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Russia: Street Children Have Little To Celebrate

  • John Varoli



St. Petersburg, 30 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russia will mark International Children's Day on Sunday with fanfare and merry-making for its children. But, tens of thousands of 'street children' (bezprizorniki) in St. Petersburg, and elsewhere in Russia, have little to celebrate. The case of 13-year-old Artem is typical.

Standing behind a garbage dumpster on Prospekt Bolshevikov, in the city's southeast, Artem reeks of glue and is so high that he can hardly stand or say his name. With about 20 other boys, he calls "home" the system of underground heating pipes that lie beneath this endless jungle of pre-fab, Socialist-era housing. Artem and his friends are street children, but nearly all of them have families and apartments somewhere in the city. Artem's parents live nearby, but he claims "that it is terrible at home because my parents drink and beat me. It's better to live on the streets."

The boys survive by begging, collecting bottles and cardboard boxes for recycling, and stealing when the opportunity presents itself. Though many of them claim to enjoy the freedom of life on the streets, in fact, the harsh reality of staying alive forces them to find escape in a tube of glue. Inhaling some that he's squirted into a small plastic bag hidden in his coat, Artem boasts that, "when I sniff glue I have no problems. I can do anything I want."

According to Dr. Sergei Gluzman of the St. Petersburg branch of "Doctors of the World," about 70 percent of street kids sniff glue every waking moment.

Dr. Gluzman told our correspondent that the immediate result is "temporary impairment of memory and motor functions. But if a child abuses glue for over a year, depending on how healthy the child is, that damage can be permanent. After two years we usually witness total mental and physical degradation."

Dr. Gluzman explains that it is not a chemical dependency, but a psychological one. As long as they live on the streets, and have nothing constructive to do with their time, the glue serves to relieve stress.

Dr. Gluzman adds that "it is rare that kids are saved from their glue habit. Many grow up to become criminals, or homeless all their life." But, he believes that few are saved not because doctors are unable, but because "there are just too few willing and caring people who want to help these children."

Admitting that thousands of children live on the streets has been one of the hardest pills for Russia to swallow in the past six years. Many Russians grew up being told that the problem of bezprizornost was a phenomenon to be found only in Western societies.

Also, the word "bezprizorniki" had always been associated with the horrors of Russia's Civil War and the ensuing chaos in the 1920s. At that time, due to the massive upheavals caused by war and famine, several million ragged and starving children roamed Russia, surviving as best they could. By the early 1930s, most children had been rounded up and sent to labor camps and orphanages.

With the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and the onslaught of economic problems caused by reform, the problem of besprizorniki returned with a vengeance.

(PTO)YYY Rus - (2) Russia's 'Mean St.reets'

Most bezprizorniki in St. Petersburg are local children or from the Leningrad region. They can be found in train stations, attics, basements and near markets and kiosks around metro stations. Alina Remnikova, a social worker who has been climbing through attics and basements helping street children for over two years, says that "the city's Nevsky district is by far the worse". It is an industrial area where many workers have lost their jobs with the collapse of the city's industry. The economic crisis in turn fuels the problems of alcohol and poverty, with the children bearing the brunt of crisis in the home. To escape the violence, many run away.

Bezprizornki are sometimes depicted as operating in well-organized criminal gangs, guided by a strong leader, who strictly enforces his own "laws" in a given region. But, Sergei Ryzanov, a social worker, says that he's only once seen such a group in his nine years helping these children. "Most kids just hang out in informal groups, and come and go as they want. By nature, they are uncontrollable," he says.

As far as numbers of street children, estimates in St. Petersburg range from 1,000-to-30,000. This wide discrepancy is due to just how one defines a street child.

According to Maria Bogacheva, who works with street children at the government-sponsored Family Center, "there are about 1,500 kids in the city who are homeless, in that they absolutely have no home." Their parents might have died, or lost their apartment through fraud. She adds that "there are about 30,000 children who come from broken homes and periodically leave to escape the poverty and violence. Their number, especially, increases with the good weather in summer." Nationwide, the Ministry of Social Protection in Moscow believes that there are between 300,000-and-700,000 street children, the vast majority of whom are runaways. Russia's child population is 39-million.

Besides the material deprivation and the chemical abuse, street kids have to deal with sexual exploitation. About 30 percent of children on the street are girls, and many of them are drafted into prostitution and other sex business. Boys also face the same threat.

Dima carries mace for protection against older men who cruise Prospekt Bolshevikov looking for young boys to have sex. Once, Dima brags with pride, "I sprayed some rapist in the face with mace and then beat him with a stick until he bled."

Today, in St. Petersburg there are 18 official children's shelters offering about 300 beds, as well as free meals, medical assistance and other support services. A little more than half are state-run- and-financed, while the private ones are mostly financed from abroad, though staffed by locals. St.ill, state officials are not shy in saying that the city government is only now beginning to work on drafting a coherent, long-range plan to combat child homelessness, and enact preventive measures so that kids don't take to the streets.

In the end, the cause of child homelessness is tied to the city's and country's overall economic situation, and until that improves, state and private charity will find themselves coping with ever growing numbers of bezprizornki. rl

(John Varoli is a St. Petersburg-based reporter, who routinely contributes to RFE/RL)
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