To Russia with Love (and Really Thick Socks)

The Harbor and Prison

“Why are you going to Russia?  Why would you want to go to Russia?”  Those were the questions frequently put to me, and honestly, to give you a true answer, it might take a few minutes.


For most of my life, I didn’t know exactly why I’d always wanted to go to Russia.  Or why, since I was about 8 years old, I’ve prayed for orphans and street kids in Russia.  I just have.  I felt some sort of connection to them, but could never put it into words.  I saved up my money in my purple fish piggy bank in hopes that it would one day it would be enough to buy myself a plane ticket. Instead, a few years later, the opposite happened.  I bought a plane ticket for a Russian boy to be with his mother here in the US.  All that to say, I never knew if I would ever go.  And then, a few weeks ago, we went.  My dream of going to Russia was finally happening.


Let me back up for a moment.  Let me give you an idea of what motivated me to pursue this.  This is what I knew about street kids and orphans: “At the age of 17, Russian orphans are moved out of institutions. Forced to make a way for themselves, most orphans don’t succeed. More orphans and street children exist in Russia today than in the years after World War II. 10,000 ‘graduate’ from the Russian state orphanage system per year. 8,500 of these fall into drug dealing, prostitution, other crime, and homelessness. 500 commit suicide.”


In college, I searched for an organization that specifically worked giving vocational skills, housing, and schooling to street kids and orphans.  And if it could be a Christian organization, even better!  However, my search was fruitless. Then, a few years ago, I heard about an organization called “The Harbor.”  They operate out of St. Petersburg, RU and do exactly what God had placed on my heart for all of these years.  Thus, we got involved financially.  The co-founder, Alex Krutov, invited us to come to the Harbor and see what they do there.  So we did.


These are a few of the things that I learned about them and about myself.  First, here are some of the more extraneous observations:


  1. Russian people walk fast, very fast.  Finally: people who walk my speed!
  2. Russian women walk fast, on ice, in heeled boots.  This is where we differ.  I walk fast on ice, but never in heels.
  3. Russian people do not form lines.  It’s more of a funnel mentality.  You must push and shove your way to freedom.  The little old ladies are the worst too.  They’ve had 70 years or so of practice and apparently, elbows of wrought iron.
  4. B.O. is normal.  If you are on a very fancy date with a girl and you have really strong BO that can be smelled from 10 feet away, no problem.  Thankfully, this particular type of smell has never bothered me.
  5. The city water tastes like some sort of meat.
  6. The stereotype of Russian’s never smiling is only partially true.  Never on the Metro: it’s a sign of weakness, and never outside–too cold.  That leaves indoors and special occasions wide open.
  7. And yes, the big fur hats are still pretty common.


While we were there, we met many wonderful people who have big hearts for the orphans.  We were able to see some of the classes that are taught at the vocational center, and also able to teach a few too.  Ethan helped in computer classes, and I gave a few piano/voice lessons and taught a cooking class (yeah, me teaching anyone to cook is the epitome of ironic).  No one had to get his/her stomach pumped, so mission accomplished 😉  We also helped out in some English classes and I was able to sit in on a hair cutting class with a teacher who looked exactly like Meryl Streep.  We got to also see some of the works of art created by the students.  They were amazing and we were hoping to bring some home with us to sell for them, but unfortunately, that never happened.


We also were able to hang out with the residents (who are 17 and older) and had several birthday parties with them.  One of the girls, Ira, reminded me very much of my sister and on the whole, when all of the residents were there interacting, it felt just like when my siblings and I  get together.  The same kind of joking, the way that it’s every man for himself, but a the same time, a close sort of bond–an intentional familial closeness.  As if to make the most of the moment.  In fact, this struck Ethan and I both how much these kids and my siblings and I have in common.  That’s when I realized, and Ethan pointed out later, that this is the reason I felt such a burden for these kids I didn’t know for all of these years.


From the time I was 12, I had a part-time job, taught myself in school, taught my younger siblings and cared for them.  In many ways, I raised my siblings and many times, took care of my mother too.  Even in college, I would still get 3AM phone calls from my siblings or Mom asking what they should do about a situation.  Although the term, “Self-made woman” might apply, I was certainly not alone.  Many mentors took me and some of my siblings under their wings and helped us become the people we are today.  And that’s what struck me.  These people who are working at the Harbor are the family–they are the mentors who are investing into these kid’s lives.  They are making a great difference for these kids because they love and believe in them.  God is doing a great work there.


So even though it’s hard to explain why we went, I’m glad we did.

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