Russian Federation: Polina's new life

© UNICEF Russian Federation 2005/ IgorZarembov

The Doctor’s warning was unequivocal: it was unlikely that tiny Polina would ever be able to even sit upright. At the age of six months, the girl weighed only four kilograms, and was diagnosed as having HIV, alcohol syndrome and a host of other ailments.

Tamara Manannikova read about the girl in a Kaliningrad newspaperand and went to visit her in hospital, with no real idea of how she could help. When she saw Polina, absolutely helpless and weak, she could not get her out of her mind. Three weeks later, having done all the required paperwork, Tamara – already mother to one adult daughter,  grandmother to a cute six-year-old granddaughter and the wife of a visually impaired husband – brought Polina to her tiny one-room apartment. Tamara was 53 years old and little Polina – just seven months. They have now been together for three years.

“Doctors told me that Polina’s case was hopeless, that she was not long for this world”, Tamara recalled. “I imagined her lying all alone in that hospital ward seeing only white walls around her, her life so miserable with no joy or happiness… I decided to bring her home and do my best to make her feel better.”   

Tamara remembers the initial period, after she brought the girl home, as a never-ending nightmare. Polina cried non-stop; she had a poor appetite; she often had a fever and had problems falling asleep. During the first year of living with Tamara’s family, Polina had to take her back to hospital three times. The girl had a weak immune system and fell seriously ill very easily. Throughout all that period, Tamara did not leave her side for a single day.

“Polina is okay now thanks to Tamara’s care and support”, says Tatiana Nikitina, Doctor-in-Chief of the Kaliningrad AIDS Centre where Polina has regular check-ups.  “She lives in a family surrounded by love, care and affection. But her future is uncertain. Everything depends on Tamara’s health and strength. The girl would’ve died long ago without her.”        

© UNICEF Russian Federation/Igor Zarembov

Facing stigma

Tamara came face to face with the stigmatization of HIV-infected people. From the very beginning, made no secret of the girl’s diagnosis. Neither did she advertise it.

Kaliningrad is far from being a small town, but news still travels fast…so now Tamara prefers to go for a walk with the child far away from their neighbourhood. “Several times upon seeing us, mothers took their children quickly away from the playground,” she said. “Our neighbours at the dacha community also raised a hue and cry upon learning about Polina’s diagnosis. This is not right. Such children are more than others in need of care and affection, as since their early days, they have been deprived of both parental love and health."

As for Tamara’s family, their attitude is mixed. Her daughter, who lives in another town, supported her decision, yet she has not been to Kaliningrad to see her mother for the last three years. At first, Tamara’s husband Sergei was totally opposed to her decision. “I couldn’t understand Tamara when she decided to bring Polina here”, he says. “'Look here,' I told her. 'Our life is far from being an easy one. Besides, we are not that young. We’ll have to rely only on our own resources. How will you cope with all this?'

“Now, I’ve got used to Polina living with us so much that I can not imagine our life without her. Tamara goes to work in the evening, and I stay at home and look after the girl. I give her medicine and put her to bed, I sing songs and talk to her…”

Making ends meet

There is never enough money in the family. They rely on Tamara’s salary as a foster caregiver and a pension. She earns some extra money working as a cleaner, while Sergey works as a general service worker at a railway station. They deny themselves so many things, while buying only the best for Polina.

Polina will have free antiretroviral treatment if and when she needs it, and she gets free massages at a Social Centre for Assistance to the Family and Children.

Tamara speaks to the girl all the time. When she dresses her, she reads poems; when she feeds her, she tells her all sorts of nursery rhymes; when she puts her to bed, she sings lullabies. She has been tirelessly breathing life into the girl and nothing can stop her. Tamara has only one fear – that there will be no one to take care of the girl if something bad happens to her.  

More foster carers needed            

“Foster care has been developing quite successfully in Kaliningrad, though not at the desired pace,” Nina Vorontsova, Director of the Social Centre for Assistance to the Family and Children, points out.

“There are about 200 foster families in the city. But I understand that this is the only case when an HIV-infected child, who was also diagnosed as suffering from other serious diseases, was placed in foster care. The girl has changed visibly since then."

The circulation of the Kaliningrad newspaper from which Tamara learnt about the fate of the abandoned HIV-infected girl is 100,000 copies. About the same number of people must have read the article about the relinquished child. However, only one person, Tamara Parfiriyevna Manannikova, has taken the story to heart and made that crucial decision.   

For more information:

John Brittain, Communication Officer, UNIICEF Russian Federation. Tel: (+70 95) 933 8818, email:



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