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In remote Russia, 'Murziki' bring cheer to orphans

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Children pour out of Rybinsk's orphanage No. 72, laughing and waving, when the Murziki pull up in their mud-spattered convoy of cars. The kids know many of these adults from distant Moscow by name, and they hurry to help unload the cars, stacked with boxes of toys, sports equipment, and coats – as well as cutlery and a new VCR with a selection of cartoons, needs the Murziki carefully noted on their last visit.

The Murziki tell the kids that they come from the mythical country of Murlandia, a kind of cross between Neverland and Santa's Village. In reality, they're something almost as rare in Russia, where the volunteer spirit has been dead for the past century: a self-organized band of middle-class people devoting their resources and spare time to a sustained effort to change hard facts for a few hundred children.

"We decided not to sit around waiting for the state to do something about the human crisis we saw unfolding," says German Pyatov, a Moscow surgeon who founded the group after the 1998 financial crash in Russia.

It's now grown to about 700 supporters, connected by the Internet, and a hard core of several dozen Muscovites who regularly make the 300-mile drive out to the chain of poor Volga towns, with their teeming orphanages, that they've targeted.

"I've found that interacting with these children charges me with the energy to keep going," says Mr. Pyatov. "It's enough to look in their eyes to realize that not enough is being done."

They have their work cut out for them. Russia's orphan population has ballooned in the past 15 years, particularly in the economically blighted hinterland beyond booming Moscow.

Rybinsk, a formerly closed defense-industry town of 250,000 on the Volga River, had one orphanage in 1991; now it has six. This reflects a widespread post-Soviet tendency of impoverished families to abandon children.

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