Under the dappled sunshine of a July morning in the grounds of a Russian orphanage surrounded by excited kids, bored carers and distracted volunteers I was talking to Sasha. A tall, quiet seventeen year old with ears that stick out, Sasha loves history and was softly quizzing me about late Roman emperors. In the atmosphere of barely restrained chaos – like the anarchic buzz of an assembly before the teachers get there – I was only half-listening. As another boy hung off my arm and one of the girls manoeuvred into a position from where she would be able to ambush me, Sasha was telling me about Constantine and his conversion to Christianity.

I couldn’t make out exactly what he was talking about so he knelt down and drew something in the sandy earth. It took a few moments for the penny to drop and memories of a half-forgotten tutorial came suddenly flooding back. He had drawn the Chi-Rho symbol, the piece of early Christian iconography Constantine is supposed to have had his soldiers paint on their shields before doing battle in 312. The incongruity was absurd. A few moments later Sasha was happily yelling out our group’s name: ‘Who are we? We’re Pirates!’

Sasha is one of the 63 kids aged between 7 and 18 who live at the Belskoye Ustye psycho-neurological orphanage in western Russia, a twelve hour train journey from Moscow and a few hundred kilometres from the Latvian border. Hidden away in a small village amidst rolling green countryside where the attendants in the sole shop use an abacus and horse drawn carts share the unpaved roads with dented old Ladas, the orphanage is one of 143 such institutions in Russia.

All the children have diagnoses of mental or physical disability although the severity of the disabilities varies widely. Once they ‘graduate’ from the orphanage aged 18 most will end up in ‘adult institutions’: the establishments the Russian state uses to care for its citizens who are unable to live independently – the very old, the institutionalised and the mentally ill.

Every July since 2000, under the aegis of a charity called the Russian Orphan Opportunity Fund (ROOF), between 20 and 25 volunteers from Russia and Europe have run a 4 week summer camp for the kids. Mainly students, volunteers come from Moscow, St Petersburg, the Ukraine, France, Italy and Britain. Those from Britain are mostly Oxford Russian students.

For one month each year the sleepy quiet of the village is disturbed, the shop is chronically short of sweets and bottled water and, if you seek it out, you can hear conversations about tutors and the latest gossip from colleges a thousand miles away. Volunteers live together in one of three houses several kilometres from the orphanage. The electricity is sporadic, there is no running water and a shortage of beds. Some sleep in tents for a month.

The scattered pieces of forest are full of blueberries, raspberries and strawberries in the summer but the countryside is also infested with mosquitoes. In the evening at the house where volunteers are based the smell of DEET hangs in the air as people desperately fortify themselves against attack. The more sensitive foreigners quickly acquire swollen limbs and the sound of scratching, nails on skin, is constant.

‘It’s a complete culture shock when you first arrive’ says Ashley Sherman, a fourth year linguist, ‘it’s a completely different Russia from Moscow or St Petersburg’. Some people find the unashamedly basic food hard to bear, for others it is the lack of washing facilities. Ashley favours the local river: ‘there’s a tarzan-swing there which I used every morning to get myself into that cold water!’ he says with some pride. Others partake of the weekly wood-burning sauna; the Russian banya. ‘After you’ve been in there naked, sweated for twenty minutes and beaten your partner with birch twigs you feel like a new man’ gushes Nat Gordon, another volunteer.

150 years ago the small hamlet where the volunteers stay was a village for the priests and other officials who ran the large Orthodox church in Belskoye Ustye (now in ruins after its destruction in the Second World War). Every day, come sun or snow, the priests would walk the 15 minutes or so to their place of work. Now, however, in the footsteps of their religious predecessors, it is the volunteers who do the twice-daily journey up the same road to the orphanage.

Each volunteer is paired with two groups of children with whom they work every day, six days a week. Daily tasks range from games like snap, pairs and twister to toy boat making, big collages, rounders and tag. Usually at least two days are week are themed ‘festival days’ where volunteers put on a show for the kids or set up a circuit of school fete type challenges. Weekly discos (think open air bops with overexcited children and pounding Russian pop but without alcohol), camping trips and treasure hunts also vary the diet of daily activities. With limited materials, ideas for a month’s worth of entertainment are sometimes difficult to come by – ‘summer camp is a challenge’ says Ashley, ‘the children can be very tough to work with.’

Failure to take sufficient account of the range of abilities and ages amongst the children can be crushing. One festival day – ‘Day of Nature’ I was dressed up as a wolf and hiding in the woods as groups of children came by to collect clues. Jumping out and giving my best blood-curdling howl I was faced by an unimpressed group of the oldest girls in the orphanage. ‘Who am I?’ I barked. Silence. Then Tonya, one of the girls at the back, piped up with an undisguised note of disappointment in her voice: ‘An idiot.’ A fair point well made.

Volunteers are often shocked by the conditions in which the children live at the orphanage. They are still locked behind rusting metal grilles, sent to the local mental hospital as a punishment for bad behaviour and receive only a very basic education (many are illiterate). Institutionalisation affects all of the kids and a large minority express this physically through rocking and other nervous tics. Conditions, however, have improved since the chaos and disintegration of the 1990s. The orphanage psychologist, Tatiana Kapustina, who first visited in 2000 recalls that, back then, ‘the children were in rags, dirty and covered in piss… they climbed up into your face, hung off people, and stole everything’.

Today material conditions are no longer such an issue and the emphasis has shifted to reducing the number of children who leave the orphanage to go on to ‘adult institutions’ where life expectancies are low, levels of drug and alcohol abuse very high and the opportunities for enjoyment, education or work negligible. There are now several ‘half-way’ houses in the local town where orphanage ‘graduates’ can live and learn skills like cooking, money management and holding down a job whilst under the eye of a supervisor. Elaborate games like ‘Day of Shopping’ during summer camp when kids make ‘money’ doing tasks and then spend what they earn in volunteer-run shops are also a nod towards this preparation for independent living.

Local government is working towards a system of social care based on fostering and multi-purpose rehabilitation centres. ‘The ideal, of course,’ says Marina Kirilova, Head of the Regional Department for Families, Women, Children and Demography, ‘is that this institution [the Belskoye Ustye orphanage] be closed down. Completely.’ She believes all institutions in the region can be shut within 5 years – an aspiration which flies spectacularly in the face of change on the ground. Whatever the plans of the authorities, however, summer camp will not be a tradition that ends in the foreseeable future. It will continue to forge unlikely – and lasting – friendships between a disparate group of Europeans, the orphanage kids and their carers in a rural backwater of western Russia.