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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Content and PR

£35000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - Mid / Senior

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing digital agenc...

Recruitment Genius: E-commerce Partnerships Manager

£50000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a newly-created partne...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor