Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Moscow's desperate grannies turn drug-pushers

Helen Womack talks to hard-up pensioners who sell their prescription medicines to young thrill-seekers
THE desperate pensioners who stand on the streets of the new, capitalist Moscow are mostly engaged in obvious activities - if not selling small items such as cigarettes or stockings to make ends meet, they are begging. But the old people outside Chemist's Shop Number One appear to be just hanging about. What on earth are they doing?

It defies belief, but they are pushing drugs. These respectable grandmothers and grandfathers are supplementing their meagre pensions by selling medicines obtained on their doctors' prescriptions to teenagers who mix them into potentially lethal cocktails.

The sordid trade is going on right under the windows of the Lubyanka, headquarters of the former KGB, but barely arouses the interest of the ordinary police, let alone what is today called the Federal Security Service (FSB). It is just part of the anarchy of post-Communist Russia.

The problem was first revealed by the Moscow Times, which quoted doctors at special drug addiction centres as saying there was virtually nothing they could do to treat children as young as 12 who had become dependent on substances sold to them by pensioners. The youngsters went into cellars to inject themselves with ketamin, an anaesthetic, or mixtures brewed by experienced addicts called varilshiki (boilers). Popular cocktails included vint (screw) and moulka, whose main ingredient was ephedrine (obtained from nose drops).

Photographer Igor Gavrilov caught the trade on film from an upper window of the army recruitment centre opposite the chemist's. I walked along the street late one afternoon, keeping my eyes and ears open for signs a passer-by might miss.

An old man in a fur hat was deep in conversation with a girl in red leather trousers. When she ran off, I asked him to talk. He told me he was a retired military officer, although he would not give his name. He had come to the chemist's for cough mixture, and had nothing to do with the drug trade. "But I know it goes on. I have seen people doing it."

The girl joined a group of youths, two of whom soon approached a woman in her 60s. "Have you got any ketamin?" one of them asked openly. She hadn't. But then she turned to me and asked if I had any iodine. I said no, but suggested we take a walk together.

She identified herself as Lydia, and said she had been an engineer in the far-northern mining town of Vorkuta. Now she lived on a pension worth the equivalent of pounds 20 a month. "I have three children, but they have their own lives to lead. I must manage on my own and you know what the Communists used to say - he who does not work does not eat."

Lydia was coy about exactly how she worked. The boys had been wanting ketamin, had they not? "Oh no, love, not ketamin, vitamins," she said with an embarrassed smile. And why did she want iodine from me? "For technical reasons," was all she would say. Perhaps iodine is an ingredient in the cocktails. Or perhaps it was a code word for some other substance.

The youths were more open than the pensioners. "Talk to this woman from London," said the girl in the red trousers, and the lads obliged. "We want ketamin," said Alexei, a 15-year-old schoolboy with greasy, shoulder- length hair. "It's kaif [a thrill], you fly."

Zhenya, 21, said he would give me an interview or anything else I wanted if I would give him ketamin. It cost 30,000 roubles (pounds 4) a shot. How could he afford it? "I'm a racketeer," he grinned.

Inside the chemist's shop, a pre-revolution confection with chandeliers hanging from the pink-plastered ceilings, other youths were laughing at the sanitary towels and bothering the customers. They were not bothering shop manager Tamara Maximovna, however. "Drug problem? What drug problem?" she said. "What happens on the street has nothing to do with us. Go and talk to the police."

As it happened, a police foot patrol was passing by. "I hear there's an interesting trade going on here," I said. "There's a lot of interesting things here," said the senior officer. "There's the Kremlin just down the road. Go and take a look at that."

The police, overwhelmed as they are by violent organised crime, enforce as best they can the laws against trafficking in drugs such as heroin and cocaine. But Soviet legislators failed to foresee a time when pensioners might be reduced to trading in medicines, and the most the police can do is move on the drug-pushing grannies and their adolescent clients.

Beyond saying they experience kaif, the teenagers are mostly unable to articulate their feelings about drug-taking. But Viktor P, a young man who narrowly escaped addiction to moulka, spoke movingly on the subject. He said he was offered the drug by one of the doctors whose job it is to treat addicts. As well as pensioners, corrupt doctors are sometimes a source of narcotics. He was out in the countryside when he tried the cocktail.

"I felt an enormous surge of energy," he said. "I felt I could do anything, that I was a god. Clouds were covering the moon. I wanted to see it. I lifted my arm and punched a hole in the clouds so the moon shone through. It was a wonderful feeling.

"But after, when I realised my human weakness, I was more miserable than I have ever been in my life.

"My first thought was that I must immediately take the drug again. But then I realised this was a trap. Desperately depressed, I walked out onto a frozen lake. Here I came to my senses again. Thank God I was in the countryside and not in Moscow. The beauty of nature saved me."