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.
Forty out of the 52 inhabitants of orphanage No. 72 have living parents who won't, or can't, care for them. "Most of the factories around here went bankrupt, and people lost everything," says Nina Kornyushkina, the orphanage's director. "Many people sank into despair and alcoholism, and the children were just lost."
About 760,000 children are classified as orphans in Russia, according to the Ministry of Education, while a further 1.5 million are thought to be "homeless." Statistics cited by Pyatov suggest that existing institutions do little to help them.
"Roughly 45 percent of children land in prison within five years of leaving the orphanage, 35 percent become drug or alcohol addicts, 10 per cent die – of accidents and suicide – and just 10 percent are considered relatively successful," he says.
"Being sent to an orphanage is a catastrophic route for any child," says Sergei Korobenko, the Russian head of Hope International, which runs programs in large cities to persuade parents not to give up their children to orphanages. "There are very many families at risk, and we try to work directly with them, to find ways to ease their problems and keep the children in the home setting."
Pyatov says the Murziki are beginning to follow children who "graduate" from the orphanages they sponsor to find them jobs and help them deal with problems of real-world adjustment.
"Most of our supporters are professionals or business people, and that makes a practical network," he says. "We have a few successes already."
Most experts agree that state funding for orphanages and children's services has improved since Russia's oil-fueled economic growth began seven years ago. But an official report by Deputy General Prosecutor Sergei Fridinsky earlier this year found that 40 percent of orphanages are in dire need of repairs, six percent have no indoor plumbing, and five percent lack central heating. In some provincial institutions, the report said, funding amounts to just $0.01 per child per day.
Corruption and theft in the system are little-discussed problems. The Murziki combat this with vigilance, and by printing their logo on all donations. On return visits, they check to make sure the things they gave last time are still in place.
At one children's home, in the tiny Volga town of Miushkin, for example, Pyatov sent a car to locate the institution's director, who wasn't at her desk, and bring her back to sign for the load of clothes, blankets, and snowboards that he was delivering.
"If you don't ensure that someone takes direct and personal responsibility, it's likely that everything you bring will turn up on the local market the next day," he says. "People don't see it as stealing from children – they just think about how miserable their salaries are, and how hard their own lives are. It'll be a long time before that changes."
Some child-care specialists decry what they call the tendency of state officials to play politics with Russian orphans. An ongoing crackdown on foreign-based adoption agencies has squeezed, but not halted, the adoption process.
According to the Education Ministry, about 130,000 new orphans were registered last year, while fewer than 30,000 were adopted – about half by foreigners. Last week, Health Minister Mikhail Zurabov pledged to shut down all orphanages and place children in foster homes within five years.
"Our goal is that every child should have a family," he was quoted as saying in the daily Noviye Izvestia.
But experts say that's unrealistic. While some 100,000 children are placed with foster parents yearly, the majority of those families are the children's grandparents or other relatives.
"The vast majority of Russian families are not psychologically ready for this, much less financially," says Ella Pamfilova, chair of the Kremlin's human rights commission. "A lot of social reforms will have to be accomplished before this idea can be placed on the agenda."
The best idea, say some, is for the state to get behind grass-roots initiatives like the Murziki. Though charitable giving is on the upswing in Russia, the total was still under $1.5 billion last year, mostly from big corporations. By contrast, charitable giving in the United States totaled about $260 billion in 2005, according to Giving USA.
"What the Murziki are doing is great, but there are just too few groups like them compared to the scale of the need," says Mr. Korobenko. "Things will get better when more people get involved."
At orphanage No. 72, the children welcome the cheer that Murziki visits bring.
"They often come here, help us, and bring us things," says Nikolai Sergeev, who is 14. "I have been here for six years, and our group looks better now that we have computers and TVs – it is more fun."
Sergei Sokolov, who is 16, has been at the orphanage for five years. He remembers an excursion that the Murziki organized for them to Moscow.
"They do positive things for us," he says. "Our rooms are cozier and there is equipment for us to use, so I think that will be useful for our future and self-education."
Sergei says that the Murziki even cook with them at times.
"I think if there were more good people like Murziki," he muses, "the future of Russia would be better."