Russia's prison-born children marked for life

Growing up behind bars is a grim reality for Russian children whose mothers are serving jail sentences. Critics say some inmates are using their children to secure better living conditions for themselves.

Lyutsian Dolinsky is now a well-known sculptor and painter. His is a respected presence in the Russia’s cultural capital St. Petersburg.

It is ironic that society hails him today, as decades ago it was society that made him a pariah, closing every door he even thought of knocking on. This is because Lyutsian was born in prison.

His mother, sentenced to ten years in a women’s colony, was executed by firing squad and Lyutsian spent his entire childhood in a very vivid hell.

“The worst thing was they used to make us stand outside in the freezing cold and pouring rain,” he recalls. “A female guard with a whip would walk up and down the place we were lined up and snapped the boys who had to go to into lock-up. And that always was the certain death. But if you survived you might have a chance. I have been there and I still remember.”

It was luck which saved the near-starved and almost deaf child. He was taken out of the camp by a compassionate guard.

It was the first time he tasted basic foods like sugar – but more importantly, the first ever time he had felt affection.

He was adopted, and traveled the Soviet Union from detention camp to detention camp with his new parent. Still unable to talk, he picked up art – which was to become his language of self-expression.

“Not being able to talk, when we weren’t taught how to, they just used signals like a knock or something. We would climb out through this gap in the wooden planks and the adult prisoners would throw us a bit of food over the barbed wire,” Lyutsian said.

Although times have changed, and Russia’s penal system allows for children to stay with their mothers until the age of three, it is still a scar that never completely heals – not only for the children, but for the mothers also.

“We came here when my boy was five months old. And soon, he will be taken away to an orphanage,” said a mother who raises her child in prison. “I just hope they will bring him to visit.”

Still, they all hope that a life without parents outside prison is better than any kind of life inside.

“Kids can’t stay here longer. They need to live, to grow, to see the world – and they can’t do from behind the bars,” said another mother.

Skeptics think some mothers deliberately get pregnant simply to ease life in prison. Hospital leave, then lots of scheduled time with your child – it is all better than sitting in a stone cell, they claim.

However, the mothers at the prison appear to be first and foremost just that – mothers.

“I’ll be released before my baby turns three. And then, no matter what happens, no matter how hard it will be, my children will stay with me,” said one of them.

Even a mother’s love, however, is not strong enough to shield the child from society’s prejudice.

One of the biggest challenges people born in prison face are not the hardships of childhood, or the lack of a regular home, but the way they are treated later on in life.

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