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To Russia With Love by Debbie Deegan

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Memoir

By Vanessa O'Loughlin

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To Russia With Love: Changing the Lives of Abandoned Children tells the incredible story of how one woman’s determination led her to overcome obstacles ranging from the scepticism of ‘Celtic Tiger’-era Ireland to the intricacies of soviet-style bureaucracy, and the threat of violence from international criminals, to fulfill a promise to improve the lives of vulnerable children.

To date, Debbie Deegan’s charity ‘To Russia with Love’ has helped over 5,000 abandoned and orphaned children in the Bryansk region of Western Russia and further across the Russian Federation through education and development programs. All of the young people that have left the orphanage Debbie has funded since 2007 have accessed further education and are living in accommodation supported by ‘To Russia With Love’ indeed, ‘To Russia With Love’s’ first lawyer graduated this year and two young women have entered Medical School since 2008.

Debbie is now an honorary citizen of the Region of Bryansk and has won three humanitarian medals as well as a UNESCO Tolerance Award in Moscow for her work.  In 2009 she was the Rehab International Person of the Year.

It all started with Debbie’s desire  to change the quality of life and care for children in Hortolova Orphanage, the first orphanage she visited in 1998.  Debbie adopted a seven year old girl from Hortolova, and seeing the conditions the children were living in, felt she had to act. Now the buildings at Hortolova have been rebuilt, a new education block along with a new medical block has been provided, a dedicated play-room has been developed and staffed, a life skills centre has been developed and a number of superb programs have been implemented. Debbie says “Our credo is that we believe children without parents deserve the same rights and entitlements as all children, and so we develop programs of care in line with this.  If any family child is entitled to something then we want the children we work with who do not have families to have the same.  This belief is what has led to the best practice standards of psychological, medical, dental and educational care – standards that we are so proud of.”

This is a book that will make you laugh, make you cry but above all, help you realise the importance of the work that the team at ‘To Russia with Love’ carry out every day and how one person can make a huge difference to hundreds of lives. But for Debbie, setting up her charity was easier than putting pen to paper, as she told writing.ie:

“Firstly I have to admit I totally cheated in the writing of From Russia With Love, as I had a very patient, understanding, tireless ghost writer sitting beside me. In truth, I don’t think I would have had the discipline to do it all myself, and my ghost, Emily Hourican did all the hard stuff, I just supplied the story.

The biggest challenge for me was finding the time to sit, and remember back over 15 years of memories of my experience and not all pleasant.

This was certainly a job for me as I was still working, I wasn’t taking time out to write the book, and I wasn’t an author. I am a mother of three, with three very spoiled dogs, I have the usual hoovering, laundry, dinners, tidying, school runs, leaving cert dramas, plus my Russian life going on, which is very full time.

I go to Russia monthly. There is a wheelie bag parked permanently on my landing, clothes coming out, clothes going in, my last journey was my 260th – the laundry sums alone are mind boggling. I am not complaining though, at all! I love it, I have always loved it, and in truth, all of us involved have gotten more from it than we ever gave it.

The book is a history of how a very ordinary woman, me, can get us off their ass if they want to and make huge change, I was lucky though as I had a mother that stepped in, a husband that took over the domestics (in a man way), and three great, easy, kids.
From Russia with Love documents my journey, and that of many incredible Irish people, who travelled through extremes, not least from snow to blistering heat, to bring about change in a very serious way in hundreds of orphaned children’s lives. We were challenged by KGB, crabs (!!) car crashes, trains that were remenants from the Second World War, Belsen and all its sadness,  orphanage food, broken hearts and much more.

Emily sat with me, listened to it all, documented it, pieced it together when I was all over the place, pushed and probed until she got the answers the book needed, we did this for 10 hours a week, for about 6 months.

There were , drafts, as I said stuff that I wasn’t allowed say, my bad language was edited, we rearranged sections after it was done in order for it to make more sense to the readers.  We went back through every story in detail to make sure the children’s’ privacy was protected and we were being truthful and fair to all I wrote about. It is absolutely accurate, so I have no worries.

It was easy for me to pull the book together, but as I say, I cheated. Emily had all the hard stuff to do, but the discipline of sitting, discussing, cutting, editing, designing, picking photos, choosing stories from my hundreds, not telling tales, etc was a challenge. That’s for sure. I loved every minute of it, and in truth when I saw the first copies arriving, I felt like I had given birth!!

It is a fundraiser for us, it is a tool I will use at conferences, it is a prized possession of my mother’s, it is a key to get me onto TV channels and radio to talk about our work, that is why we did this, hopefully our beautiful Russian orphans will benefit.

We do hope all that read it , enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed writing it. Certainly , I did.


Irish author Marian Keyes has been the patron of Irish Children’s Charity ‘To Russia With Love’ since the summer of 2003 and she has worked tirelessly as an ambassador for the orphaned and abandoned children in Russia.  Marian travelled to Hortolova Orphanage in January 2004 with To Russia With Love and wrote about her experience in a short story in her book ‘Further Under the Duvet’ (she donated the royalties from sales of the hardback version of this book in Ireland to ‘To Russia With Love’)

To Russia With Love depends largely on the generosity of the public for donations, so any support is greatly appreciated. You can visit the website here to find out more about the charity.

About the author

To Russia With Love is available from Mercier Press from all good book shops.

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