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5 October 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 5:44am

A life devoted to children

Jonathan Dawson reports on the Russian eco-village who have made it their mission to look after orph

By Jonathan Dawson

A great thing about living here is the steady stream of seriously cool people passing through. This week, among our guests – as participants on a one-week course – are two wonderful young women from the Kitezh/Orion foster family ecovillages in Russia, the two Marias – Krivenkova and Shibaeva. Their stories are quite extraordinary as are those of their home communities.

In the early 1990s, well-known Russian television presenter Dmitri Morozov was a man with a mission. Fired by a vision to create a new community-based model for caring for orphans, he left his fashionable and comfortable life in Moscow for the remote countryside – much to the horror of his colleagues and friends.

He succeeded in enthusing a small band of like-minded friends and headed off into the wilds of rural Kaluga district, about 300 kilometres south of Moscow. There, they set up camp in a primitive three-bedroomed cottage, with no indoor toilet – six people including two orphans. One of these, for part of the first winter, was Liza Hollingshead whose Ecologia Youth Trust, based here in the Findhorn community, has since acted as a conduit for funding, expertise and friendship between our two communities.

To say that the odds were stacked against them would be to vastly understate the scale of the challenge they faced. Yet today, Kitezh is a thriving community comprising nine families, including 24 children, most of whom are orphans or from backgrounds of severe abuse. They eat in a communal dining room, teach and learn in their state-accredited community school and live in beautiful, if somewhat eccentric large wooden houses. All of the buildings have been constructed by the community members themselves with support from friends and volunteers.

Not satisfied with touching the lives of the orphans and other young people within its care, the Kitezh community has the wider aim of influencing policy on orphan care nationwide. Supported by a grant from the UK Big Lottery Fund, over the last three years Kitezh members have been travelling far and wide in Russia, talking to university staff and students, management and staff of orphanages, politicians, educators, foster parents – all who would listen – about the importance of providing a humane and loving environment for orphaned and abused young people.

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Meanwhile, Kitezh has been developing substantial theoretical as well as practical expertise as a centre of excellence in the care of orphans. It now provides training to orphanage staff and foster parents from Kaluga region and beyond.

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The community’s profile within Russia has risen with astonishing speed. Dmitri Morasov has been awarded the Order of Honour (equivalent to an MBE in Britain) and two other foster parents have been recognised with awards made by the Kaluga regional government. Television cameras are often about the place shooting footage for news items and films.

Then, three years ago, the Kaluga regional government helped the community find and buy land close to Moscow for a second community – Orion. Watching home videos of the building of Orion – around ten buildings have so far been erected – is deeply moving. There are gangs of young people, many of them orphans from Kitezh, some of whom have now moved to Moscow to work or study, working together with huge zest and enthusiasm. Among them is a small team of people from Findhorn (among whom Lisa Shaw, who featured in a previous blog – Getting creative at the wind-park) providing expertise on the building of a biological waste-water treatment system.

In fact, this footage reminds me of nothing more than similar images from the pioneering, heroic days of the building of the Findhorn community. The same great work-teams, the same joy on the faces, the same conviction that they were creating a place of power and beauty.

Prominent among the young people in this footage is Maria Shibaeva (or Masha as I know her, her nickname.) I first met Masha when she was a student on an ecovillage training programme I taught here three or four years ago. I remember her as being young, shy, tongue-tied and very prone to blushing.

Today, Masha, at the ripe old age of 22, is the manager of the Orion community. She is in the final stages of studying for her psychology degree, goes on speaking tours around Russian universities and has over the last couple of years adopted three young orphans. Oh, and she still finds time to go out with hammer and nails to help erect the new buildings.

Maria Krivenkova meanwhile, is a veteran of 24 who has chosen to live in the Kitezh community where she is a teacher and mother of one young orphan boy. What is so impressive about these young people, and all the many others like them at Kitezh and Orion, is that they have chosen to move beyond the life of 9-to-5 carers to integrate life and work, natural child and orphan, home, school and community into the rich and seamless tapestry that is Kitezh and Orion. This is truly an awesome act of love and service. It also, clearly, makes them very happy!