ST. PETERSBURG -- Aleksei Kuzmin has been banned from the St. Petersburg subway after using it his whole life to get around the city.
The reason? He is handicapped and confined to a wheelchair.
Late last month, St. Petersburg authorities began enforcing what they say was an existing ban after a girl in a wheelchair had an accident on a subway escalator. Yulia Shavel, a spokeswoman for the subway, said wheelchair users are a danger to themselves and others on the steep escalators that descend into the city's cavernous subway system.
But sitting in Yekaterina Park in downtown St. Petersburg, the 33-year-old Kuzmin said he believed he and other handicapped passengers pose no danger on the subway and bristled at what he sees as prejudice against the disabled.
"They are humiliating us," he said. "It's discrimination. It is as if the subway is only for the fit."
The ban starkly illustrates the plight handicapped people face in Russia, which lags far behind the West in accommodating the disabled.
In St. Petersburg and other Russian cities, the absence of ramps and elevators for the wheelchair-bound, which are an essential part of public infrastructure in Europe and North America, means they often must be carried up and down flights of stairs.
'No Chance Of Interacting Normally'
The 55-year-old subway system is one of the few modes of transport in St. Petersburg that wheelchair-users are able to use and the ban leaves many stranded -- a situation that will only worsen during the port city's bitterly cold winters.
Nadezhda Kapkova, a 48-year-old woman from Gagarin, a town 30 kilometers from St. Petersburg, said that despite the lack of infrastructure supporting the handicapped, she had always viewed larger Russian cities as relative havens for the disabled.
"Practically speaking, using a wheelchair in the provinces is impossible," she said. "There are no means [of transport] accessible, there's no chance of working, no chance of interacting normally. But big cities offer an opportunity for self-realization."
But with the ban on wheelchairs in the subway, Kapkova thinks those opportunities to move around freely will now be severely curtailed. She added that disabled people were capable of judging what they can and cannot do safely.
Under The Federal Spotlight
"The point is the disabled are all in their right minds," she said. "If their arms aren’t strong enough to hold on, they won't go on the escalator."
The wheelchair ban came under the federal spotlight when a Moscow newspaper published an appeal to St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko, written by a disabled student who was turned away at the turnstiles.
There are signs that lingering Soviet attitudes to disability are slowly changing.
The Public Chamber, a state advisory body, has called the ban "a violation of federal law" and the city's rights ombudsman, Aleksei Kozyrev, has promised to "get to the bottom of this and take charge of it all the way to the finish line."
But Shavel, the subway system's spokeswoman, said officials were obliged to stop wheelchairs entering since documentation from the factory that produces the escalators stipulates that they were not built for wheelchair use.
She said the ban did not apply at nine of St. Petersburg's 64 subway stations that do not have escalators, most of which are on the city's outskirts.
A Quick Solution Is 'Unrealistic'
Officials say they are exploring the possibility of installing ramps so that the handicapped can access the subway and say they hope to find a solution by August. According to press reports, the city is also looking into the possibility of installing special elevators for the handicapped in the subway.
But Sergei Timokhin, a 43-year-old disabled man, said solving the problem so quickly was "unrealistic."
According to statistics provided by the St. Petersburg Association of Societies of the Parents of Disabled Children, there are 8,988 wheelchair users in the city, which has a population of roughly 6 million.
The problem, of course, is not confined to St. Petersburg. In Moscow, the city provides a special taxi service for the disabled, but it's necessary to book trips two weeks in advance according to a report in "The Moscow News." Moscow is also planning to build elevators in its subway stations to accommodate the disabled.
According to Kapkova, despite the difficulties the handicapped face in a country where the word for disabled is still "invalid," lingering Soviet attitudes are slowly changing for the better:
"Their outlook before was very much 'you're in the way, you're spoiling the view,'" she said. "Disabled people had to go and stay in the shadows somewhere."