Nightmare in Russia – The Morning Call

By Irene Kraft

October 2, 2009

John Lahutsky of Bethlehem Township would like to be a filmmaker. When renting a DVD, the junior at Freedom High School has always enjoyed watching extras showing the way a film is made before watching the actual movie.

He’ll most likely make films about history, he says, because history is his favorite subject.

Yet, those who know the history of this 19-year-old who’s afflicted with mild cerebral palsy may find it hard to believe he could be happy exploring the past. Before coming to the United States, John spent more than eight years in a Russian orphanage, where his life was a nightmare.

From the time his birth parents abandoned him and he was placed in Baby House 10 in Moscowat 18 months until he was adopted at age 91/2, he lived in a system that was so cold and void of care and compassion that it’s miraculous he survived.

Three years ago, John and his mother, Paula Lahutsky, the single Bethlehem Township woman who rescued him, shared his story with The Morning Call in a Mother’s Day feature. Now, nearly a decade since he settled in his home here, he shares his story with the world in his recently released book, ”The Boy from Baby House 10” (St. Martin’s Press, $24.99, 288 pp.).

The book was written with British author Alan Philps, a journalist who befriended John when he was still living in Russia.

The Morning Call article was inspiration for the book. When John and Paula sent a copy of it to Philps, he realized just how little John really knew about himself. Philps had always been impressed with John’s outgoing nature and believed it was his strong will, even as a young child, that helped him survive his ordeal. He also believed it was a story worth telling.

John’s fortitude made an impression not only on Philps, but several key people, including Philps’ wife, Sarah, who met John first. Sarah, who accompanied Alan to his London Daily Telegraph assignment in Moscow, had become involved with a group of British women who tried to improve conditions in orphanages.

During their visits to Baby House 10, as well as an asylum John was placed in for several months, the Philps had taken photos, recorded their meetings in diaries and documented orphanage conditions — all material that would be priceless when writing a book.

When Philps asked John if he’d be willing to revisit his past to gather more material, John agreed. So for two years, they delved deep into a story that’s almost shocking in this day and to a nation where children are generally cherished.

John’s attention to detail was invaluable. He can remember colors, furniture placement, articles of clothing and other specifics that paint a true picture of his surroundings, beyond what Philps and his wife had recorded. More importantly, Philps was able to get inside John’s head to learn how he felt while going through it all.

John ”has an amazing memory,” says his mother, a school psychologist. Although he’s well-adjusted in his life here, on occasion, a not-too-pleasant memory will surface.

”I used my imagination to keep myself occupied,” says John, explaining how he used his mind to survive years spent in the orphanage with few toys, friends or people to talk to.

After spending his early years in Baby House 10, John was deemed ineducable and placed in an asylum, where he spent long hours in a crib — although he was too big for one.

”It was hell,” says John. ”You entered a nightmare and thought you would never leave. You weren’t supposed to leave.” He couldn’t even get out of his locked crib to reach a urinal under his bed. Children were malnourished — you could see the bones on their bodies, he says.

A morgue was conveniently located across the street from the asylum. Some orphanage caretakers arranged for children, including John, to be baptized before being sent there, fearing they wouldn’t survive its horrors.

John’s baptismal certificate is one of the few tangible pieces of his early childhood he brought with him from Russia.

”How I think I made it through that nightmare of eight months was God had an angel with a cloak wrapped around me,” says the young man, who has been an altar boy at his church, St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church in Emmaus, and who has achieved the Life Scout rank in Boy Scouts.

John wrote the book’s preface and epilogue. Through countless phone conversations and e-mails, he helped Philps rebuild the rest. He made no return trips to Russia. Philps did. He even returned to the neighborhood where John was born to learn more about his birth parents. Neighbors gave him enough information to help track down John’s older sister, Olga, who was sent to a different orphanage.

Since then, John and Olga were reunited by phone and keep in touch by phone and e-mail.

John, or Vanya as he is called in Russian, stood out and bonded with several key people while in Russia because he could speak well and relate to them. Philps did his best to track them down.

John’s ability to relate was amazing, since he had only a basic start in language when he was placed in the orphanage at age 11/2 and he received no formal education while there. On many days, he had little contact with a speaking person. Yet he learned to speak from listening to limited conversations around him — those of caretakers who watched over a room full of children and those of social workers who came to try to improve the children’s lives. He got extra attention from a caretaker named Valentina during her shifts at the orphanage and a volunteer named Vika, who saw something special in John.

”He has the gift of language,” says his mother who, like Philps, believes it was that gift of talking and relating to others that helped him survive. John approached nearly everyone who came to the orphanage — not always a good thing for him. Unlike Valentina, some caretakers punished his efforts to reach out.

Today John, once labeled ineducable in Russia, is an honor-roll student at Freedom High School.

”I can’t imagine my life without him,” Paula Lahutsky says. ”I was trying to do something good for a child who needed me. I never realized what I’d get in return.”

Seated in the living room of their ranch home with his Chihuahua Jambo at his side, John says, ”I try to focus on the present and I try to look at the future.”

Yes, he still dreams … but now of the same sort of things other American youth dream — of a career as a filmmaker and of having children of his own one day.

He has little desire to go back to his homeland, unless if it were to meet sister Olga and her family.

However, John says he doubts he’d be welcome in Russia right now after what he reveals in his book.

Yet, he has no regrets. ”When I realize if this can help a child not end up in the same situation I was in, it is worth it to tell my story,” he says.