Soviet survivors to tell their tales of healing

By Janie Magruder, The Arizona Republic, Nov. 6, 2006, Page B12

For most of her life, Victoria Vasilievna Bartsalkina has lived with terrible scars, disfiguring marks on her face and hands from a near incineration as a baby, and emotional damage from growing up under the repressive Communist regime in the former Soviet Union.

Her mental and physical injuries are healing, and Bartsalkina, 55, now head of the psychology department at Moscow State University, credits a Valley non-profit and its founder, Marilyn Murray, for her survival.

"I describe the journey that I walked hand-in-hand with Marilyn, 'the way of emotional regeneration,' " she said by e-mail from her Moscow home. "As a result of my work in the seminars with Marilyn . . . I became a more confident speaker, became more caring toward myself and my health. I am no longer afraid of my past."

Thanksgiving is a foreign concept to residents of the former Soviet Union. But Bartsalkina and four other Russian citizens are coming to the Valley to tell their stories and say thanks for a local program that has helped heal their scars and enabled them to assist their countrymen.

Five for Five Celebration of Thanksgiving is an educational program and fund-raiser for Scottsdale-based Health Restoration International Ltd., which since 2002 has taught health professionals and clergy in Russia how to treat trauma, abuse and deprivation. The five Russians will share their stories of terror and triumph this weekend at two Valley events, one Saturday for mental-health professionals and the other Sunday for the general public.

The foundation and its Project: Restoration Russia is run by Murray, a Scottsdale therapist who for more than 20 years has dealt with victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse and associated traumas and addictions. Murray's work in prisons decades ago spurred an interest in people imprisoned in Iron Curtain countries.

"This whole concept of people living in prison — what I was interested in was how do they survive when there's literally a guy standing on every corner with a machine gun," she said.

Bartsalkina nearly didn't. When she was a year old, an explosion ripped through her family's apartment in western Ukraine, killing her father, a Soviet military officer, and severely burning her face and hands. The explosion was an attack carried out by opponents of the Soviet regime, she said, adding that it would be called a terrorist attack these days.

Bartsalkina was hospitalized for six months, then was in and out of the hospital for seven years, enduring numerous surgeries.

"During the general anesthesia, they used to use masks with ether to put on a child's face, and they tied children down to the stretcher," Bartsalkina said. "I thought I was suffocating and dying. That was the scariest part. Since then and until I turned 30, I was horribly afraid of death."

An interest in people drove her to enter the field of psychology, where she focused on child-parent relationships and marriage counseling. But until she began working with Murray, Bartsalkina was unable to deal with the pain of her own childhood.

"Her method allowed me to see my sea of pain from which I have been running away for years into work, friends, various entertainment," she said. "Marilyn gave me the opportunity to release my childhood fear, feelings of abandonment, resentment."

Murray has taught seminars to more than 600 Russians, mostly doctors, psychologists and clergy members from cities in the former USSR, Siberia and the Arctic Circle. They begin by drawing their pain, anger and aggression on paper, and they learn the negative messages their government pounded into them for years — which led to harmful codependencies, alcoholism and other addictions — aren't true, she said.

"They were taught they had zero worth as a person, except to help the Soviet system," Murray said.

When Communism ended in 1991, she said, the people were left with no one to watch out for them, however cruel that care may have been, and that further traumatized them.

"It was like you were a 3-year-old child that somebody threw out in the snow, and said, 'Here, take care of yourself,' " Murray said. "The people said, 'We're not stupid, we're not lazy, we just don't know how.' "

The five Russians have improved in many ways.

"They walk and talk differently, they walk straight with their heads up and their eyes are shining," Murray said. "Their health is better, but mainly we see it in their relationships with their spouses, children, friends. They never knew how to do life before."

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8998

Five for Five Celebration of Thanksgiving

What: Five Russians will share their stories of recovery from physical and mental abuse in the former Soviet Union through Scottsdale-based Health Restoration International Ltd.

When: 6-8 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Valley Presbyterian Church, 6947 E. McDonald Drive, Scottsdale.

Admission: Free.

Details: (480) 296-2050.

Also: The group will speak at a meeting of mental-health professionals from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday [Nov 13] at Hotel Valley Ho, 6850 E. Main St., Scottsdale. $50. Reservations required. (480) 296-2050.

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