About the Project

Rationale and objectives

In Putin’s Russia, starting from the early 2000s, a strong family-centered ideology has characterized the policy programs. A new conservative protection of the family has served as a key task for the Russian government. After the wide liberalization of the welfare state in the 1990s, a shift back to state-led welfare policy took place in the 2000s.

A closer scrutiny, though, shows that this statist turn concerned only certain prioritized groups, such as families with reproductive potential, since most of the policy measures strive to augment the birth rate in the country in the middle of severe demographic crisis. The Putin-era family policy in Russia has been pronatalist and unquestionably focused on the young heterosexual nuclear families and their potential children, whereas despite the massive system of children’s homes and the government’s tight grip to replace children of “problem families” into those institutions, child welfare and foster care have been largely marginalized in Russian social and family policy – until recently.

From 2010, the Russian government has made new openings that turn attention to so-called disadvantaged families and vulnerable children, especially those left without parental care, who in Russian are called orphans (siroty). Often a distinction is made for social orphans (sotsial’nye siroty) in the case of children, whose parents are alive, but not part of their children’s lives. In Russia, the amount of social orphans is over 80 % of all orphans, which is exceptionally high in international comparison. In 2012, altogether 2.6 % of Russian minors were without parental care; 1.1 % in the approximately 1,000 existing children’s homes, nearly all of which were governmental. However, many children in state custody live also outside the institutions: in 2012, about half of those children were placed in family care without compensation (i.e. most often with their relatives) and 17 % in contracted foster families (see e.g. http://www.usynovite.ru/statistics/2012/6).

Russia is now undergoing a major child welfare reform that builds on the idea of every child’s right to grow up in a family. The reform strives to dismantle the massive system of children homes by promoting domestic adoptions, developing foster family system and creating support services for families to prevent “social orphanhood” (sotsial’noe sirotstvo).

In the Russia of the 2010s, the well-being of children is envisioned as thriving in the private sphere, whereas the duty of the state is to create high-quality structures to support the work done in families. Institutional placements will therefore be an option, but a great part of the resources will probably be directed towards the development of foster families. The new openings promote partnerships between the state, NGOs, and businesses, which opens up avenues for new actors to step into the field of child welfare.

The on-going reform can be conceptualized as deinstitutionalization – meaning the closing of large institutions as well as development of foster family system and support services for families – which is a phenomenon that extends beyond Russia. Similar processes have taken place in many countries. In the US and Western Europe, deinstitutionalization discussions took place and large foster care institutions were dismantled most actively in the 1960-70s; in Eastern Europe in 1990s–2000s.

So far we know little about the effects of the reform but it can be already be seen that the macro-level goals produce paradoxical consequences. In principle, the reform strives to enhance the quality of foster care, but in the end the evaluation system seems to lead to the measurement of the results by counting the factual number of replacements in families and closed children’s homes, which is obviously no guarantee of the quality in itself.

Unlike the pronatalist policies and top priority of birth rate, child welfare and foster care have been neglected within the research on the Putin-era family policies despite their growing visibility in Russian society. This particular research project tackles this new area of family policy at its critical point of development by scrutinizing new national programs of child welfare, especially foster care, and examining their implementation at the level of practices – to inform about the Putin-era welfare state development.

We analyze the major policy documents, such as National Strategy to promote the interests of children (2012-2017), Russia without Orphans (2013-2020), Activities on the organization of care for orphans (D481), National Concept of Family Policy, a nation-wide social program Russia Needs All Its Children of the presidential party United Russia. Additionally, we analyze the changes brought by the reform in Russian regions (e.g. Republic of Karelia, Nizhnyi Novgorod and Tiumen regions, city of St. Petersburg). The regional level analysis is essential, since in Russia the federal government answers for general principles and national standards, while the regional governments implement social policy. Also concrete child welfare/foster care units are taken under the investigation of the institutional change and working practices.

Such a research design makes possible to compare the development of a child welfare system, its regional implication and practices. By analyzing the development of foster care, the research sheds light on Russia’s child welfare system, welfare regime, new conservative and familialistic ideology and functioning of the tripartite governmental system in the country. The research provides information on the ongoing reform in this specific context, while connecting it to the international debate on deinstitutionalization, which in turn can be connected to global neoliberal trends. Russia’s traditional state-led system of social welfare can ideologically be labelled as state paternalism.

The research project is hosted by the Aleksanteri Institute of University of Helsinki and the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Russian Studies – Choices of Russian Modernisation. The project is funded by the three-year research grant of University of Helsinki and Kone Foundation.

Research question and hypotheses

The central question is: How does the ongoing reform change the institutional practices of child welfare in Russia?

The question is outlined by the following hypotheses:

  • The intertwining of partly contradictory neoliberal and state-paternalist ideologies produce contradictory national goals, which has unintended and unexpected consequences in meeting the goals at various levels (e.g. qualitative goals evaluated with purely quantitative measurement).
  • The conflicts between the federal goals and local circumstances (e.g., lack of resources, inadequate infrastructure) enhance various, partly unofficial, modes of cooperation between the public sector, NGOs and businesses, which produces hybrid service solutions inside the governmental children’s homes.
  • The institutional field remains state-dominated (although as hybrid, as explained above). In addition to the filling the gaps within the remaining institutions, the main role of the NGOs will deal with the prevention of social orphanhood and after-care of children who leave the institutions.
  • The clash between the goals of the reform, existing legislation and grass root-level practices generates an institutional trap, which will hinder the fulfillment of the goals and produces paradoxical consequences. For instance, the current legislation on the termination of the parents’ rights sets strict time constraints for solving a case of a particular child, and thus generates social orphanhood instead of helping to fight it. Also, the remaining children’s homes cannot effectively promote family replacements in the situation when they funding depends on the numbers of children under their institutional care.
  • The reform produces regionally and locally distinct systems of child welfare, where economically and corporate-culturally dynamic regions can offer models of service desired by the political programs, whereas other regions will have to resort to an existing, partly deteriorating system.
  • The reform leads to the normative division of foster care into an idealized family care and problematized institutional care to which the children that are most difficult to place will end. The institutions will further deteriorate as resources are directed elsewhere.
  • Foreign assistance becomes crucial to the remaining children’s homes now when most of the resources go to the development of family care. International connections give local actors power to defend their own innovations but decreasing support (due to it becoming more and more challenging for foreign actors to operate in the Russian soil) makes the local level more dependent on the upper-level decision-making.

Methodology and research materials

The project is based on the idea that the analysis of social policies should not rely entirely on scrutiny of national programs, but their practical implementation has to be taken into account. We investigate how the selected national policies and their goals become implemented in the regional action plans and local practices. Such a research design creates an exceptionally comprehensive understanding of the actual functioning of the child welfare systems and contradictions between the national goals and local solutions.

The research is based on an innovative methodological design that builds on the triangulation of various research materials as well as combination of the different levels of analysis and competences of the international, interdisciplinary research team.

Data on the Russia’s national, federal level (i.e. macro level):

  • Content analysis of the national policy programs: We investigate the macro-level polices and their ideological premises through the above-mentioned policy documents. These documents are analyzed through content analysis in order to explore what kind of national goals they define and what kind of ideologies are reflected in their aims. To understand the ideologies and their interrelations, the concepts of neoliberal and state-paternalist ideology are operationalized as analytical tools with the help of the existing literature within and outside the Russian context.
  • Evaluation of the federal budgets of the studied programs: We analyze through the annual implementation reports of the federal budget (available online) how child welfare and the reform in particular have been resourced by the central government.
  • Evaluation of the national statistics: Russia remains a country with one of the highest proportion of children without parental care and still a relatively high level of institutionalization of these children, but we still know very little about the dynamics of the number of these children: the different datasets are often incomplete and contradictory. We aim at responding to this informational gap by presenting a detailed analysis of the Russian official statistics for children without parental care.

Data on the regional level of the federal subjects (i.e. meso level):

The project analyzes regional child welfare systems, in particular the development of foster care as case studies in Russian regions: the Republic of Karelia, Nizhny Novgorod and Tiumen regions, City of St. Petersburg. These regions are geographically very distant from one another and also acutely different in their social and economic statuses, which gives us an opportunity to compare the development of a child welfare system, its regional implication and practices.

  • Content analysis of the regional action plans
  • Evaluation of the budgets of the regional action plans
  • Evaluation of the regional statistics
  • Thematic interviews with the regional officials who are in charge of the implementation of the reform (e.g. regional Ministries of Education and Ministry of Health Care and Social Development, parliamentary Committees on Family, Children and Women issues).

Data on the institutional level of child welfare/foster care units in selected municipalities in the case study regions (i.e. micro level)

  • Focus group discussion with, among others, municipal social service and child welfare officials, directors of children’s homes and representatives of active child welfare NGOs. On the basis of the focus group discussion, a couple of concrete units will be selected for more precise analysis to investigate the changes in daily practices brought by the reform at the level of the concrete foster care actors.
  • Fieldwork in different types of child welfare units: In each of the units selected for the closer analysis we will investigate how the goals and aims of the national programs have been met, the changes they have entailed, the views of the employees of these programs and the way they have changed their work and the field of child welfare in general. We will also pay attention to new innovations, initiatives, and solutions and thus to the possibilities of the local actors to modify and change the field of child welfare. The inclusion of the NGOs (and other possible actors) enables one to understand the role of other than state-sector actors in the picture – both the role assigned to them by the federal and regional level programs as well as the actual role that these organizations take on themselves.
    • State-based children’s homes
    • New municipal foster care office
    • Temporary reception centers
    • Family support centers
    • Child welfare NGOs
    • Training centers for foster families
    • Foster families

Expected outcome

The results of the project will be published both on international and domestic forums.

The project is scientifically significant and it has great potential for practical implementation. When it ends, it has contributed in the following ways:

  • produced up-to-date information on the child welfare system and its changes in Russia; on the development of the welfare model in Russia; on the functioning of the tripartite governmental system in the country, thus making our view of Russia more varied. Russia is often viewed only from the federal level, focusing on Putin and the Kremlin;
  • provided information also on the deinstitutionalization process and implementation of social policy reforms in hybrid regimes more generally;
  • contributed to the theoretical discussions on deinstitutionalization, welfare regimes, neoliberalism, child welfare and rights, and family institution;
  • developed an innovative methodology based on triangulation of data and combination of macro-, meso- and micro-level perspectives;
  • provided valuable insights for Finnish child welfare services into the functioning of the Russian systems. Consequently, the understanding of differences between the systems has grown, which might help avoiding crises like the child protection dispute of recent years between Finland and Russia:
  • produced information on the effects of the trans-national cooperation in child welfare, which is beneficial for future collaboration. By bringing together practitioners and scholars from Finland and Russia, the project ideally influences the development of the Russian foster care system under formation.

Further readings

Chernova, Zhanna (2013): Semia kak politicheskii vopros. Gosudarstvennyi projekt i praktiki privatnosti. Saint Petersburg: European University at Saint Petersburg.

Cook, Linda (2011): “Russia’s Welfare Regime: The Shift Toward Statism”, in Gazing at Welfare, Gender and Agency in Post-socialist Countries, ed. by Jäppinen, Kulmala, and Saarinen. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 14-35.

Dore, Martha & Kennedy, Karen (1981): “Two Decades of Turmoil: Child Welfare Services, 1960-1980.” Child Welfare 60:6.

Hemment, Julie (2009): “Soviet-Style Neoliberalism?” Problems of Post-Communism 56 (6), 36–50.

Ivanova, Vyara & Bogdano, George (2013): “The Deinstitutionalization of Children in Bulgaria: The Role of EU.” Social Policy & Administration 47:2.

Jäppinen, Maija & Kulmala, Meri (2015): “Uusi lastenkoditon Venäjä?” Idäntutkimus 4/2014, 58-59.

Johnson, Janet Elise, Kulmala, Meri & Jäppinen, Maija (2016): “Street-level Practice of Russia’s Social Policymaking in Saint Petersburg: Federalism, Informal Politics, and Domestic Violence”. Journal of Social Policy 45 (2), 287-304.

Kulmala, Meri (2013): State and Society in Small-town Russia. A Feminist-ethnographic Inquiry into the Boundaries of Society in the Finnish-Russian Borderland. Department of Social Research 2013:14, Sociology. Helsinki: University of Helsinki.

Kulmala, Meri (2013): Jokainen lapsi on omanlaisensa yksilö! Rajatylittävän yhteistyön aikaansaamista muutoksista venäläisen lastensuojelutyön ajattelussa ja käytänteissä arvio pelastakaa lasten lähialueyhteistyöstä Karjalassa ja Leningradin alueella vuosina 2005-2013. Helsinki: Pelastakaa lapset.

Kulmala, Meri & Kainu, Markus & Nikula, Jouko & Kivinen, Markku (2014): “Paradoxes of Agency: Democracy and Welfare in Russia.” Demokratizatsiya – the Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization 4 (2014), 523–552.

Kulmala, Meri & Tšernova, Žanna (2015): ”Työn ja perheen yhteensovittaminen Venäjällä” [Work and Family in Reconcilation in Russia]. Idäntutkimus [The Finnish Review of Eastern European Studies] 2/2015, 17–34.

Reid, Joseph H.  (1975): “On “Deinstitutionalization””. Child Welfare 54:4.

Rivkin-Fish, Michelle (2010): “Prontalism, Gender Politcs, and the Renewal of Family Support in Russia: Toward a Feminist Anthropology of “Maternity Capital”.” Slavic Review 69:3, 701–724.

Rotkirch, Anna, Temkina, Anna & Zdravomyslova, Elena (2007): “Who Helps the Degraded Housewife? Comments on Vladimir Putin’s Demographic Speech.” European Journal of Women’s Studies 14:4, 349-357.

Schmidt, Victoria & Bailey, Jo Daugherty (2014): “Institutionalization of Children in the Czech Republic: A Case of Path Dependency.” Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare 41:1.