An orphan's tale of survival dedicated to 'the children who never made it'
BOOK OF THE DAY: The Boy from Baby House 10By Alan Philps and John Lahutsky Weidenfeld Nicolson, 328 pp. £15.60
NOBODY SENTIENT in 1990 will ever forget the images of Romanian orphans thrashing in cots.
Behind the iron curtain was a baby gulag for children with special needs, HIV positive, or just unwanted. The story broke in Romania and the international media went to town, so that when it came to Russia’s turn, baby gulags were considered old copy, and depressing. While freelancing for the English-language St Petersburg Timesin 1996, I had a friend volunteering in such an orphanage but the paper didn’t want the story – “sounds gloomy”. Alan Philps, Moscow correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, was confronted in 1996 with the incarceration of six-year old Vanya in atrocious conditions in an adult mental asylum, but he couldn’t write the story “while elections are on and buses being blown up”. It had to wait till the August silly season. Yet, when a decade later, Philps wrote a book, the most significant story from his time as foreign correspondent was Vanya’s.
This book got written because Vanya was lucky – he was adopted in America and, as John Lahutsky, is co-author. Without the happy ending, his story would be unbearable. He was born premature with mild cerebral palsy; his mother did her best but received no help and was forced to place him in an institution, aged one. In these “baby houses” children were fed and washed but received no stimulus, no books or games and few toys.
They were not taken outside and, aged four, Vanya did not know what the sun was. Without exercise, his physical condition deteriorated; today he still walks on crutches. The authorities equated physical with mental disability – in the book’s most blackly comic sequence, he is assessed, and asked to identify pictures of traffic lights, a pineapple, the Kremlin towers and a peacock, none of which he had ever seen. Diagnosed an imbecile, he was committed to a mental asylum, where, head shaven, he was dumped in a cot without blankets and injected with sedating drugs. Contemplating this horrific period, Philps’ and Lahutsky’s normally calm prose deserts them: “He slipped beyond the reach of angels into a lower circle of hell, where his humanity was slowly stripped away”.
It was a death sentence. How did he escape? Through extraordinary luck and intelligence. The irony of his assessment was that he was precocious, even gifted. How he became articulate and developed empathy in the baby house where most children were catatonic, is a mystery, but he did, and drew the interest of volunteers, including Sarah Philps, Alan’s wife. The Telegrapharticle on Vanya’s incarceration may have influenced the decision to shut down the children’s wing of the asylum. Alone of the children, Vanya got a review of his diagnosis, and through amazing coincidences his story appeared in a Pennsylvanian church newsletter where it caught the attention of a woman uniquely qualified to adopt him, a special needs teacher of Russian origin. It’s not hard to see why John Lahutsky, his adoptive mother, and others who helped him, refer to God and miracles.
The book is dedicated “to the children who never made it” and throughout this miracle story of The Boy Who Lived, those other children elbow for light, as in Derek Mahon’s great poem, A Disused Shed in Co Wexford- “begging us, you see, in their wordless way/To do something, to speak on their behalf/Or at least not to close the door again.” The book ends with a sober codicil: there are still five thousand children in Russia condemned to bed regimes.
Bridget Hourican is a freelance journalist and historian.