Accessibility links

Russia: Country Digs In For Another Long Winter

  • Gregory Feifer

Few things define Russia as much as its famed winter. The long, hard months of cold shape how Russians live and have helped forge the country's history and very ethos. This year, though temperatures have already reached a respectable minus 15 degrees Celsius in the capital, Muscovites say winter has not yet arrived. It has, however, for the many homeless and others affected by the country's post-Soviet upheavals. For them, survival is a constant concern made worse by what they say is the population's growing apathy.

Moscow, 6 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It's minus 8 degrees Celsius on Moscow's main Tverskaya Street, and a light snow is falling. But Muscovites say winter has not yet even arrived.

One woman stamping out the cold at a bus stop describes an even chillier ideal: "For me, the ideal winter is minus 10 [degrees Celsius], snow, and quiet with no wind. That's what I'd want -- a winter like that."

Below-freezing temperatures are generally preferred because they help preserve some white snow, dry the air, and immobilize the brown slush that usually dirties everything outside.

Most of the city's pedestrians bundle up and walk purposefully to help stave off the cold. A few, usually the fashion-conscious young, refuse to wear hats and gloves and seem impervious to the dropping temperature.

But Russia's cold is no joke. Temperatures in the Siberian region of Yakutia have hit a record minus 60. Already in other parts of the country, the cold is freezing pipes, causing them to burst and shutting down heating systems.

Dealing with freezing temperatures is a way of life. But as funding for heating fuel is misappropriated by corrupt regional governments and desperately needed infrastructure investment continues to be put off, that life has become harder in recent years.

As of today, 133 people are reported to have died outside in Moscow's cold this winter. Many of the victims are drunk and fall in the street, never to get up. Some are heart-attack victims and diabetics.

The Moscow Health Committee says statistics are average so far this year and that the city's health services are fully prepared to deal with ambulance calls and hospitalization for cold victims.

But that does little to hearten the city's many homeless. Yevgenii, a 45-year-old Moscow man who has lived on the streets since 1995, says life for him is getting increasingly difficult. "The police are constantly chasing us, from train stations, metros, anywhere it's warm. They don't care about us as long as we're out in the cold," Yevgenii says.

Yevgenii has come to a three-room, free medical clinic for homeless run by the aid group Doctors Without Borders, which treats between 60 and 80 people a day.

The program's director, a cardiologist named Aleksei Nikiforov, says statistics for cold victims reflect the ongoing effects of the Soviet collapse, with around 3,000 people suffering effects of cold exposure in Moscow and more than 400 dying on the streets each year. "More than 1,000 have already suffered from the cold [this winter]. And how many of that 1,000 who survived will become invalids? How many of those people will have long-term consequences from suffering cold exposure? No one knows and no one has counted. But I think it's many -- very many," Nikiforov says.

The number of homeless peaked between 1993 and 1995, when many people were cheated out of their newly privatized apartments by criminal groups and other schemers -- or simply sold them for next to nothing.

That tendency drastically dropped off as the public wised up and authorities undertook measures to make it harder to lose housing.

Many of the city's homeless are now migrant workers, mostly from the provinces, who travel to the relatively prosperous capital city to escape the deterioration of their regional economies and social infrastructure.

Most take manual-labor jobs without signing contracts. Some are either cheated out of their wages or suffer beatings and robberies.

Funding for social services shriveled up in last decade, leaving them and others who fall through the economic cracks to fend for themselves.

There are also less visible consequences of the end of communism. Those caught outside on a frigid night were once often able to find shelter in the basements and stairways of Moscow buildings.

As the country modernizes, leaving its ideology of collectivism behind, City Hall has over the past several years spearheaded a move to install impregnable steel doors with electronic codes in most buildings.

Residents often band together to put up new front doors themselves after robberies take place or fires have been started, sometimes by homeless taking shelter inside.

As a result, the homeless have now largely lost a form of social safety net.

Nikiforov says the city is actually increasingly addressing the need to deal with cold emergencies, including by the provision of specially outfitted ambulances and eight shelters with a total of 1,500 overnight cots. But he adds that there is much still to be done.

The chief problem, he says, is that authorities mainly deal with the consequences when it is already too late to address the reasons behind casualties, such as homelessness itself and the country's unhealthy, alcohol-sogged lifestyles.

Worst of all is that authorities do nothing to stem the growing tide of apathy on the part of the public. "Unfortunately, our public doesn't care. [Victims] die above all because people walk by someone who has fallen down and lost consciousness. No one will hold out a hand, try to wake him and pick him up," Nikiforov says.

Russians call homeless "bomzhy" for the Soviet-era acronym for a "person with no fixed place of residence." Nikiforov thinks the term should be banned, saying the public associates it with "something worse than a dog."

Each citizen is guaranteed a place to live under the constitution, Nikiforov says. That the state simply decrees that 4 million of its citizens do not have a place to live means it is simply washing its hands of them as potential criminals instead of addressing the social reasons for their plight.