Homelessness in Russia

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Mon Aug 16 07:21:00 MDT 1999

Yesterday's NY Times magazine section had an extraordinarily frank article
on the collapse of Russian society brought on by capitalism. Unfortunately,
it is not available online, otherwise I'd supply the URL. What is also
notable is that the author is John Lloyd, a reporter for the Financial
Times, a rock-ribbed Tory publication. I did a Lexis-Nexis search on John
Lloyd and Russia and discovered that he has been developing this analysis
for some time now. Here is an item from July 24:

Financial Times (London), July 24, 1999, Saturday

Confronting the big issue in Russia: Though its existence was denied in
Soviet times, homelessness is  a growing problem, says John Lloyd.

The number of people living in poverty in Russia is usually reckoned to be
roughly equal to the population of a medium-sized nation. There are maybe
50m of them.

It may depend on what is meant by poor. Most people have flats; yet most
flats are, by west European standards, the kind that are being demolished.
A lot of people are not paid regularly, some don't eat well, many certainly
feel more insecure than they did.

This situation is getting worse. But people get by. They would be called an
underclass in the west, but they would reject the description with
indignation in Russia.

However, there is something which would be called an underclass, even in
Russia. In Soviet times, this was composed largely of drunks, and they
still make up a high proportion. It is now swelled by refugees from other
former Soviet republics who travel about looking for jobs, and the
unemployed, who may account for 25 per cent of the population, plus those
who have been bought, tricked or forced out of their flats and have nowhere
to go but down. These are all New Russians, but the novelty is less welcome
to them; they look old before their time.

There is not much relief for this growing mass. Local administrations have
little truck with them (and meagre or no means of relieving their needs),
hospitals will usually not take them in, the militia, lacking an
alternative, puts them in prison if there is nowhere else.

Yet even in Dostoevsky's cruel city, there is a little human relief.

Valery Sokolov was something of a bum - homeless, aimless, a wanderer
around the crumbling beauty of St Petersburg. Then five years ago, he
decided to organise his fellows. Inspired by a report in a newspaper about
The Big Issue, the UK magazine sold by the homeless, he cast about for
assistance in starting something similar. He called it, with typical
Russian optimism, Na Dne ("At the Bottom"), which was, he discovered, the
name of a newspaper, also for the homeless, created in Moscow in 1912. The
name came from a play by Gorky.

Today, Sokolov - still skeletal thin, with long lank hair, living on
roll-up cigarettes, coffee and ice-cream - has a little empire. Na Dne
comes out twice a month, with a print run of 10,000 copies; he has begged
two deserted spaces from the city administration - one where the paper is
made up, another where it is distributed to sellers and his organisation
keeps a night shelter.

Sokolov has thought a lot about the homeless. He is scornful of the claim -
still made - that there were none in Soviet times: "There were hundreds of
thousands. They were the children who had lost their parents; those who had
been thrown out of their farms; those whose homes had been destroyed; those
who were let out of the camps. They were gathered up and sent to work camps
and prisons - Soviet industry needed them."

I go to see the tumbledown house where the sellers collect the papers.
Valentina Boreika, in her 60s and handsome, sits behind a desk with a
well-worn notebook in which she writes the name, living conditions,
passport number, family status and birthplace of all who come to sell papers.

She sees dirt and misery every day, yet she is herself fastidious and
precise - and charitable. "People get no help when they are at the bottom
here," she says.

In another room, a young man named Dmitry Slominsky sits tapping at a
computer. He is there to deal with those who have problems, as most of them
do. "A lot of people who come here are Russians who have been living in
other Soviet republics and have lost their homes or leave because they are
unwelcome," he says.

"A lot come from Estonia. If they come here and lose their documents then
they will never get back. The Estonians don't want Russians."

Next to the office is the night shelter. The smell on the stairs is of a
public lavatory; inside the flat for men there are beds crammed into fetid
rooms, a smell of booze and dirt, an old man hacking away by a sink, a few
hopeless-looking men in middle age, drifting around, and, incongruously, a
man in his 20s with body-builder's torso, glaring at me aggressively as I
am led into his space.

In the women's flat, there are religious pictures on the walls in place of
pin-ups, a slightly less oppressive smell, a very old woman asleep on an
iron cot, other women of various ages sitting about, one mending a blouse.
My guides are a little apologetic, sensing my flinching: "It's not great,"
says Slominsky, "but for them it's better than the railway stations."

The next day, I go with Sokolov on a trip 240km out of St Petersburg, to
the provincial town of Tikhvin. He has been told of a priest in the town,
Father Alexander, who is involved with the homeless. He wants to find out
what work he is doing, and to see if he will sell Na Dne in the town. It is
unusual for a priest to be that involved in charity work.

Sokolov has built the organisation into a business, won grants from foreign
organisations such as the Soros Foundation and the British Know How Fund,
and forged links with The Big Issue.

"Some sellers," he says, "can shift between 100 and 150 papers a day. But
then we lose them, because if they can do that they can see they can make
more money doing something else, and they give it up. On the one hand it's
good they get on, on the other we're left with the more useless ones."

Tikhvin turns out to be a depressed provincial centre of about 40,000
people, and its one giant factory - the Kirov electrical plant - is more or
less closed. Men sit about, or stumble around drunk. Father Alexander,
found at his church in the centre of town, is stocky, in his mid-40s, with
a full greying beard. He takes us to his homeless shelter - a large wooden
house, enclosed by a fence.

It is a revelation - especially after the shelter in St Petersburg. In the
rooms, the beds are made up and neat. In the kitchen, two great pots of
soup are tended by two women who murmur respectfully to Father Alexander
and offer a taste. The food is scrounged from the local shops; the council
has agreed not to charge for gas and electricity.

One room is a reading room, with tattered books, and a cardboard box under
a hot lamp, full of chirping chicks that will one day be soup.

Father Alexander explains the rules. "The main thing is discipline. If you
do not have that, this place would end. The greatest enemy we have is
alcohol. If we let drinking in here, we would not survive."

Sokolov gets nowhere with his idea to sell Na Dne. Father Alexander says:
"I don't think we could do it. No one has any money here. They barely read
the local paper."

Outside the gate, as we leave, a crowd of about 40 - men and women, young
and old - are waiting for lunchtime, without a sound. Father Alexander nods
without smiling, closing the door firmly; it is not yet time to permit entry.

He has created, through his own energy and his devotion both to the Lord
and to discipline, a kind of severe refuge for those who will obey the
rules. "Many cannot stand it," he says, "and they leave at once, or after a
night. They would prefer to be cold, but free. Others come a great way to
be here - even from Petersburg."

At the bottom of Russian society is a growing mass of people. They sink
there more rapidly now, as the order of Soviet life is replaced by little
except the grab-who-can dispensation which is post-Soviet Russia.

Sokolov and Father Alexander are little rocks in the vast flood of poverty
- real poverty - which laps around the country and seems to have no hope of
ebbing soon.

© 1999, LEXIS®-NEXIS®, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Louis Proyect


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