It was ‘like a devil’s den’ Pa. student’s life started in Russian orphanage. – Philadelphia Inquirer
By Michael Matza Inquirer Staff Writer.
March 01, 2010
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Born in Russia with cerebral palsy in 1990, Vanya Pashtukhov was abandoned by his alcoholic mother at a bleak Moscow orphanage called Baby House 10. For the next half-dozen years, he was clothed in rags and confined to a metal crib in near-constant “bed regime.”
Government doctors labeled him “ineducable” and, when he was only 6, shunted him to an adult asylum for “mental defectives.”
“It was terrifying,” he recalled recently. “Like a devil’s den.”
Pashtukhov’s pitiful childhood was no singular nightmare. At least as far back as the regime of Joseph Stalin, Communist Party general secretary from 1922 to 1953, the Soviet system dealt harshly with handicapped wards of the state, routinely warehousing youngsters with even mild impairments. As recently as 1989, in a book about disabled people, authors Stephen and Ethel Dunn wrote, “In the former Soviet bloc . . . persons with physical and mental disabilities have been stigmatized, hidden from the public . . . made seemingly invisible.” Estimates across the decades put their numbers in the hundreds of thousands.
Pashtukhov would have remained among them were it not for the improbable adoption that brought him to Pennsylvania in 1999, changing his name and his life’s trajectory.
Known today as John Lahutsky, he is a 19-year-old honors student at Freedom High School in Bethlehem, and an author.
His memoir, The Boy From Baby House 10, was written with Alan Philps, a British former foreign correspondent in Moscow who was pivotal in his rescue. They note that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin has stated he would like to see all abandoned Russian children placed with families, not institutionalized. Nonetheless, more than 20,000 children a year are consigned to what critics call “children’s gulags.”
“I have been curious to go back and see what improvements Russia has made in caring for children with disabilities,” Lahutsky said in an interview at his Bethlehem home. Beside him on the sofa were the two cuffed canes he uses to walk. On his lap, his protective Chihuahua, Jambo, stood sentry.
“Unfortunately, I don’t hear of many improvements.”
Living in the Moscow baby house among 62 other children – newborns to 5-year-olds, many too profoundly disabled to speak – Vanya Pashtukhov distinguished himself by teaching himself to talk. He did it by eavesdropping intently on the staff.
His ability to communicate caught the attention of Philps’ wife, Sarah, on her first visit as a volunteer interpreter for an international women’s group bringing toys and clothes.
Vanya, then 3, still not walking, was assigned to a room for “incurables.”
“What’s your name?” he asked her. She gave him a toy car, which he rolled on a table and hugged to his chest.
“You will come again,” he said as she stood to go. “Please come again.”
Throughout her husband’s four-year assignment in Moscow for London’s Daily Telegraph, Sarah Philps went to Russian officials to advocate for all the children of Baby House 10 – but none more so than for Vanya, whose indomitable will touched her heart.
When Vanya was transferred to the adult asylum on the outskirts of Moscow, Sarah Philps and another volunteer agitated tirelessly for his return to the baby house – a months-long fight they eventually won. She lobbied her husband to write about Vanya and the other children, which he did in an August 1996 article, “The Orphans Whom Mother Russia Forgot.”
The story brought Vanya to the attention of British readers. For almost a year, Sarah Philps corresponded with a British couple who wanted to adopt him, but they had to pull out for personal reasons.
The Philpses had two children of their own, and adding Vanya to their brood would not have worked, given the peripatetic life of a correspondent. As Alan Philps’ Moscow assignment came to an end in 1998, so, it seemed, did all hope for Vanya.
As Sarah Philps was saying her last goodbye to the boy, she saw an American couple picking up a girl they had adopted with help from the Russian Orthodox Church.
“I explained the Russian system of sending children with slight disabilities to wither away in asylums,” she recounted. “I told them [Vanya] had been diagnosed as an imbecile, even though he was an intelligent child.”
With Sarah Philps translating, Vanya asked the Americans charming and perceptive questions about their lives, their car, and the little girl who now was their daughter. He left such an impression on them that when they got back to their home parish – the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas of Bethlehem – they put an item in the church bulletin under the headline “An Important Announcement.” They said they were overjoyed with their new daughter and invited parishioners to consider adopting Vanya.
“This boy is so bright,” they wrote, “it would be a shame” for him to languish in an asylum.
Paula Lahutsky, a school psychologist, 41 and single, read and reread the item at her kitchen table.
Both her parents were gone, her mother having died in 1990 and her father in 1997. She had cared for him in a ranch house she had set up to accommodate his wheelchair. Of Ukrainian and Lithuanian ancestry, she spoke some Russian.
“I wasn’t looking to adopt, or to become a parent at all,” she said in a recent interview in that house. But as a volunteer in graduate school, “I had some experience with kids with cerebral palsy. And I thought, ‘Who better to take care of a kid with a disability than a school psychologist with a house already set up to accommodate his needs?’ ”
She called the Orthodox Church of America in New York. The rescue of Vanya began.
After months of problems, including an unexpected foster-care placement that nearly derailed the adoption, Paula Lahutsky met Vanya in Moscow in July 1999.
“Hi, I’m your mother,” she said in American-accented Russian.
Vanya was speechless, though not for long.
“We came home in August,” Paula Lahutsky recalled. “By Christmas, he was fluent in English.”
One of his first friends, Danny Mease, now a sophomore at Kutztown University, remembers endless hours playing table hockey.
“I think the experiences he went through made him appreciate more what he has now,” Mease said. “He’s very strong, and always finds reasons to smile.”
At school, Lahutsky, a junior, uses a walker to move from class to class. He also has a dedicated aide, Cheryl Martellucci, who takes notes for him as part of his individualized education plan.
“He loves old movies and old TV shows,” she said. “He’s very polite, a really great kid. . . . He didn’t start school until he was 9 years old. I often wonder how much more advanced he would be if he had the care then that he’s getting now.”
A history buff with an ambition to become a filmmaker, Lahutsky is a dedicated Boy Scout and member of its national honor society, the Order of the Arrow.
In third grade, when he asked to join the scouts, Paula Lahutsky wasn’t sure.
“The joke in our house is that I debate opening a window,” she said. “I’m just not outdoorsy.”
More important, she worried that his cerebral palsy would hamper him in scouting activities.
“Give to me a chance,” her son pleaded.
“He had that little remnant of Russian hanging on,” Paula Lahutsky said. “That’s what melted me.”
Along with promoting “responsible outdoor adventure” and environmentalism, the Order of the Arrow encourages “purposeful lives of cheerful leadership.” Its first step toward full membership is an induction ceremony called “the ordeal,” a weekend-long test of one’s ability to survive solitude.
For Lahutsky, a piece of cake.