A trip of “Maria’s Children” to Beslan and Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia-Alania, January 24-28 2007

Natalya Khasanova,

programme coordinator:

The idea of going to Beslan was suggested by the children themselves. It came after discussing the tragic events in 2004. Our friends and colleagues Alexander and Natalya Kolmanovsky organized a discussion in September 2006. For three years they have provided professional psychological and rehabilitation help for the survivors of the terrorist act. They also keep close contacts with our theatre studio, giving regular workshops on Fridays to our children and orphanage graduates. At first the idea of going to Beslan was a genuine sympathetic response and desire to somehow support the people, but then it became a real project. Our aim was to meet Beslan schoolchildren, share with them our skills that we use in our studio, arrange a series of master classes, make friends, and show our principle – by helping others you find happiness, the purpose of life and you rehabilitate yourself.

The funds for the trip were raised mainly at the November charity auction, with a big contribution from Rosinter Restaurants. A wonderful and labour-intensive beadwork by Julia Klechina, a graduate from the specialized orphanage №4 was one of the auction’s lots, and she decided to donate the money to the trip to Beslan. Mr. Simon Boudy, who we thank so much for the support and realization of our idea, bought Julia’s work for a considerable sum, and this money was enough to pay for the tickets and accommodation.

And the trip became a reality. We were in North Ossetia from January 24-28. There were 26 people on the team: Maria Eliseeva, psychologists Alexander and Natalya Kolmanovsky, 12 children, 2 puppeteers from Saint Petersburg, 2 clowns-jugglers from England, several volunteers and our young friends from Chechnya, who were in the Ingushetia refugee camp.

We have to admit that at first some of us, especially children, were a little worried: only a few of us were in the Caucasus before, and the TV information made us think of aggressive people, glowering at foreigners and thinking about captives and hostages. But right from the start of our visit, we were meeting only amiable, noble and beautiful people, who were glad to give us any help and support, especially when they knew who we were and why we came.

A few words about the first day in the school. Our group visited all classes, telling the children what we prepared for them. Our concerns that the children would not become interested or would be on the alert and stay unsociable were completely forgotten, when crowds of pupils fell on us during the first interval. We had been restless ever since.

In one of the classes, Maria, Ruslan, Anya and Magrat were painting with the children two big pictures, Lyosha and Pasha together with the English taught juggling in the school hall, Sasha was heroically blowing up balloons without a pump and taught the guys to make various figures from them, Sonya and Erika were helping out with make-up and taught the girls do it properly Julia and Janna were making original vases and postcards, and Leo and Galya arranged a puppet studio. And it was 3 days like this! As a result, on the final day of our visit, we arranged an improvised concert where the pupils demonstrated their skills on stage.

On The same day, after the concert the fourth graders with their teacher Albina went with us to the orphanage in Vladikavkaz.

There, together with the pupils and children from the orphanage we painted out a wall in the hall: a sun lights up a magic castle against the background of a blue sky, and a rainbow serves as a swing for a tender magic creature with wings.

A massive blossoming tree spread its branches over the deep dark-blue water of a lake, where a wind blows the white sails of a small boat. Smeared with the paint, pupils carefully washed the paint from the orphanage children in the bathroom. The orphanage workers gazed at it with astonishment, but rather favourably, they and children have never seen anything like this before. We hope that communication between the pupils and their peers from the orphanage will continue, because together they did something very good, everyone had a great time, and they will remember it for a long time.

The day before we visited a republican Children's Republican Clinical Hospital in Vladikavkaz and played clowns with the patients, their parents and nurses.

It is a pity that due to objective reasons we were not able to go to Ingushetia, where we planned to visit a refugee camp and to support children, who turned out to be far away from home and in extremely difficult conditions. But now our children know better, how various Caucasian peoples live, how complicated the relationships between them are, and how important and valuable any initiative, small of big, aimed at making people meet, look at each other,hear each other, and never let anybody create hatred and hostility between them.

It was a little sad coming back to Moscow, our hearts were still in Ossetia, we were bowled over with emotions that we got there. Now we want to continue the programme, and in the summer we are going to bring our new friends, especially fourth graders, to our place in order to continue our collective creative work and to help them realize that we all have a great opportunity to make life better and full of sense – to make people happy every day and to support them in their beginnings.

Leonid Kondakov,

puppeteer, Saint Petersburg:

It is for the first time we’ve worked together with Maria Eliseeva and her children, although we’ve known each other for a very long time. We met while working with Patch Adams. When Patch comes over, one week he works in Moscow, and Maria and her children work actively with him, then Patch comes to Petersburg for a week and we meet up. Together with Patch I work with puppets at children’s hospitals, orphanages and nursing homes.

Maria suggested us this trip, and we agreed, I and Galina Maksimycheva, a puppet designer, to make marionette and puppet programmes. Of course our friends tried to talk us out of this idea: “Why do you need it? Beslan, The Northern Caucasus – it is dangerous”. It is dangerous to fly there, and dangerous to walk down the streets too, a brick may fall on you.

We came to Moscow and flew to Vladikavkaz. On the first day we were accommodated and we bought some necessary materials for our work, because we thought it silly to take them from Petersburg. Next day we began to work. We would come to classes. The administration gave us a very warm welcome, we felt as if we’d been there before. We showed one puppet number and tried to enroll our new followers in our puppet group. Jugglers did the same thing. Of course, there was an intense competition as to who could recruit more people. We almost had no time. It is a pity we had only three days. Two days we worked with those who came to us, and on the third day we prepared a concert. Only one number was not complete – a glow puppet, an old lady, and one very talented and active girl chose her. There was a sketch “An old lady went to sell some milk…” The girl made a dog for this poem too, and then made a solo, the old lady was on one hand, and the dog on the other hand. She made a little dog from a sock, sewed on buttons and a nose. Marionettes and glow puppets were made by the children on the spur of the moment, off the cuff. As it is very difficult to make a marionette, we attached threads to children’s favourable soft toys so that their paws could be moved and the children learnt to handle them. Glow puppets them made on their own. They made heads from plasticine, made puppet heads without it, put them on their fingers and glove puppets were ready. And they prepared a collective number to Armstrong’s song “Moses said, Let my people go” performed by the Ossetian children group. One boy sang as Armstrong and it was very touching. We set up a screen, glove puppets were shown from behind it, and in front of it children with marionettes walked. It was impossible even for us, old professionals, to watch it without tears. We did not expect such results, that for a short time something could be done.

Now we actively struggle for the idea that Vladikavkaz puppet theater take charge of this group, because it can be dropped if no one supports it. It consists of 15-20 girls and boys.

We are very satisfied with the journey, because the idea really resonated with the children and everything was very well-organized. If there is an opportunity to cooperate further, we are ready to put our business in Saint Petersburg and come, but 3 days are not enough. On the other hand, if you want to go deeper, it is necessary to live and work there.

Galina Maksimycheva,

puppet designer, Saint Petersburg:

For me it was a real experiment, to come to a place with unfamiliar children of such a difficult age for me – the 4-5th grade, passionate and energetic children. I was touched because of a great feedback of the children. Despite their temperament and the noise they were making, they were very attentive, sharp and friendly.

Frankly speaking, there were many of them on the first day, but I did not expect that the next they would come again and want to go on. Everyone came. And they were prepared. Their parents gave them some things we could use. Some of them got their parents involved and they already began helping us. It was like they felt we had too little time and it should not be wasted. On the third day we went on stage in a body. Some had no time to finish something, some lost something; the most beautiful head was stolen! It was a good thing, it is understandable. And the children were ready to interchange, to help each other – I was given a head, I gave my marionette, let’s share so that everyone could participate. They so organized it that there were no conflicts, and the boys would let the girls play first.

They all live as good friends. Whether it is the people or the school, but they are all like relatives, of course sometimes they fight and shout at each other, but there is no hostility. The same between the adults and the children, and between adults. There was an atmosphere of commutability and amicability. I did not notice that these people had gone through such a grief. We knew it but did not feel it.

We saw the grief in this destroyed school. We needed this trip at least to see this school. The word Beslan is a strong memory. But there were so much information about speculation and politics. And as a result you understand nothing except the fact that children died there. And when you enter the school, you see long rows of photographs with such beautiful faces of children, and water in bottles. And children do there. No one brings them there; they feel that they need it. We saw the cemetery as well. It is a heart-rending scene. A beautiful cemetery, memorials with beautiful children’s faces. Adults and teachers are buried there as well. Here and there we saw a Christmas tree, New Year’s lights on the grave, a huge doll, and water everywhere. People come here and talk to the victims.

And frankly speaking, I felt calm. I saw that the people, who are responsible for the living ones, are so heroic. They remember everything, but they move on, take care of those who left. And sometimes it turns out that this woman, who helps us arranging the classes, brings threads and needles had three children there, two eldest died, and only this little girl left. “This little girl bring me to work at school again”. They hug each other. At first I did not understand who is a mother, a daughter, a teacher. They are all one family.

If we did anything good by this visit, it would be a great happiness for us. We were worried that we will not be able to do anything during these three days, and only disturb them, allure them, show how great we are and make off, and they will remain with everything they already had. But it was not for nothing. And if the contact with this school continues, this is what is worth to dedicate yourself to.

We are so thankful to Maria, because she insisted that we took part in the programme. And we thank everyone who participated from both sides.

After such a great beginning of our friendship, we could not part with each other for a long time, and during the same summer 2007 we invited Albina Gavrilovna’s class to our summer camp on Seliger. You can read about it in greater detail here.

Photo by Oksana Yushko.