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Friday, April 9, 1999 Published at 17:38 GMT 18:38 UK

Feature: Fostering a better understanding

Rural Estonian families are taking on the care of Russian-speaking city kids

By producer Mark Reed

In Estonia, Crossing Continents investigated the Lake Peipus project, based in the region near the great Lake Peipus - Europe's fourth largest - which dominates the Estonian-Russian border area. The programme places dozens of young people from the big, depressed industrial town of Narva, where 95% of the people are Russian speakers, into homes in the small rural town of Rapina, near the lake, two hours' bus-journey west into Estonia.

Project Manager Angelika Shegedin on how the scheme works
Since the breakup of the USSR and Estonia's independence, ethnic Russians within the country have had to make many adjustments. Social integration has been slow, and there has been mounting tension as the government has sacked Russian-speaking teachers, police and civil servants who couldn't, or wouldn't, speak Estonian.

[ image: This boy, Oleg, enjoyed the peace of the countryside]
This boy, Oleg, enjoyed the peace of the countryside
The fostering project had originally been conceived as a way of improving relations, and helping some young Russians more to cope with the difficult Estonian language (which bears no relation at all to Russian). But we soon discovered that it has also become a social welfare scheme: the children selected for the placements come from the part of Narva most blighted by broken homes, poverty and unemployment.

[ image: The foster families provide home comforts some children aren't used to]
The foster families provide home comforts some children aren't used to
The Estonian host families we visited tended to live in close-knit, if rugged, rural communities; the Russian children told us, time and again, that what they liked best about their new homes was the peace and quiet. All the foster families had two parents, one of whom had a proper job. Fathers took the boys fishing, building and walking in the woods. The families themselves, as generous and loving as they were, admitted to us that they'd sometimes worried about their Russian-speaking charges. Could these urban children, who'd often played truant, run wild and stolen when with their own families, really fit into rural Estonian family life?

[ image: Maksim Vilde]
Maksim Vilde
One extreme case we investigated was that of Maksim Vilde, who is now three months into his time with a family of four on an Estonian farm. It's worlds away from the small and dingy flat in a Soviet-era housing complex he normally shares with his mother, two brothers and two sisters. We arrived at the flat at the appointed time with workers from the Lake Peipus project and their colleagues in the associated Narva-based organisation, A Home For Every Child. Neither Maksim, who was in Narva, back home on 'holiday' from his year away, nor his mother were anywhere to be seen. There were two children alone at home - a six-year-old girl and a ten-year-old boy. But there were no adults.

Maksim's father wasn't at home because he was in jail. He was there for murdering another son. He had stabbed Maksim's brother, a drug-addict, to death in this very flat when he had found him raping Maksim's sister. This horrific nadir of social and family breakdown had left Maksim's mother to provide for the remaining five children alone, barely helped by the few state allowances they were eligible for.

[ image: Workers from Narva's A Home For Every Child project]
Workers from Narva's A Home For Every Child project
This predicament was partly why Maksim's mother was not at home when we arrived. She was at the local fruit and vegetable market, making a few extra Estonian crowns in the black economy. Being from Moldova, the Lake Peipus team told us, she wasn't officially allowed to work in Estonia, as her documents were not in order.

[ image: The view from Maksim's shared bedroom]
The view from Maksim's shared bedroom
Unsure when or whether she would return from the market, we looked around the flat, high up in a brutally ugly block, surrounded by many more, identical towers. All had been erected with that lack of imagination so typical of what passed for architecture under Communism, during the era when most workmanship went into chiselling our ever more grandiose monuments to Lenin and other ideological grandees. The eyesore flats had been put up when the rubble was cleared after Narva was flattened in the Second World War - by the Russians as well as the Germans.

[ image: Squalor in the Vildes' communal flat]
Squalor in the Vildes' communal flat
In the children's room, with its bunk beds, a double and a single, there was a nasty smell of urine. Throughout the flat, there were large patches of exposed brickwork, where the plaster had followed the wallpaper in dropping from the damp and greasy walls. Ill-fitting curtains were still closed, even though it was a bright, crisp day amid the snow outside.

At one end of the flat, there was another, separate room. We were told that this was occupied by an unemployed man, unrelated to Maksim's family, who shared the flat under the Russian system of communal flats. This man - who was also nowhere to be seen - was accused by Maksim's mother of helping himself to the food she left out for the children, for when they came home from school.

After about twenty minutes, Maksim's mother did return, breathless from the hurried walk from the market and the five flights of stairs up to the flat.

[ image: Maksim's mother must care for the family alone]
Maksim's mother must care for the family alone
Given the conditions of her life, we were pleasantly surprised at how upbeat she was. She didn't talk about her own problems at all. Right away, she wanted to explain how clearly she understood the importance of Maksim's new opportunities elsewhere. One might have expected her to show some resentment of the fact that, since independence in 1991, successive Estonian governments have set up new and stringent laws on citizenship.

There are now compulsory citizenship exams, which some ethnic Estonian adults told me were so difficult that even they themselves might struggle with them. Maksim's mother was certain about the benefits of his learning the language. She thought he might get a job with this new skill. One ethnic Russian boy we met, Pavel, was six months into his placement and was becoming quite fluent in Estonian - no mean feat, as this Finno-Ugric tongue is considered one of the most complex in Europe.

What do you want to be when you grow up, we'd asked Pavel. "A company director", he replied. Pavel had clearly latched on to one vital aspect of today's Estonian culture: embracing high-speed free-market economics, in a country where the young are increasingly calling the shots. Only last month, the Thatcherite Mart Laar was re-elected Prime Minister for his second spell in charge, at the grand old age of 38.

Maksim was telling us of his new life in the countryside and his new interest: going to school. His mother listened to him, quietly, letting him speak in his own time. Because of what she'd endured, we couldn't help but study her face. It had a sadness, of course. But there was plenty of strength in this face too. A defiance of difficulties.

[ image: Maksim and his younger sister: the future is Estonian]
Maksim and his younger sister: the future is Estonian
Yet frustration was never far away from Mrs Vilde's expression, as she told us that working in the market, before she could work out what Estonian-speaking customers wanted from the stall, they'd be gone. She glanced at Maksim. He could have told her which fruits they wanted. So his mother could now hope that he had a future.

If all this is part of a strictly-policed road to citizenship in the country he was born in; if the project seemed to outsiders, to contain an element of payback for the forty soul-destroying years of Soviet domination; even if taking a son away to the Lake Peipus project smacked of social engineering, her feelings were clear. Maksim's mother's face was saying: social engineers, welcome to my humble abode. Do what you have to do.

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