CNN Photos

Russian ‘paradise’ for mentally disabled

Villagers dance around the statue of Lenin, laying flowers to honor World War II heroes as wartime broadcasts blast from the radio. It’s “Victory Day,” a commemoration of the fall of Nazi Germany.

But this scene is from this year, May 9, in Elat’ma, in the Ryazan Oblast region of Russia. This small town is only 300 kilometers (186 miles) from modern Moscow but remains 60 years in the past, dominated by the spirit of socialism.

The air of the communist ‘50s can be seen in the town’s architecture, celebrations and other occurrences. Sometimes called the “Switzerland of Ryazan,” Elat’ma has the natural charm of the countryside.

But neither its beauty nor its ties to a socialist past brought photographer Anastasia Rudenko to this village. It has a different significance to her, both personal and professional.

Historically, each oblast, or province, in Russia has psychiatric facilities situated away from the cities, in rural areas. Elat’ma is unique in that it functions as a town for mentally disabled people. It hosts six facilities, one for each developmental stage of a person’s life from birth to death, Rudenko said.

It’s convenient to have them all in one place, she said. “They can be easily moved from one facility to another. It’s like a conveyor for sorting and resorting people inside one village.”

Since the Soviet days, Russia has been accused of encouraging parents to give newborns with mental disabilities or abnormalities to institutions like these “because they did not fit into a utopian society,” Rudenko said.

During wartime, people were moved to Elat’ma for a plethora of other reasons, such as punitive purposes or because they lost their parents. “Now, the residents are the ones whose parents rejected them,” the photographer said.

Rudenko grew up amidst the collapse of the Soviet Union with a mentally disabled brother, and family values and interrelationship are common themes in her work. For instance, she looks at people who abandon their own children or communities that abandon members.

“Part of my investigation on psychiatric facilities is that I have to decide the fate of my grown brother one of these days,” she said. “Periodically, he goes into rehabilitation in the psychiatric hospital. It is important to know what’s happening in those institutions.”

She also feels that it is her duty to tell the story of the problems that lie within the existence of these facilities themselves.

Of the six mental institutions in Elat’ma, she gained access to two, spending one full day at a children’s facility and a couple of hours at a men’s psych orphanage. At the latter, she said, patients were chosen specially for her to see – the “more appropriate” ones.

They were dressed in “the best clothes with ties and shirts,” and had activities organized, such as water gun fights and soccer, specifically for the photo shoot.

The hardest part was gaining access to the facilities; photographing the patients was simple and pleasant, Rudenko said. “They stand up gently and wait until you photograph them.”

From what her access allowed her to see, a normal day at the institution for men involves walking the large grounds, farming or janitorial work if they are able.

Elat’ma shows the real life of the country, what Rudenko deems “paradise” because it is a “safe garden that existed in ancient times, dedicated to sinless men, like people with mental disabilities.”

As a symbol for paradise, each photo tries to feature flowers, clouds or the sun. One shot of a patient holding a woman’s hand purports to show Adam and Eve.
Above all, Rudenko hopes to show “the borderline,” on which one considers himself normal or abnormal, and what truly is “normal” for each of us.

- Michelle Cohan, CNN