Several years ago,when I was still editing the magazine Central European (a must-read) I used to travel to Russia every few weeks to write a supplement we ran called Russiamoney. This was back in the early 1990s when Russia was just opening up, and there were fortunes to be made overnight. I remember meeting one future oligarch in a Moscow bar. After our chat, he was going off to buy a flat with three suitcases of cash. And today, as I read about the pathetic Mr Putin’s reaction to the law passed in the US banning visas for officials implicated in the hideous death of the whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky (pictured here), I am reminded of another encounter I had, this time on a plane from St Petersburg to London.
I had spotted the family at the airport. The attractive blond parents with their two daughters, kitted out entirely in Osh-Kosh. The kids running rings around them, the parents trying to remain calm.
“How spoilt,” was my silent reaction as I buried my nose in my book. These were the days before I had children, and I assumed that as a parent you would be able to control your offspring.
I was horrified to see when I sat down on the plane that they were behind me. I cursed my stupidity in forgetting my walkman (yes, it really was that long ago) and settled down grimly in preparation for a long flight.
The first thing the children did was repeatedly take the plane phone out of its cradle and shove it back in, bashing my seat every time they did it. And they argued, and fought and shouted and screamed and didn’t sit still for more than 30 seconds at a time.
After an hour I could take no more. I turned around and snapped at the ineffectual mother:
“Can you please control your children?”
“They’re pretty good…” she began
“No they’re not,” I interrupted.
“They’re pretty good,” she continued,” considering they left an orphanage this morning.”
Needless to say, this shut me up. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “I had no idea.” She told me their story. They were daughters of a drug addict, prostitute mother. The reason they had been allowed to leave Russia to move to the US with their adoptive parents was due to medical reasons. The older girl sister had suffered 80 per cent burns on her body protecting the little ones from the flames that engulfed their home and killed their mother, who had fallen asleep holding a lit cigarette. The item they had been fighting over was a small wooden box filled with sweet wrappers.
“It’s their favourite toy,” their new mother told me. “In fact, it’s their only toy.”
She showed me some of the older girls’ scars, she must have been only seven or eight years old, they were horrific and covered her whole back, her neck and her arms. Her little sister was around four years old.
The couple already had two teenage children of their own; healthy, happy girls, and they felt very strongly they should do something to help those less fortunate. The mother was well aware of the potential problems that lay ahead, not least that the girls spoke no English, and they spoke no Russian. But they were willing to risk their stable, secure lives to bring in two girls who would otherwise have spent their lives in a dank orphanage and then possibly gone the same way as their mother. And these are the kinds of children Putin is punishing because he is angry that someone has pointed out that murdering innocent lawyers in jail is not the done thing if you want to be part of the civilised world? What a coward.
Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012