The bag lady who is Mother Russia

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The Independent Online
I FIRST saw Lydia Ivanovna trying on old shoes that had been left in a neat line by some rubbish bins in case a poor person like her could make use of them.

The bag lady was totally absorbed in her selection of footwear for the new season. Just as if she was in an elegant shop, she slipped into some high heels and tottered a few paces to see if they were right before settling for some more sensible sandals and boots.

Later she told me: "The bins are like an oriental bazaar. You can find everything in them if you're not too fussy - not only bread but jam and meat, not to mention clothes and shoes."

My friendship with Lydia has developed gradually. She is often to be found near Samotechny Lane, sitting in the Hermitage Gardens behind the splendid New Opera House, which has recently been completed as an alternative to the Bolshoi Theatre. A respected local figure, she is a victim of the times in Russia and to me a symbol of Mother Russia herself.

Russians believe in sudba, or fate. It is at once their greatest strength and biggest weakness. Because they often mistake human stupidity for the will of God, they tolerate discomforts and abuses that could be changed. And yet, when faced with real disaster, they show an awe-inspiring ability to endure and overcome.

With remarkable lucidity and lack of bitterness, Lydia told me of the tricks fortune had played on her. In Soviet times, she worked as a physiotherapist at a health spa by the Sea of Azov, where patients went for mud baths and to be healed with the stings of jellyfish. "I was a rich woman then," she said. "I had a two-room flat with carpets, crystal and gold."

You would not believe it to look at her now, a bundle of rags with an oddly enlarged head (she wears a hat under her headscarf even in good weather). Lydia lost everything in 1991 when she tried to swap her flat to be near relatives in Moldova and was tricked by property sharks who, in the former Soviet Union, were known to murder the elderly in order to acquire their flats.

People were not allowed to be homeless in the Communist era - the authorities would jail them sooner than see them making the streets look untidy - but many tramps in capitalist Russia are old people who have lost their homes in just such property scams. "I ran away from the bandits in the nick of time," said Lydia. "I applied to the Russian immigration service and came to Moscow as a refugee. I had a box with my few remaining possessions. But I was robbed again at Paveletsky Station and ended up living there for nine months with other homeless people. The police beat me up twice and put me in the hospital."

There doctors told Lydia, who was only in her mid-fifties, that her only hope of shelter was to go into an old people's home. "I did not want to be with senile geriatrics, so I chose the streets instead."

Since then, Lydia, now 60, has learnt to live outdoors in conditions that would send most people insane. She spent last winter, when the mercury dropped to -30C, huddling under a plastic sheet on the building site of the New Opera. "The worst was when I had to crawl out into the freezing cold to relieve myself. I tried not to drink any liquid but a human being can't survive without water. I cursed God but I never stopped believing in Him."

She survived. Kind waiters from the restaurant La Vie de Paris, popular with wealthy New Russians, gave her scraps. The officers at Petrovka 38, Moscow's police headquarters, came to know and respect her, as did other tramps. "I keep myself to myself; nobody bothers me. It would be a lie to say I do not drink alcohol. But I am not an alcoholic. It's vodka that kills the homeless. I saw three young men die before my eyes this winter."

Lydia does not belong to Moscow's army of beggars who, according to some, have to pay most of the money they collect to the mafia. Lydia is proud of the fact that she earns her living by washing cars parked outside banks.

And now, for the first time since she left the hospital, she also has a roof of sorts over her head. The Yugoslav guest workers on the New Opera site gave her one of their huts when they finished the job. It stands up a side street across from the police headquarters on a patch of land she has cleaned up and is turning into a garden.

The hut is windowless and has no cooking facilities. Also, Lydia keeps several savage dogs inside to guard her. So when she entertains guests, she invites them to sit on her "lawn". I had a picnic with her there recently. I took a small bag of provisions but her table was already covered with dried fish, cucumbers and vodka.

Miraculously, the fragile hut survived last week's hurricane, which brought down trees in parks across Moscow.

But ahead of the Youth Olympic Games next month, the police are falling back on old Soviet habits of clearing tramps off the streets, to give an impression of cleanliness to foreign guests.

So far Lydia's good relations with the cops have saved her but she fears she could soon be evicted and temporarily jailed. In case of trouble, she has my telephone number. Watch this space.