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Russia: Analysis from Washington -- The New Bezprizorniki

Washington, D.C. 14 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The social and economic disorder in the Russian Federation has pushed more than 1.5 million school-age children into the streets, a larger number of "unsupervised" youths than the Soviet state faced in the 1920s and a development which casts a shadow over that country's future.

According to the journal of the Russian Ministry of Education, unemployment, alcoholism, and assorted social pathologies in the home are not only driving ever more young people into the streets where they frequently drift into crime but also having a serious impact on their physiological development.

Ministry analysts suggest that the rising tide of criminal behaviour by such young people on the streets reflects the collapse of Soviet-era arrangements for structuring leisure time activity and the rise of alternative and largely Western role models in the media.

One of these analysts, Vladimir Andreyev, bemoans the fact that Russian children today face a situation in which the old system of organized activities and camps "is basically in ruins." As a result, he says, an ever increasing number of children take their behavioural cues from media which glorify violence and get-rich-quick schemes and from youths not much older than themselves who are already pursuing what this analyst calls a false and perverted goal.

In this, Andreyev writes, the children have been following their parents and Russian society as a whole. In 1991, he notes, Russians "once again decided to restructure everything at one fell swoop,to start over again as we did back in 1917 -- this time, however, exclusively on a solid, 'democratic' foundation. The new starting point was found as well -- just do everything completely opposite" to what had been done.

That radical change of sign posts, Andreyevv suggests, has subverted the moral order without providing a new one. And that pattern has been exacerbated by the fact that "every autumn and every spring a new Moses swears that stabilization" and prosperity "are just around the corner," thus undercutting any willingness by children or their parents to defer gratification.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Bazarnyi, a ministry doctor who keeps track of child health issues suggests in the same journal that more than 90 percent of those who do remain in secondary schools now have developmental problems, with 85 our of every 100 school-age girls suffering from physical abnormalities in pelvic development.

This latter figure, he suggests, is "simply horrifying" because it points to a future in which "the overwhelming majority of future mothers will not be able to give birth to healthy offspring who are normal 'in all parameters.'" And such statistics, the ministry figures imply, are even worse for those 1.5 million children who have left school early.

This is not the first time Moscow has faced the problem of unsupervised youth or "bezprizorniki" as they are called in Russian. Following the Russian Civil War, Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin ordered his secret police chief Feliks Dzerzinskiy to commit half of the Cheka's employees to combatting the plague of homeless youth. And later, other Soviet leaders used the police to limit the number of such people on various occasions.

The Russian Federation Ministry of Education refers to these earlier approaches, but its officials call for more money to be devoted to the health and well-being of children. At present, they note that "there is a catastrophic lack of funds everywhere" children are involved. But they complain that even now there is "more than enough money" for other things:

There is More than enough" for "the maintenance of two parallel governments," for "squadrons of flights to places like Davos and Strasbourg," for "multiple channels to transfer money abroad," and even for "the purchase of luxurious villas on the Cote d'Azur" where "obviously no kindergartens are going to be built for our little ones."

"Sackfuls of brand-new banknotes," these officials continue, "are being spent to build marble and crystal bank interiors, nightclub casinos, and personal mansions and estates in the suburbs, and to pay for the foreign schooling of the offspring of the hard-currency families that especially distinguished themselves during the era of the intial accumulation of capital."

Such a cry from the heart of educators is perhaps not surprising in the tough budgetary struggles in the Russian capital. But the problems they point to affect not only Russia's children but Russia's future. And analogous problems are to be found in many other post-Soviet states as well.