Saved: The boy from the ‘gulag’ – Mail Online

By Philip Jacobson.
Mail Online

February 23, 2010

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There is something decidedly Dickensian about this deeply moving, frequently enraging and ultimately uplifting account of how a severely disabled child blessed with an unquenchable spirit triumphs over adversity with the aid of good-hearted people.

Born prematurely and afflicted with cerebral palsy, Vanya had been abandoned by his alcoholic mother when he was a year old and was swiftly consigned to the living hell of Russia’s state orphanage system – more accurately described as gulags for children.

We first encounter him in the silent locked room at Baby House 10, where children classified, often without proper diagnosis, as uneducable imbeciles were effectively left to rot, deemed incapable even of playing with toys and starved of affection.

Yet against all the odds, Vanya had learned how to talk, which is how he came to the notice of Sarah Philps, a Russian speaker married to the then Moscow correspondent of the Daily Telegraph.

On her first visit to the orphanage, interpreting for an American friend, she was profoundly shocked by the plight of the vulnerable young inmates. Three children were slumped in baby walkers tethered to a playpen, heads lolling: ‘They had obviously been there for hours.’ FOR every Aunty Valentina, a warm and compassionate carer, there was someone like the Chief Defectologist (shades of Dickens!), who treated her charges as if ‘they were all cursed at birth and would never overcome their flawed origins’.

It was only as Philps was being ushered away from the desolate room that she heard a small voice saying: ‘Please come again.’ At that moment, Vanya entered her life and it was not long before she and her husband Alan fell under the spell of a boy whose inner strength, resilience and sweet nature touched all who came to know him. In tandem with a dauntless young Russian woman named Vika, Sarah and Alan Philps set about trying to help Vanya.

This compelling, often haunting book revolves around their long, tortuous battle to overcome the entrenched Russian bureaucracy, with Alan judiciously deploying the special influence of a major newspaper.

At one point, Vanya was dispatched to an internat, an adult mental asylum, where children spent much of the time under heavy sedation, lying untended in their own urine and faeces.

It is common for juveniles to spend the rest of their lives in these terrible places – the probable fate of three youths who extended some simple kindness to Vanya while he was held there.

As if he had not been through enough, the possibility of Vanya being adopted (by another British couple) – a process involving protracted arm-wrestling with officialdom – disappeared when they pulled out at the last moment.

Problems with social workers at the British end appear to have been a factor, while the wife, who barely spoke a word of Russian, was also worried about communicating properly with Vanya. Yet even after Sarah had broken the devastating news to him, he chided her gently for raging at the couple’s ‘betrayal’ of his hopes.

To make matters even worse, the Sarah and Alan, who have two children of their own, were then preparing to move on to Alan’s next posting in Jerusalem.

Visiting Vanya at Baby House 10 for what she feared would be the last time, Sarah came across an American couple delightedly bearing away their new daughter, adopted with the help of the Russian Orthodox Church, which had links to their own church back home.

Seizing the moment, she introduced them to Vanya, describing his special qualities of tenderness and consideration towards other children marooned in the same cruel system. ‘He deserved a family, I said. He had so much love to give.’

And it was this chance encounter that was to transform Vanya’s life: the Americans wrote about his plight in their church newsletter and that led to his adoption by Paula Lahutsky, an unmarried Pennsylvania school psychologist of Russian origin with a big heart and a welcoming extended family.

These days, he is John Lahutsky, a bright, outgoing 20-year-old who refused to let his wonky legs (damaged by the early years of neglect in Russia) prevent him from overcoming tough physical challenges with the Scouts.

As Vanya/John points out in a sombre foreword to the book he co-authored with Alan (whom I should record is a friend and former colleague), the appalling child care institutions founded in the Stalin era continue to ‘devour’ young victims today.

One senses his hand behind the book’s poignant dedication: ‘To the children who never made it.’