18 July 2008

We Arrive At an Orphanage Late at Night

NAGYDOBRONY--It was late when we arrived at the orphanage run by Kotko where we would live for the next two weeks. The orphanage, which houses some 80 or so girls, is on a self-sustaining compound on the edge of the village of Nagydobrony. There is an extensive system of fields and greenhouses, a bee farm, fruit orchards, cattle and swine and fowl and an artificial lake where fish are raised. Of course none of this was visible in the early morning, only the well lit dining room with guest rooms overhead that Kotko rents out to various tour and relief groups passing through or working in the area.

I suppose I would describe Kotko as a local businessman, entrepreneur and humanitarian with a strong interest in raising the standard of living in Transcarpathia. He is tall, somewhere in his sixties I would guess, never without dark glasses and sporting a white brush cut that blends the personal styles of Leonid Brezhnev and Billy Idol. If viewed without his usual smile he might look, if not sinister, then powerful and not-to-be-crossed in the Russian manner. I would guess that, in fact, he ought not be crossed, but in my observation and from the reports of others who have worked with him for years he is honest and takes the assistance given him and multiplies it manyfold using the widely varied resources he has marshaled together. To quote Dr. Mettens, "Give Kotko $200 and he'll easily turn it into $1,000 or more of practical assistance."

Kotko (left) speaks with the Ukrainian Colonel in charge of the local border gaurds.

Among other methods, he obviously uses the rich farmland itself to multiply the funds. I have heard Transcarpathia (which is now Ukraine but has been four countries within living memory) described as a place that simply, quite literally, has no money. A place where much of the food to be eaten by a family is directly produced by that family. Again, in the words of Dr. Mettens, "imagine having to think about what you are going to eat six months from now." Among other things, it puts into sharp focus the lie that the Ukrainian famine of the early 30s was anything but terror. For the experienced and industrious farmers, living in a land rich in everything from grain to livestock to fruits and vegetables it would take years of terrible harvests to approach the deadly famines of the 30's.

Kotko stands beside a monument in a churchyard to those murdered and disappeared under Stalin. These monuments are common. There is one in nearly every village, usually in the churchyard. They put into perspective the scale of Stalin's destruction, when you count 50, 60, 80 names from a village that might have 500 inhabitants. As well, it is worth considering that Transcarpathia was not as severely hit as the rest of Ukraine.

So there, in a pool of light in the middle of the night darkened farmlands we ate a late supper, unpacked, drank a few good and cold Ukrainian beers and began getting to know one another. Already, and I would not be proved wrong, it seemed like a particularly good group. Dentists and Doctors and Nurses and Ministers and a few with no easy classifications such as Ernie and young musician Chris Lawrence on his first time overseas that often do even more than the specific professionals to provide perspective and balance to such a group.

Chris Lawrence (left) talks to Rev. Steven Szilagyi in the Russian mini-van

I was about to go to bed when I was told to grab my cameras. The baking has begun. I have never been one to turn down baking--or at least its product--so I followed to the back where a modern bakery had been started, providing bread both for the orphanage as well as to sell in the area. There I watched and filmed as the dough was kneaded and formed into loaves and I wished it was a little later, for the warm smells were making my hungry again.


Blogger Lena said...

Every second time I look at the picture of Kotko I feel that I like him and would like for him to be my uncle. Every second time I feel very scared and hope I am never left alone in a room with him.

4:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Especially if you know who the Trotskyite wreckers are...

7:08 AM  

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