The Boy Who Wanted to Fly
Jason Siegelin | April 2021
The Baraba steppe in western Siberia
efore he could speak, he knew what power was.
It lay in the overwhelming blankness of the brown and rolling steppe that unevenly kissed the gray horizon. It lay in the stone-faced men and women carrying scythes and rifles and baskets of wheat, painted ten feet tall onto the side of the orphanage, from some forgotten epoch. It lay in the deafening howl of the Siberian winter wind on nights when he lay still, sobbing into his yellowing pillowcase.
But most importantly it lay in the duct tape placed firmly over his lips whenever he misbehaved. And in the beatings he would receive and the blood he would bleed after running away from his caregivers one summer, into the plain’s wild grass and crickets, searching for the God he was taught about and the salvation He brings. Power, its iron taste oozing from his lower lip, its earthy smell wafting from the dirt on his hands, its pain. Ilya knew what power was.
The caregivers would always leave, to be replaced by new caregivers. Most were female. Most were methodical, most did not make eye contact with the children, and most did not show love, or care, or much of any emotion for that matter. When Ilya tried to cling to them, to show them his love, to have something, someone, to hold onto, they shook him off. To Ilya and the other orphans, the caregivers were not dissimilar in demeanor from the icy, black surface of the river etched into the dull hillside behind the orphanage. One of the caregivers frequently left the ward on summer nights, wearing little clothing and carrying a purse. She often returned limping, one time with bruises on her cheekbones, her purse stuffed with ruble notes.
Oftentimes young Ilya would simply stare out at the bleak steppe from behind his window for hours on end, letting the sun touch his dark Siberian skin, his wild, matted hair. During the summer he would sit atop his bed, eyes glazed, watching the rolling thunderheads gather atop the narrow horizon in the late afternoon, approaching him. The rumble and the flashes and the boding darkness that would sweep over the plain on these moist summer evenings, they stirred in Ilya sentiments viscous with undiscovered emotions. The thunder would shake the cement orphanage walls, filling him with the sense of power he saw in the infinitude of the steppe, in the swaying of the wild grass, in the taste of his own blood.
One evening, the thunder became him, it entered him, it enraged him. It was an intoxicating feeling of power, of control, of rage that he had never felt, a sensation he had always presupposed was only experienced by the actors he watched on the flickering television screen, by the soldiers he saw in the Soviet murals throughout the small town, by the caregivers and their beatings and their neglect and their duct tape! Ilya became addicted to this rage; he could not part from it.
He began to run wildly around the orphanage, in its halls, in its courtyard, down to the river. On nights when the caregivers beat him, he thrashed blindly back at them. One night he was injected with a sedative, tied to a bedpost, and beaten with a belt. Yet this stoked his rage even further and he continued to sit, continued to watch the thunderheads morph on the horizon.
One day a caregiver entered his room with a Western-looking woman. She was dressed neatly and in expensive attire. The woman visited him multiple times over the coming months, bringing him American candies and clothing, hugging him tightly and speaking to him in broken Russian, something about bringing him home. And one day she visited the orphanage and brought him with her as she left. At age five, Ilya was adopted.
He began kindergarten in the United States, learning English and living in the home of his adoptive mother.
The first thing the other children noticed about Ilya was his voice. It squeaked and stumbled over the new English words, and oftentimes left his trembling throat in strangled blurts. He tried desperately to slough off his Russian tongue, but his desperation only exacerbated the intensity and the loudness with which he spoke to his classmates.
His manners were crude, unlike those of the more mellow, refined American students. He would scare the other children during recesses, chasing after them, screaming at them in a mix of Russian and English, fists clenched. Mothers told their children to stay away from him.
His swarthy, indigenous Siberian skin set him apart from the other students, the majority of whom were white. In his own suburban neighborhood, he would sometimes walk across the street to a group of children playing in front of another house. Each time, they saw his messy hair, his chewed and stained Polo shirt, and his wild grin, and ran away, feeling a mixture of giddy humor and fear.
Ilya made no friends. And into the void that was left by his social isolation seeped old emotions from the steppe. Hunger, fear, anger, rage. They oozed back into him from the open wounds created by the caregivers and his bleak beginning and the starkly indifferent world to which he was accustomed.
Sometimes Ilya would dream.
He would dream after hours of restlessness, hours of sitting in the dark and longing for the infinitude, the power, the awe generated by the steppe.
Ilya saw sparks drifting up into the black abyss above, a primordial night dotted with strange arrangements of stars he had never seen before. He sat watching a large bonfire, surrounded by a grove of tall firs amidst a vast, dark plain. Men and women sat alongside and around him, donning garments with elaborately colorful designs sewn into them. He too was wearing their style of dress, along with the other children his age and younger, and everyone shared his dark, Siberian complexion. These children spoke to him in a tongue whose semantics could not be derived but whose sound was perfectly familiar, the light of the fire flickering off of their excited eyes.
The night was cool yet humid, smelling of the damp optimism of spring. Across the camp, the air began to be filled with the buzz and hum of singing voices, singing, singing a song Ilya knew very well but could not decipher. The hymn undulated in pitch yet grew increasingly cheerful and buoyant. Now everyone was singing, and soon enough Ilya was singing too, holding hands with the other children and adults, dancing, laughing, touching the fire, feeling emboldened and powerful and anchored, a feeling only the thunder and the blood and the steppe could give him before. Some of the children started to float in the air, then Ilya did, and soon the entire group began to fly.
The scene was euphoric, and the singing grew louder and louder as Ilya ascended above the trees, reaching out to the sparks drifting up from the firepit below, inhaling the damp air with giddy relief. At last, he had risen above the burdens of his corporeal reality, flying high above the steppe! The singing subsided, the group floated back to the ground, and to some solemnly primeval drumbeat the boys were pushed towards the fire and the men walked towards them, holding out crudely fashioned sabers. And Ilya reached for his, reached, reached, but the scene began to fade, to dissipate as the bonfire was extinguished and he was left alone in a grove of firs on an empty plain.
Ilya dreamt of this; he dreamt of power and flight and transcendence, and of solid sentiments too, the ones that could fill the empty chasm in his chest. He just needed something, anything. And it was this absence, this wretched emptiness, this wistfulness for power and consequence, it was this that made Ilya wake up in the dark hours of the night and scream with horrifying rage.
As Ilya grew older, his social conditions grew worse. The American children began harassing him rather than simply running away. They began humiliating him in classes, imitating his thick accent, his squeaky, angry voice. They would film Ilya on their new iPhones, they would poke and prod him in the hallways of the middle school, and they would spread hideous, often sexualized, lies about him throughout the town. Ilya would lash out, just as he did to his caregivers in the orphanage. He lashed out, striving desperately to alleviate his suffocation in a town whose inflexibility and smallness exacerbated his otherness. His anger, at least visibly, seemed uncontrollable.
And then it happened. He was expelled from the middle school, accused of sexually assaulting a female student. School officials made no effort to retain Ilya as a student: he was merely a “problem child.”
Ilya began biking up and down the low mountains surrounding the town, racing down the side streets and forest trails, searching, searching for something to fill him. Searching for the thunder of the steppe, for the power it transmitted to him in those early days.
It was late summer, during those days when the sky is deepest blue and the air is cool in your nostrils and the stirring of the leaves reminds you of autumn to come. The town was silent, slowly becoming enveloped in shadow as the late afternoon sun sank beneath the western ridge. Ilya was not seen on his bicycle. Today, he was not making the long trek from one side of the valley to the other, sprinting and grinning his wild grin. And the sun sank lower, lower...
That evening Ilya decided to hang himself. His adoptive mother found him in his bedroom.
A viewing was held at a funeral home. The news of suicide had already been spread across the town, and a large proportion of residents arrived at the viewing, so much so that the line stretched into the parking lot and folded on itself multiple times. Among the visitors were the students, some older, some younger, some wearing varsity jackets, others barely in middle school, who assisted in ending Ilya’s short life of 15 years. They stood before his body, heads bowed, looking at the long, thin bruises on the neck. And then they left into the precocious autumn day.
Perhaps this was the only way Ilya thought he could fly.
* * * * * *
Between 1998 and 2005, over 4,000 Russian children were adopted by American citizens. Many were taken from orphanages in Russia, which are often geographically isolated, run by unforgiving and merciless caregivers, and funded by the state. Oftentimes, children within these state orphanages are subjected to intense physiological and psychological punishment, including injection with sedatives, having cold water poured on them, and being tied to furniture. “Well over 350,000” children in the Russian Federation inhabited these inhumane institutions as of 2014.
Extensively present in the developmental psychology literature are the effects of psychosocial deprivation on children and how they “turn out” as adults. Such psychosocial pressures have been observed within Russian orphanages, and, aside from physical punishments, can include frequent changes in caregivers, high child-to-caregiver ratios, and caregiving that is “impersonal, routine, and perfunctory” rather than “warm, affectionate, [and] emotionally supportive.” Children who have endured such conditions in the past are referred to as post-institutionalized children, and their childhood trauma makes them much more likely to have problems with attention. They also tend to externalize their emotions more readily. Such externalizing behavior includes physical aggression, cheating, stealing, and destruction of property. Furthermore, related to externalizing behaviors, there is much evidence suggesting that children exposed to “early institutional deprivation” have “inhibitory control effects,” resulting in “self-control deficits.”
Another pressing issue that we observe in Ilya’s case is acculturative stress, which is stress and a reduction in physical and mental health that occurs when an ethnic minority undergoes acculturation. Acculturation is defined as the “cultural modification of an individual, group, or people by adapting to or borrowing traits from another culture.” Individuals can undergo acculturation in many ways, one of which is called separation, through which individuals “retain strong adherence” to their own culture, rejecting or being rejected by the majority culture. Ilya demonstrates separation. What’s more, stresses related to this acculturation have been found to be associated with predictors of suicidal behavior, including depression and thoughts of suicide among young adults.
Lastly, it is widely expressed in the psychological literature that a high level of “school belonging” acts as a major factor limiting adolescent immigrants’ propensity to engage in delinquent behavior. Ilya was prevented from belonging in his new community.
This problem, through which foreign children are adopted by well-meaning individuals in the United States and become socially miserable and persecuted, is one that is understudied. Ilya’s story is based on the real life of an adopted Russian child who committed suicide at the age of 15. If we are to prevent this from happening in the future, we must stop attending the viewings of dead children like Ilya and forgetting about them the next day. Developmental psychologists, sociologists, and other academic professionals must continue to research the causes of suicide among young ethnic minorities, recommending their findings to school administrators and teachers everywhere. Otherwise ignorance, petty hierarchies, and a foolish waste of life will continue.