association of Caregiving Youth in Florida. The organization’s employees find schoolchildren who care for their parents independently and help them deal with the stress they experience. For example, the AACY guides children through the process of managing their family budget, helps them stay in school, offers psychological counseling, provides home visits from nurses and tutors for free, organizes group activities for caregiving children, and sends them to summer camps. If a child doesn’t have time to go to the library, the organization can provide a computer and a printer, and after several families experienced home fires when child caregivers cooked dinner, the AACY began distributing multicookers and fire extinguishers as well.

One of the association’s “clients” whose story was highlighted in a 2016 New York Times feature was Nickolaus Dent, who began caring for his mother at age 11 after his father’s death. Nickolaus buys groceries, cooks, cleans, buys medicine, and makes sure his mother takes it. Thirteen-year-old Alecia Locke cares for two relatives at once: on the weekends, she helps her father, who has multiple sclerosis, and on weekdays, she helps her 10-year-old brother, who was born with cerebral palsy. There are other, similar organizations in the U.S., and the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand collect statistics about child caregivers and provide support programs for them.

There are some similar programs in Russia as well. For example, Volunteers to Help Orphaned Children includes a project called Prophylaxis of Social Orphanhood that helps children who are at risk of being sent to an orphanage, including those whom child protection services may separate from their families. As the foundation’s psychologist Yulia Kurchanova explains, that decision should stem from threats to the child’s life or health, but child services employees tend to interpret their mission extremely broadly. “They often don’t think about what kind of help could have been provided to the family,” Kurchanova said. “They see that the family isn’t making it or isn’t making it well enough, and then, regardless of the situation, the kid falls into the category of ‘life at risk.’ That is, if they saw that an 11-year-old boy was tending the stove himself and caring for himself independently, they wouldn’t even ask themselves how to help him: [they would immediately decide to] send him to an orphanage.”

Olesya Desnyanskaya, who coordinates the Prophylaxis of Social Orphanhood program, said she is certain that the government aid the Trubnikovs received was insufficient. She believes that the family should have immediately been provided government housing as well as a case manager who could find and obtain necessary resources for the family, including a social worker, a psychologist, and a lawyer. “Then, the child would have had a relatively normal life situation,” Desnyanskaya said.

“You just stop talking to people altogether”

In 1999, when Maksat Aiman turned six, his mother Aisara explained why she had decided to give birth to him. She had been around 30 years old, and she felt that her life was losing its meaning in a way only a child could change. She tried to adopt one from an orphanage, but her application was refused. “Then, Mom asked someone she knew, just a friend, to help her conceive a child with no strings attached,” said Maksat, now 25. “Mom got pregnant, and he disappeared, just like they’d agreed. And then I was born.”

Once she had told her son the story of his birth, Aisara said she had bad news. She had lived with cerebral palsy since she was a young girl, but her condition was getting worse, and that meant Maksat would have to take care of her and of himself. Maksat’s grandmother had died long before, and his eight aunts and uncles barely participated in his family life. Maksat saw his father for the first time at a bazaar when he was ten years old (the Aimans live in Kazakhstan’s Almaty Region). The stranger gave Maksat a piece of chocolate and walked away to continue going about his business.

Aisara and Maksat Aiman at home in the village of Mynbayevo. December 2018
Almaz Toleke for Meduza

And that, Maksat said, is how he became a “housewife” when he was in first grade. After school, he cooked meals, washed, ironed, and cleaned day after day. Back then, his mother could eat, wash herself, and wash her underwear independently, but she needed help with most everything else. “When the other kids were playing, I was always doing something around the house. I dedicated every Sunday to hand-washing our used underwear,” Maksat recalled. “At the same time, I was studying in a prestigious lyceum, and my mom always demanded straight As, so I also spent three or four hours a day doing homework.”

Aiman emphasized that his mother always called him “the most precious part of her life,” and he always felt her love and support. He didn’t see their way of life as inadequate. “Until I turned 18, my mom and I really were happy,” Maskat said. “I didn’t think the housework and everything else I had to do was such a difficult thing. That’s probably also because my mom told me a lot about her own childhood and how hard it was to grow up with cerebral palsy from the time I was very young. I mean, she couldn’t even walk until she was 12, and it’s still hard enough for her to speak that only her closest friends and family can understand her. I imagined all that very vividly in my head, and I had a lot of sympathy for her. Even when I was doing my daily housework, I was sure that it was definitely easier than what Mom had been through.”

When he was 13, Maksat told his mother that he had “grown up” and wanted to spend time with his peers. However, he later recalled, the city of Shu where the family lived was experiencing a high volume of drug trafficking at the time. Aisara was afraid that her son would fall into bad company. To keep him off the streets, she used her pension to buy him a computer on credit. (The family lived off Aisara’s pension and the money Maksat received to compensate for the absence of a breadwinner in his family.)

Back then, there weren’t very many computers in the city, and after only three months at the keyboard, Maksat understood the new technology so well that he was able to make a living repairing other people’s gadgets. Aisara’s purchase also helped his social life: other children came to Maksat on their own initiative to transfer music from his computer or ask for help in other ways. Sometimes, he befriended them, and they spent time together at home without leaving Aisara unattended.

But socialization wasn’t Maksat’s only problem. When he went out walking with his mother, he was bewildered by the way passersby gave them “strange looks.” “Mom’s shortcomings didn’t really stand out to me personally because I accepted her the way she was from birth,” he explained. “But other people just stared, and that made me feel terribly shy,” he said. Maksat didn’t talk about his mother’s situation with friends and acquaintances because he didn’t want them to feel sorry for him. “When you say you have these problems once, people don’t want to bother you anymore. But then, it turns out that you just stop talking to people altogether,” he said. “And with my friends, I didn’t even feel like talking about Mom because I just treated her normally, like I treat other people. They didn’t talk about their parents, and I didn’t talk about mine.” According to Maksat, child protection services never approached his family, and he believes that if they had, he would likely have been sent to an orphanage. When Meduza contacted Kazakhstan’s ombudsperson for children’s issues, Saule Aitpayeva, she declined to arrange an interview and instead requested that all questions be directed in writing to the country’s committee on children’s rights.

Aisara’s decision to buy her son a computer turned out to be an excellent investment in all respects. In 2008, Maksat received a full scholarship to Almaty Polytechnic College. He commuted to classes from the village 25 miles away where he lived with his mother and his brother’s family. Before long, he had won the Grand Prix of a programming olympiad, and a few years later, he graduated with highest honors. “Mom and I dreamed back then that we would have a good life,” Maksat said. “We thought I would find work and start making a good living.”

That dream did not come to be. As she was leaving her best friend’s funeral, Aisara had a fall and seriously damaged her spine. After that, she could neither walk nor do anything independently, and Maksat had to stay near her night and day. Every half hour, he had to help her turn over. “I lived a really boring, monotonous life. Every day you wake up, feed her, carry her in your arms to the toilet — I never got lazy enough to put my mom in diapers,” Maksat said. “Then, you have to help her take a bath and so on and so forth.”

His life became a closed circle. To hire a caregiver for his mother, Maksat had to find work, but he couldn’t find work because he had to help Aisara. It was only then that the young man really began hating his way of life. “I was a young guy! I really wanted to work, exercise like I had before, get something done, but I literally couldn’t take a step away from my mom. That feeling of helplessness and the sense that it was impossible for me to change anything at all did lead me to take things out on myself,” he remembered. “The only luxury I could afford was reading books. I read books about people with disabilities to understand how I could motivate my mom and how I could try and help her.” Every day, the young man gave his mother a massage, took her out for a walk, and made her do a set of exercises. In his words, Aisara would smile, and they were “truly happy” as a family. Maksat said he took out his anger only on himself — never on his mother.

In 2017, a news report was published about Maksat and Aisara’s story. It was titled “Help — I’m barely holding on,” and it quickly led to a segment on the Kazakhstan TV channel as well. As in the Trubnikovs’ case, publicity helped: Kazakhstanis sent the Aimans almost 1.5 million tenge (about $5,000), which finally enabled Maksat to hire a caregiver and find work. Nonetheless, he has had to switch jobs three times since. Even with his mother’s extra care, Maksat regularly has to leave work unexpectedly in the middle of the day to help her.

Maksat said he has asked for help from the akimat, or district administration, on multiple occasions. He was told that there was no legislative mechanism in place for the government to help him. After the TV segment about the Aimans aired, the akim himself offered to help them, but in the end, he only offered to prepare the documents necessary to send Aisara to a nursing home for people with disabilities. In the end, Maksat negotiated with district officials to arrange for money that could legally have been set aside for a social worker for Aisara to be set aside for the caregiver he had already hired. Now, the government covers about 30% of her salary.

Nowadays, Maksat regularly posts photos of his mom on Instagram and keeps his followers updated about her life and her condition. Now, his dream is to have a family. “Actually, that’s one of the reasons I always looked after my mom, on top of my love and my endless respect for her,” he explained. “If I had left her behind, then what kind of woman would be able to respect me after that? Who takes a guy seriously if he’s abandoned his mother?”

Maksat and Aisara Aiman in Mynbayevo. December 2018
Almaz Toleke for Meduza
Almaz Toleke for Meduza
Almaz Toleke for Meduza

“It made me want to tear my hair out”

Three years ago, when Yulia was twelve (she asked to be named by her first name only), her mother’s father died of cancer, depriving her mother of one of her closest loved ones. In the same year, it became clear that Yulia’s father had cheated on her mother with the mother’s older sister, and he decided to leave Yulia’s mother for her aunt. The teenager told Meduza that sequence of events changed her mother entirely, and she became “indifferent” to the world around her. “I tried to tell her sometimes, ‘It’s okay, mom, everything will be all right,” Yulia recalled. “And she would say, ‘Oh, go away. Go move in with your father if you want.’”

Gradually, Yulia’s mother stopped eating and taking showers on time. She began forgetting about basic needs and lashed out often at Yulia and her brother. Soon enough, Yulia’s brother moved in with their grandmother; he was “really offended by our mom because he took her coldness toward us as a betrayal.” On the contrary, Yulia herself “did the feminine thing” and sympathized with her mother: “the worse Mom behaved herself back then, the more I understood how hard things were for her.”

Alexander, Yulia’s brother, is now 17. He also asked Meduza to remain partially anonymous, and he confirmed his sister’s story. “At first, when our mother was crying and ignoring us, I thought it was all obvious: she had depression because of everything that had happened,” Alexander recalled. “But it was still hard to live in that environment: it was like someone had died and there was a funeral in our apartment every day.” The young man hoped that the situation would get better quickly, but then, he said, “Mom went on the attack” and began comparing him aggressively with his father. “When she thought I wasn’t eating right, if I came back from practice and left my bag in the hallway, if I forgot something, slammed the door — I’d always see her furious eyes and hear her whisper, ‘You’re just like your father!’ or ‘You’re an idiot too,’ or ‘You pig.’”

The teenager tried to push back against his mother’s words, but she would always start crying and shut herself up in her room. “At some point, I stopped feeling sorry for her, but it was really hard to see how my sister reacted,” Alexander continued. “She would cry; she really felt bad for our mother. She would yell at me because I didn’t defend us from her. It was a madhouse. After a year living in that hell, I packed up and moved in with my grandma. I tried to convince my sister to come with me, but she said that would really make our mom go insane. When I left, Mom didn’t even notice I was gone.”

Now alone with Yulia, the children’s mother stopped going to work. Her daughter tried to make her eat, but she knocked the plates out of her hands and spit in her face.

“I saw how my mom was shutting down, and I was constantly afraid that she would die. I was so terribly sorry for her because she had been left all alone,” Yulia said. “At the same time, I often felt bad for myself because she was always pushing me away, and she didn’t care at all about how I was doing. When she saw me crying, she didn’t even ask me why.” Yulia noticed that her mother started talking about suicide increasingly often, and when her daughter said she loved her, she called her “a monster” and said, “I’m a bad person, and all of you are bad people too.”

In 2017, Yulia’s mother had a microstroke. When she was released from the hospital, her eighth-grade daughter started looking after her. She did so alone because their family ties had been completely cut off by that point. When Yulia’s mother recovered, she became paranoid that Yulia was conspiring with her father and grandmother and that their ultimate aim was to murder her. “Hearing that from her was probably the very hardest thing,” Yulia later said. “It was just so scary because I didn’t know how I could talk to her to try and convince her she was wrong.”

Once, when the young teenager came home from school, she found her mother sitting in her room, staring at her calmly, while a noose hung from the chandelier. “I was just so shocked that I didn’t have the strength left to tell her anything. I just started to howl,” Yulia remembered. “Then, I begged her not to die and told her that we would figure it all out. She almost never said anything. That silence just put me into a horrified stupor. It literally made me want to beat my head against the wall, tear my hair out, scream as loud as I could — anything to make her feel something.”

“When a parent has a physical disability, there’s a discussion to be had about whether that burden is bearable or whether it would be better to send the child to an orphanage. When you start talking about mental problems, though, it’s obvious that the child will have experienced serious trauma,” said Anna Privezentseva, a psychologist from the Tochka center for teens. Olesya Desnyanskaya of Volunteers to Help Orphaned Children added that while children who help their parents cope with a physical disability can receive help in Russia, almost no aid is available for families with an adult who experiences psychological problems. She explained, “It’s too hard to build an adequate aid system and bring in enough resources to make sure a child in that family is safe.” Nonetheless, the program Desnyanskaya leads works with families like Yulia’s too. The psychologist said an expert’s primary role in such situations is to determine the level of risk the child faces.

“You see, there are many different mental illnesses, and not all of them justify taking a child away from their parents,” Desnyanskaya argued. “The most important thing is to make sure the child’s basic needs are met: food, education, emotional needs, safety, medical care.” Desnyanskaya’s practice has helped these families successfully in some cases. Her foundation pays for the parents to see a psychiatrist, buy the medication they need, and controls when they take it while arranging regular visits to a therapist for the child. On top of that, the organization’s employees come up with a plan for someone to care for the child while their parent receives treatment. Those possibilities include living in a shelter, staying with relatives, or finding a volunteer who has been evaluated by the organization to house the child.

Almaz Toleke for Meduza

After the noose incident, Yulia was afraid to go to school; she thought her mother might try to finish what she had started. Yulia began skipping class often, and her grades “slipped a ton.” She quit dancing even though she had been a professional dancer from a young age. Her teacher asked what was going on, but Yulia only told her that she felt poorly. In the end, she was simply kicked out of her dance troupe. In one final conversation with her trainer, Yulia said she had simply “stopped enjoying” dance. “Dancing took a lot of physical and emotional energy, and after dealing with all the problems at home, I didn’t have any left,” she later explained. “I also tried not to leave the house unless it was absolutely necessary so I wouldn’t leave my mom alone.”

Yulia didn’t tell her teachers or classmates about what was happening in her life. She was afraid that they would call child protection services; she didn’t want her mother to lose her rights as a guardian or be “sent to the psych ward.” She only entrusted her story to her best friend. In retrospect, Yulia said, she “would have jumped off a bridge a long time ago” if it weren’t for her friend’s support. Yulia’s friend told her many times that they could both live with her family, but Yulia was too scared even to visit her house. After school, she ran home worrying that something had happened to her mom.

Yulia thought about calling a psychiatrist for her mom, but she read on the Internet that a suicide attempt would justify putting her mom on a registry at a neuropsychological center, and she thought her mother might be institutionalized. Because she did not want to live with any of her other relatives, Yulia was sure that she would be sent to an orphanage in such a case. The attorney Anton Zharov said Yulia’s fears about her mother’s situation could really have come to be but that as a minor, she would have had no legal right to refuse to live with her relatives so long as those relatives retained their parental rights.

Olesya Desnyanskaya said she considers Yulia’s situation to be extremely complex. “In contrast to the other two stories you’ve told, the parent in this case has no hold at all on the child’s life. The girl’s basic needs — education, food, medical care, emotional warmth — are not being met at all. She’s not safe at home. At the same time, in her situation, just sending the mother off to a psychiatric hospital and then, in all likelihood, institutionalizing her long-term and sending the girl herself to an orphanage — that’s also not the best idea because the girl feels a sense of responsibility for her mother’s life,” Desnyanskaya reasoned. “If the mother’s case turns out badly, then Yulia could live her whole life with a sense of guilt for not saving her mother.”

The nonprofit organizer believes that in Yulia’s case, it would have been possible to find a “more flexible solution” than separating her from her mother. “For example, the mother could be provided with the health care she needs, a social worker could be assigned to the family to make sure she took her medicine regularly. That social worker could also take the mother to a therapist and help Yulia take care of her schoolwork and her emotional condition.” She added, “If we were to imagine an ideal situation, then I think the social worker should actually live with them at first — it’s not unheard of in the world to have assisted living for cases like these. Then, if and when the mother’s condition were to improve, the social worker could begin visiting them less often.” Desnyanskaya said that despite the advisability of that kind of close treatment, Volunteers to Help Orphaned Children simply does not have the resources to provide that kind of full-fledged care.

“There’s no way to be sure that by putting Yulia in an orphanage or a foster family, we would be improving her life. She would be likely to try and run away to find her mother, and her emotional condition could become even more unstable,” Desnyanskaya continued. “For that reason, the right decision would still be to try and treat the mother. It might be that she developed clinical depression and could respond to medication. On the other hand, if treatment did not help, then turning to child protection services would be the only option. It is certainly not safe for the girl in this case to keep living with a mother who is in that condition.”

“If I spent any more energy worrying about the situation, I would just keel over”

In 2018, when Easter came around, Yulia’s mother visited her father’s grave for the first time since his funeral. The teenager said that by last spring, her mother had become “more like the person she was before” and had begun to speak with her daughter and call her son. Yulia said that “when she’s in a normal condition,” her mother is “a very good, fair, and sensible person.”

“My mother has become more competent recently,” Yulia’s brother Alexander admits. “We call each other, and she’s interested in my life. She reacts to what I say. But it’s still really hard. I think she needs serious treatment.” The young man said he feels “very sorry for Yulia.” “Our mother is manipulating her because she knows Yulia is the only person who needs her. At the same time, and this is the worst part of it, she’s constantly making my sister feel like she doesn’t care about her,” Alexander said. “To be honest, I don’t understand how my sister physically survived for so long over there.”

Yulia doesn’t think she has become more mature after all she has lived through. Instead, she believes she has “just become more anxious and jittery.” “I’m afraid that my grandma will blurt something out or that Mom will find out some other way that Dad and Aunt Lena had a new baby a few months ago,” the teenager explained. “I’ve been living for several years under this fear that mom will have another breakdown and then she’ll want to die.”

Now, Yulia is in the ninth grade, and she is still struggling in school. She also has not made new friends since returning to her studies; she says she has no energy and no desire to do so. “I’m so emotionally exhausted that it’s often physically difficult for me to react to things that require some kind of emotional response, like when a teacher yells at me or somebody laughs at me,” Yulia said. “I just say, ‘uh-huh.’ It feels like if I spent any more energy worrying about the situation, I would just keel over.” A boy she danced with for many years recently asked her out, but Yulia realized that she “just wouldn’t be able to handle it” emotionally. Nowadays, Yulia spends her free time reading history books and dreaming of a career as a pretrial investigator.

Maksat Aiman in Mynbayevo. December 2018
Almaz Toleke for Meduza
Igor and Svetlana Trubnikov in Igor’s grandmothers home in Vorobyovka. December 2018
Kristina Brazhnikova for Meduza

Maksat Aiman believes the difficulties he encountered as a child made him highly responsible and strong-willed; he feels prepared to overcome whatever circumstances he might encounter. “I think it separates me from my peers,” he said. “Most of them live irresponsibly until they get married. And then, when complications inevitably come up in the marriage, it scares them. They don’t have a habit of dealing with difficult problems in life, and they just get divorced. I know that young women can see me as a trustworthy guy. My [future] wife can be sure that I won’t fall out of love with her even in 30 years, when she might get a little fat or sick or just not so pretty because I will love her for who she is, not for her appearance.”

Igor Trubnikov is also grateful for the experiences he has had, at the very least because he did not turn out like other boys his age in his village. The teenager said many of them abuse alcohol and have no real goal in life. At the same time, Trubnikov explained, he lives with a constant sense of guilt before his mother. Svetlana has told him many times that the circulatory problems that led to her gangrene began after his birth (although more than ten years stand between Igor’s birth and the amputation). Igor thinks that if he had not been born, then his mother might still have been well today.

 Irina Kravtsova, Vorobyovka – Moscow

Translation by Hilah Kohen