Street Life: Moscow - Begging for real change

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The Independent Online
I FIRST became aware of Pasha Beleu about a week ago, when she was gazing straight at me through the car window with an expression which - although she was begging - contained not a jot of self-pity or resentment.

She was working the crossroads not far from our apartment block near Moscow University, on a grey and chilly afternoon. The reason we met eye to eye is that, although in her mid-thirties, she is no more than 4ft high. There is probably a politically correct way of putting this - although not one used by the Russians, who worry little about the sensitivities of minorities - but she is what they call a karlik, a dwarf.

A few days ago I decided to meet her in person, although for no noble or charitable reason. It was the day of protest, when the trade unions had called Russians out onto the streets to demonstrate against unpaid pensions and wages and to call for the resignation of President Boris Yeltsin.

No one, on the face of it, had any better cause for complaint than Ms Beleu; and yet, as I was driving to Red Square to talk to the crowds, I noticed that she was still working. I was curious to know if there was any other reason, beyond poverty, that she had not joined the demands for what she clearly needs, a better life.

In retrospect, it should have obvious. She was begging because she had no choice. Her krisha, the thugs who control her - creaming off 90 per cent of the 60 roubles (pounds 2.30) or so that she pulls in from the street each day - had no time for demonstrations. On this day, as on any other, she was expected to deliver up her pittance.

It was they who had brought her to Moscow from her home in the republic of Moldova, where she once worked as a painter.

As the crumbled cardboard sign which she showed to passing motorists explained, her 13-year-old son - who spent his last months in a wheelchair - had died in childhood.

Now, aged 36, she was destined to work the streets indefinitely, in return for a place to sleep and a few roubles. A few yards away another karlik, unconnected with her, was also working the patch. She haltingly and reluctantly conveyed all this, standing wrapped against the cold by a grubby head scarf and flimsy raincoat with missing buttons. She showed no sign of emotion, until the end of our conversation, when her eyes suddenly filled with tears.

If this sounds medieval, then that is exactly how it is. Russia's capital city has long been a harsh and feral place, where only the meanest, the richest and the fittest prosper. Punished anew by a crumbling economy, its streets grow daily more like a scene out of Ben Jonson.

Ms Beleu's patch is also sometimes worked by an army veteran with no legs, who staggers about on his stumps. The passages leading down to the Metro - where begging was almost unheard of in Soviet times - are occupied by people with outstretched hands. Plain begging is no longer enough, unless you are an old woman. To have any chance of survival, props are required - starving kittens or puppies, or icons, or babies, or sickening disabilities.

But, there is another layer, which you do not see - the hoods who stand behind the beggars, greedily pocketing their share, ruthlessly feeding off other human beings. These have taken to sending tiny children to beg on the Metro. Sometimes, agonisingly, the children actually kneel at your feet.

At another crossroads near us, next to the soaring monument to the Soviet hero cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, children as young as seven spend hours in the open every day, cleaning windscreens.

It is said that some 300,000 children are now involved in prostitution. So when you read in the papers last week that less than one million turned out for Russia's day of action, far fewer than the 28 million that the country's compliant trade unions pretended to expect, do not draw too many conclusions. It does not mean that Russia is not hurting.

Many are suffering too much to have any time for, or faith in, the worn- out ritual of waving red flags at the deaf walls of the Kremlin.

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