The Short Life of Viktor Matthey

Even in hard-drinking Russia, the Tulimovs stood out for their drunkenness and the neglect of their children.

The Tulimovs had come to the part of Siberia known as the Russian Far East in 1988 from Turkmenistan, 3,000 miles away, looking for work.

Olga Ivanovna Tulimova, who had been a telephone operator and a postwoman, had a daughter with her first husband, a factory worker who died from chemical burns. When she and her second husband, Sergey Yevgeniyevich Tulimov, arrived in the village of Busse, home of a collective farm, she was pregnant.

Winter comes early in that part of the world and stays a good long time. The first snows typically fall in October, and morning temperatures dip into the 30s well into May. In the depths of winter, the temperature can bottom out at 40 below zero and rarely will rise above zero. The landscape is ruggedly beautiful, but bleak.

Olga did housework for a while, then started to work on the farm, caring for cows and planting.

Sergey was an operator of a heating station and worked at the farm, doing some household repairs, fixing boilers. But in an economy as harsh as the environment, the Tulimovs failed to thrive.

In the next eight years, they had six children, including Viktor on Sept. 17, 1993, and twins Yevgeniy and Vladimir on Dec. 9, 1995. Money was tight, but there always seemed to be enough for a bottle of vodka, and villagers began to notice the children weren't being cared for.

On May 14, 1997, local officials, accompanied by the local militia, came to the village of 700 and found Sergey inside the family's log house, drinking and reading the Russian translation of a Guy de Maupassant novel, "Bel-Ami." Olga was outside planting potatoes.

A videotape made that day by a regional Russian television crew shows officials in the dirt yard alongside the log house, pulling back some dirty blankets from inside a pair of galvanized steel washtubs. In the basins, naked and listless, curled tight against the morning chill, were the twins, 17 months old and still unable to walk.

"Auschwitz, it was," said Anatoly Divyatkin, a photographer for Amurskaya Pravda, a regional newspaper, who was present. "When they opened the blankets, what they found were almost skeletons."

Viktor, then 31⁄2, also naked and malnourished, was found nearby. A daughter, Yelena, was nearly 10 at the time, and two more sons, Alexander, 9, and Ivan, 7, were there, hungry and dirty as well.

Olga protested when the officials told her they were taking away her six children. The militiamen, she said in an interview later, told her that if she resisted she would not see her children again. Sergey said, okay, take the children.

The twins, extremely weak from malnutrition and exposure, went to a hospital in Svobodniy, where they stayed 11 months. On April 17, 1998, they were placed in Dome Rebyonka, an orphanage for infants and toddlers in the regional capital, Blagoveshchensk, a seven-hour drive from Busse.

Viktor went first to an orphanage called Nadezhda, Russian for "hope," in Svobodniy, a city of 70,000 about 90 miles north of Blagoveshchensk. In October 1997, shortly after turning 4, he was transferred to another children's home, Detskiy Dome No. 3, in the same city. The three other siblings were put in homes for older children, similar to boarding schools.

Although it took him a while to open up to the other children at Detskiy Dome No. 3, little Viktor was a natural leader, his teachers said. He was the one who organized games among the kids.

Viktor's teacher, Natalia Mikhailovna, remembered him as a bright child who took time to reach out to his peers and his teachers.

"He was very quiet, very shy, when he arrived here," she said in an interview at the orphanage. "He was introduced very slowly to the group, and he found good friends when he was here six months."

In his teacher's view, Viktor was academically gifted. He was reading by age 4, spoke well and had a good memory.

A videotape made at the school before his adoption shows him reciting verses and performing a long, elaborate song and dance.

The classroom where Viktor spent much of his time also served as a playroom and eating area. There was a dormitory lined with child-size wooden beds covered with cheerful bedclothes, and with a small table at the end of each bed for clothing and shoes.

"They live modestly, but the main idea is to keep it warm, clean and well-lighted," said Ludmilla Petronova Mechenkova, director of the orphanage.

In August 1997, two months before Viktor arrived at the orphanage, the Svobodnenskiy District Court stripped Sergey Tulimov and Olga Tulimova of their parental rights, finding: "The Tulimovs abused alcohol and did not provide for their children's upbringing. The children wandered around and were hungry. They did not have any clothes."

On April 23, 1999, the names of the six Tulimov children were entered in the Russian Federation's Central Registry for Orphan Children, the first step toward their adoption.