The Trans-Siberian Railroad is every bit as long and grueling as its reputation boasts. Turns out, this trip is in no way for the half-hearted traveler looking for an easy vacation. It takes absolute dedication from the minute you begin the visa application to the moment you realize you’re stuck in a 6×6 cell for seven days.
My grandpa and I had chosen to ride the train in May hoping the weather would be neither too cold nor too hot, which, aside from occasionally being too toasty in our coupe, was exactly what it was. But Spring had not quite arrived in most of Siberia and the Far East, and the trees remained bare and the landscape somewhat grey and dreary in some areas. Still, there is a definite beauty that pervades even in those scenes of overcast skies and wasteland—a very Russian-type beauty accentuated by the occasional village that seems the perfect stage for a Dostoevsky novel or a Chekhov play.
We started in Vladivostok and as we rolled from town to town and city to city across this vast country, I was intrigued by the fact that the general development and modernization of these places seemed to correlate with how close they were to Moscow. I had long heard the quip that in Russia “the money stops in Moscow,” but taking in the entire stretch of the country in a single journey like this offered a unique snapshot and seeming confirmation of that assertion. And economic development aside, civil society is still in relative infancy in most of the cities across Siberia and toward the Far East. In this regard, Yearn Foundation’s focus in the regions of Vladivostok and Khabarovsk is especially justified: thousands of miles from Moscow—that is where the need is.
Since the early nineties, thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have come into existence in Russia and have played a vital role in the development of Russian civil society while being funded, in large part, by foreign donors. While active NGOs have been effective in covering a wide range of issues, the efforts and funds have been focused primarily in the West of Russia, namely Moscow. Even considering the perspective populations, Moscow still has five times as many NGOs per 1,000 people than Vladivostok or Khabarovsk. Thus, there has been a lot of attention and financial aid given to face the social issues of the West producing greater opportunities for development and success. The Far East, on the other hand, shares most of the same social concerns, including the plight of orphans, but has not had the opportunity to develop successful institutions or programs.
The situation of orphans in Russia has become a national crisis with “400,000 children living in institutions and an orphanage system that does nothing to prepare these children for successful adulthood” (MiraMed). When an orphan reaches the age of 17 and leaves the orphanage, all too frequently he or she resorts to a life of crime, prostitution, drugs, alcohol, poverty, and, in many cases, eventually suicide. Few programs have been successful in preparing these children for life outside the orphanage. The vision of Yearn Foundation includes a focus on social adaptation for orphans and efforts for developing self-sufficiency. Our longterm aim is to create a program to teach basic life skills to orphans preparing to leave the orphanage institutions, including specifics on how to live in their town or city, and provide mentoring and psychological counseling. Together with our partner organizations, we will continue to work to create opportunities for orphans and help them build successful and meaningful lives.