Kitezh and the Therapeutic Community Concept

By Dimitri Morosov | Published in Joint Newsletter of the Association of Therapeutic Communities, the Charterhouse Group of Therapeutic Communities, and the Planned Environment Therapy Trust. Number 8, July 2003.

The basic unit of Kitezh is the adoptive family. In Kitezh there are currently ten. All the families share a common financial source, legal protection, common household management, and a united approach to education. At the same time as being an adoptive parent or guardian, every adult fulfils a variety of functions in the area of the economic management or of education. The combination of adults of various professions, and the involvement of the children in the day to day work (e.g. teaching in the school, working on the farm, chopping wood), allows us maximum efficiency in the use of human and financial resources.

In our experience, the hardest task has been the collaboration between the adoptive families and the various state and public institutions with which we are involved, such as the comprehensive school, nursery, farm, church. Within this social sphere the family, with all its psychological nuances, gains a professional preparation and conducts its day to day life in accordance with the priorities of the education and development of the children.

Kitezh is a scientific laboratory in its creation of a global developing environment for children, and also a home and school allowing for the adaptation and development of those children whose lives have left them in harsh circumstances, robbed of their parents. Legally, we are a non-commercial partnership of adoptive families. We are, though, still not entirely sure that this is the best choice of title, as the public awareness still has no experience of the merging of such fields as the family, a public organisation, and a state institution.

The highest legislative body at Kitezh is the Council of Members of the Non-Commercial Partnership; the highest executive body is the Head of the Community, elected to position yearly. All questions related to the children’s education and upbringing are decided by the Pedagogical Council, of which all adoptive parents and school teachers are automatically members. Communal housekeeping and agriculture are managed by the Financial Council, under the leadership of the Financial Director. In practice, it is the Pedagogical Council which has the deciding word, as – however Kitezh may lack in other respects – of prime importance is the children’s upbringing.

Kitezh has grown organically for the last ten years. In essence, it was a community first, and a professional facility for ‘orphan’ children second. We now see an opportunity to move on from this position, and have for the last four years actively sought to establish a sound professional base for our work. This was always the aim, but we had to start somewhere.

You must realise that in Russia, for many years, there were no alternatives to State provision. Also, the problem our country faced with regard to orphan children was, because of our history, possibly the biggest anywhere in the world. You should also bear in mind the term ‘orphan’, in our country, describes children who have been removed from their parents for their own safety, as well as children whose parents are dead.

I can give you some statistics to illustrate the scale of the problem:

According to official statistics, there has been a rise in the number of families who have failed to carry out their duties to their children, mainly as a result of alcoholism. In 2001 there were 289,000 such families. Every year about 100,000 children are left without parents as a result of a court decision. According to Home Office figures, this affects 390,000 adolescents.

The worst thing is that the orphanage keeps the child until the age of 18, then sends him or her off into the wide world, totally unprepared for real life. As a result, as many as 80% of them join gangs, end up unemployed, become prostitutes, or alcoholics.

It didn’t used to be this way, because the social environment in Communist times strictly regulated the movements of every individual, without allowing him to stray from the general course of a decent citizen. Now – in the absence of social morals, backed up by tradition; with the incapacity of democratic institutions; and with the absence of self-awareness amongst citizens – former orphans are doomed. Therefore, it is not enough to feed them and keep them warm. It is essential to give them a high level of self-awareness, to teach them to make their own choices and to build their own lives.

It is a generally held conviction that the best upbringing of a child can be given only by his own immediate family; and if he is an orphan, then by his adopted family. Alas, ten years of experience of working with parents, both biological and adopted, has convinced us that it is far from adequate to presume that life in any old family is always better than life in a children’s home. Or it would be more correct to say that not every family – even if outwardly they observe family traditions – enables the child to develop, to form a full, value-laden personality; that it necessarily equips their child with the potential for a normal future.

Kitezh is, if you like, a distinct move away from a system which has been creaking and crumbling for decades, and which takes little or no account of the spiritual or individual needs of the child. Kitezh is small, believes strongly that education is an essential therapeutic tool, and believes too that the very fabric and rhythm of our daily lives is our therapy.

Our children communicate non-stop, with and without adults. They play, uninhibited by traffic or predatory and unwelcome influences. They have realistic expectations made of them. We are prepared to wait for a child to be ready to take advantage of the education on offer. We do not exert pressure too early, but we resist children slipping back into their old ways. We work cohesively, as adults and young adults, to address the behavioural and sub-conscious issues our children present. We are forever examining our way of working and our results.

They are supported in their normal and not so normal developmental stages, and cared for in our foster families, who here – as opposed to elsewhere – themselves receive support. Each foster family is different in makeup, and most have the natural children of the foster parents living and working alongside our orphans, to such an extent that they are indistinguishable from each other. I know this was a pattern in some places in the U.K. and elsewhere in the 50s and 60s. The difference is, perhaps, that those experiments were large and in themselves became institutions whilst aiming desperately not to be. Kitezh has achieved a dynamic group psychotherapeutic way of working, and while we face many challenges, we are moving steadily towards what may be Russia’s first residential therapeutic community for difficult children.

What is essential is that the umbrella support system on offer to the families is not simply administrative. Kitezh adults share fully with each other the raising of all children , and the therapeutic leadership in which our young adults now share is very real and very powerful.

You may have heard that in Siberia and elsewhere in our country a number of communities of sect and cult-like characteristics have set themselves up. There recently has been a good deal of unhelpful evangelising in our country, aimed at our vulnerable young and old, by foreigners. I would want to emphasise that while Kitezh believes strongly in the spiritual underpinning of its existence, it is in no way a cult, a sect, or an evangelising agent.

My own influences have been Maslow, Erikson, Makerenko, Vygotski etc, etc. From these I have developed the idea of The Developing Environment.

The Developing Environment

A child’s internal programme for development functions against a background of the effects of the living conditions, from which he freely and, on the whole in an unpredictable way, takes in information and all his life experience. We are not able to influence the internal programme, but it is within our power to make the surrounding habitat as dynamic as possible, so that it stimulates multifaceted development.

We call the living conditions of all the inhabitants of Kitezh community, as they are shaped by our interest in the hastened development of children, ‘the developing environment’.

Such an approach to the upbringing in Kitezh demands from the adults a deeply responsible, well thought-out manner of behaviour. Wholly in agreement with the tradition of humanistic pedagogy, we presume that the adults must learn not only to teach, but also to open up to the child the great wide world, help him achieve self-realisation, to recognise the error of some of his long maintained prejudices, to develop his talents and the skills which are indispensable for life in our modern, complex society. The child’s individual programme for development functions within concrete historical conditions. Indeed, the social environment either allows his instincts to emerge and to continue to develop fruitfully, or it cuts them off at the roots.

In other words, the closest surroundings (in which the pretensions of society are concentrated), is a “developing environment” which can either encourage the development or aggravate the feelings of fear and guilt.

Parents and teachers, neighbours and playmates, all take part in one activity: moulding the growing personality into an accepted framework, transforming the child’s consciousness from a mirror that reflects reality (most of all on the plane of images and simple interaction) into a set of shared truths and stereotypes. It is called group identity. In response to how the surrounding world relates to him, the child begins to judge and valuate himself.

So long as the adopted child does not satisfy his own basic needs for security, love and self-respect, he simply remains deaf and blind to even the most obvious examples of what is good about the world around him. After all, in order to appreciate the beauty or goodness of the world around one, one needs to actively open one’s eyes. But this is precisely what the damaged child’s instinct for self-protection doesn’t allow. Andrew is 12 years old. “I’m never rude. I’m like a mouse – I might play a trick on you and then run away. I think I’m open and honest.” You can make a compromise with him, find a middle way, and keep the harmony in the family. Then the shell really works as/stays a shell and protects the inner, vulnerable person from the harsh reality of the world and halting his growth and development. This lack makes itself known most obviously at school, when certain qualities are demanded: like decisiveness, the readiness to build relationships with the surroundings, have the motivation to do homework, to join in with cultural activities. Where is he to get the strength of will to achieve all this, if not in his own inner world, which is cut off as the forbidden territory, the realm of demons from the past? For those of feeble will the attempt to face one’s problems honestly is intolerable; they will prefer to hide from them. Therefore, one of the greatest roles of adoptive parents is to help their child make peace with his own past, so he can move forward with his personal development.

Let me give you an example of a child we have helped.

Masha joined family A at the age of 6. Though they had no previous experience in bringing up children, her foster parents approached their new task with great seriousness and responsibility. They washed and clothed their new daughter, read her stories, and taught her to help around the house, but they did not try to connect with her in any profound way. Abiding by her foster mother’s routine of household chores seemed to help Masha settle somewhat, but it did nothing to help her overcome her root problems, and these were driven into her subconscious. Amongst these problems were an alcoholic mother, who tried to get rid of her daughter at any price, and a traumatic separation from her elder sister. Masha regarded her foster family as a temporary shelter, and spent the following six years looking for substitutes for her mother and especially her elder sister. In her new family, she found a potential elder sister, but this girl was preoccupied by her own psychological problems and soon after left for Moscow to continue her education. At the same time, there was also a conflict between Masha’s foster parents and other families in the community – they refused to cooperate with the Educational Council of Kitezh and to learn how to work professionally with children. Then the crisis erupted. During a community celebration, Marsha broke down and became hysterical. The adults who tried to comfort her and to understand what was wrong got nowhere. Masha closed up like an oyster. Finally, 17 year old Sasha from my family managed to gain her trust and listened to her tearful explanation: “I want to live in your family.” 13 year old Masha did not want new parents (any parent would be a source of anxiety and uncertainty); she wanted an older sister, and she did not want to be forced to leave Kitezh with her foster parents.

After a month of discussion within the Educational Council, Marsha decided to move to another family. Her new foster mother was at that time the youngest foster mother in the community, and (to some extent) could be seen as an elder sister. On arrival in her new family, the first thing Masha said was: “I’ll do all the household chores, but please don’t write out a rota and don’t make me follow a daily routine”. She was given her freedom and found herself in a completely different situation, in a family that was more dynamic and more demanding of spontaneity, and the ability to respond and develop. After three months came the reaction. Masha frequently burst into tears, nervous reactions appeared, she became jealous, felt hurt, and refused to accept her parents’ help with homework. The crisis had started. The problems locked away in her deep subconscious started to emerge. Then Christmas came, and Masha was taken to Optina Putsin, a nearby monastery, to be baptised. She chose the strongest, most intelligent, and reliable girl from the 10th Form as her godmother. This girl agreed gladly, because she already had a great deal of experience in helping her own younger sister. So the renewal of ‘safe attachment’ was restored by itself within the arena of sisters, and not that of parent-child.

In city conditions such complex relations would make life very difficult. In Kitezh, however, where, in the subconscious of the children we are one big family, this form of ‘safe attachment’ gave Masha the opportunity to restore her self-respect and faith in the world. Masha’s achievements were evident in her more open relationship with her new parents, her growth in confidence at school, and her active participation in amateur dramatic performances.

Three months after her Christening, Masha played the leading role of a princess in a school play; and two weeks after that, for the first time, she asked her new mother for help with her history homework, a subject she has always found particularly difficult. On the following day she received her first top grade to the thunderous applause of her classmates. She went straight home and washed all the floors, did the laundry, and repaired a cupboard door that was broken. Masha still needs to be assured of her significance, and to feel a ‘safe attachment’ to all the members of her new family.

Masha’s new foster parents endured a difficult six months before she was able to feel truly settled with them. A child often hides unmet needs, and it is difficult to know exactly what it is that is disturbing natural development.

Our foster parents are good and dedicated people, but they lack in specific psychological training, and they are very busy with everyday domestic and community tasks. Despite this clear deficit, a most encouraging and unusual phenomenon is taking shape this year. The first wave of young adults who have spent a number of their formative years in Kitezh are now playing an active role in the life of the community and, more to the point, in the therapeutic task. They participate in a highly intensive, well supervised, and consistently applied programme of mentoring and group discussion, led by Members of what Kitezh calls the ‘Small Council’, consisting of some six 15 – 18 year olds, are gradually being inducted into practicing the skills with younger children who have so far eluded some of the adults.

Members of the Small Council take it in turns, with the support of their colleagues, to chair the community meeting. At Kitezh this is called the Children’s Meeting and it takes place after dinner for an hour every second day. Each child and adult attending is invited to say something about their experiences, successes, disappointments and emotions since the group last met. Participants are patient, interacting positively for the most part, engaged in the process certainly, and mindful of the right of the speaker to be heard and responded to. The meeting is neither pedestrian nor mechanical.

We work with challenges which are aimed at bringing new experience. In the most acute situations, the challenges also bring consciousness (insight/awareness). This insight changes the child’s vision of the world. This leads to the expanding of consciousness. The personality gets stronger, and permits others to enter into the youngster’s world. This interaction brings new information and new challenges. By increasing the level of challenge we reach the adaptation to the outside world. This training is the essence of Kitezh life. When the time comes, the young person feels stronger, more sure of himself, and able to absorb new information and make choices. Then he steps out from Kitezh into the real world.

A group of five children who were brought up in Kitezh are now attending universities in Moscow, and have already announced their intention to return to Kitezh in order to create a more solid foundation for our community and widen its sphere of activity. We are very interested in sending our children for training in similar communities in Britain.

In conclusion, I would like to say the following:

We have built a village and given homes to 30 children. By all accounts this is, in itself, an impressive achievement. However, there are one million orphans in Russia – one million children for whom the government can see no other alternative than to place them in institutionalised orphanages. The majority of these children will never fulfill their potential. We believe we have found the alternative. Our example must be expanded in order to change the attitude of those who are in charge of policy. Some of our elder children wish to become teachers and pass down the experiences they have received here. Perhaps a few of them will find the courage to build their own therapeutic communities, based on their firsthand knowledge and understanding. With a lot of help and support, we may be able to make a considerable impact on the current situation in our country.


For a more complete description of the therapeutic care and education provided by Kitezh, Dimitry Morozov has written a book “Kitezh A community approach to raising children in Russia” published by Eland Publishing Limited in 2008. ISBN 978 1 906011 36 9