IoS Appeal: Zhenya is 12 and lives in a cellar. 'I want to escape,' he says. With your help, he can

For the children living on the streets of one Siberian city, a donation of just £10 could transform their lives

In Siberia, Zhenya and his friends are known simply as the "cellar children".

They have escaped drugs, alcoholism and violence at home to find themselves surviving, huddled in filthy cellars, in the harsh, numbing cold of a Russian winter.

These "cellar children" live, largely ignored, on the margins of one of Russia's most isolated cities, Chita. Lying 3,000 miles east of Moscow, Chita now survives as an important stopover on the last leg of the trans-Siberian railway.

For Zhenya, December on the blizzard-whipped streets of Chita means enduring temperatures that plummet to -30C at night.

Just 12, he smokes a packet of filterless cigarettes a day, enjoys strong beer, inhales solvents and talks like someone 10 years older. "I just want to escape all this," he says. "And I'm trying. I have my worst moments after I've been inhaling. I don't think I'll make it to 50."

Zhenya has lived in a cellar beneath a grim Soviet-era housing block, and others like it, for two years now - one of dozens of destitute young boys and girls helped every week by a charity called Helping Hand.

A Pentecostal church-linked organisation run by a former policeman called Andrei Kovalev, it is heavily funded by the Railway Children, the innovative and pioneering British charity chosen for this year's Independent on Sunday Christmas Appeal.

Set up by a former British Rail executive, David Maidment, the Railway Children ploughs money into helping to save street children who attach themselves to rail and bus stations in places like Chita, Moscow, India and the UK.

And for children like Zhenya Prosyannikov, Helping Hand is probably their only chance of survival.

His story is typical. His mother, Valya, is an unemployed alcoholic and his father, Andrei, a heroin addict who pays for his habit by stealing. When a friend suggested they run away from their village and see the town of Chita, Zhenya did not hesitate.

"I thought it was a good idea then, but I regret it now," he says, his young eyes tearful. "On one occasion my father started to attack me with his slippers. Mum drank and dad did heroin. It was awful."

Now, Zhenya begs for money close to the Russian Orthodox church near the vast, spartan railway station - a pastel-coloured edifice dating back to before the revolution. On good days, he raises enough to use the station's canteen.

The day The Independent on Sunday met Zhenya, he had just been given something simple: a pair of winter boots, from Helping Hand.

Ira Pushkarova, 16, is another of the cellar children. She has been living on and off the streets for three years. Some days she summons up the courage to return home to her divorced, alcoholic mother, Luda. It never lasts.

Igor Bulkov, 17, was thrown out of his home by his alcoholic mother, Marina, three years ago.

His friend Petya Fidorov, 17, says his problems began about five years ago when his mother began to drink heavily and forced him to do the same, as well as becoming violent towards him. "That's when I left," he says. "Now I've got my mates [in the cellar]."

Petya says he wants to become a mechanic and is thinking about returning to a children's home. Like the others he also inhales solvents.

These youngsters often survive during the summer in and around Chita railway station, where at night they sleep under the railway bridges, sleeping on or close to the tracks. Chita's homeless adults squeeze under the platforms to lie on the hot water pipes underneath, leeching the heat.

But in winter, bleak cellars become home. Zhenya's is entered through a tiny square opening in an outside wall.

The "bathroom" is a filthy white metal tub in the corner of a low-ceilinged, concrete, graffiti-scrawled room.

The children are easy to spot. Dressed in ragged, grime-stained clothes, they have something of the feral about them and can be seen wandering around Chita's barren streets begging.

With money from the Railway Children, Helping Hand organises food runs three times a week, helps the children with advice and clothing, runs morale-boosting summer camps and attempts to get them off the streets and into some kind of training that might lead to a job.

Suggested Topics
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
i100
Sport
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
boxing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments