Moscow's legion of despair detects a glimmer of hope

Help for the homeless: Russian capital plans shelters for some of the thousands who sleep rough in sub-zero temperatures

PHIL REEVES

Moscow

Threatened by tuberculosis, low temperatures and an assortment of other nasty conditions, Russia's homeless have begun the New Year with a small glimmer of hope - the announcement that moves are finally planned in Moscow to provide roofs over their heads.

The city authorities say they will open 10 shelters this year for the growing army of people living on the streets, including some who lost their homes and jobs in the slump following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The initiative sounds like a drop in the ocean until it is compared with present arrangements: the entire metropolis has one government-run hostel for the homeless, with room for 24 people. Some 250,000 people bunk down every night in stations, doorways, heating vents, or anywhere else that affords shelter from the deadly -20C temperatures.

They include Andrei, sitting yesterday in the grimy walkway of a Moscow metro station, his crippled legs folded beneath him, waiting for a glimmer of charity from the sea of commuters which swept endlessly past, back at work for the first day after the New Year.

Changes in the calendar matter far less to this 20-year-old invalid than the contents of his plastic bag, his version of a begging bowl, which sits at his feet not far from the spot on the pavement at which he stares without interruption, not even lifting his face when a few hundred roubles flutter down from a passer-by. "They say it is the strongest who survive, and the weaker who die." He says this with such an air of misery that one need not ask which category he places himself in.

Five years ago, in Soviet times, Andrei - who spends his nights in railway stations - could not have lived as he now does. Homelessness was illegal: police from the Interior Ministry patrolled the streets, dispatching vagrants to jail-like hostels. In Moscow, the penalty for being found more than twice in a year without an address or documents was six months' jail.

In December 1993 the law was scrapped. The number of vagrants has since swelled steadily as the economy declined. Charity workers say four out of five are men, usually between 25 and 40, including many from the ex- Soviet republics. They come in the belief that Moscow is, if not paved with gold, at least a dependable source of employment.

What they discover, however, is a world where it is infinitely easier to develop tuberculosis, lice or scabies - or to receive a beating from the police - than it is to secure a job. So they often turn to begging.

But Russia's homeless - known as bomzhi (a police acronym for someone with no fixed address: bez opredelyonnogo mesta zhitelstva) do not always conform to the caricature of the criminal, habitually vagrant, Western hobo, even though about 20 per cent are ex-convicts. "We quite often have people who have university-level education and who had a job and lost it," said Siobhan Keegan, medical co-ordinator with Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), which runs several medical centres for the homeless in Moscow.

In Soviet times, the authorities instructed businesses to employ and house vagrants, no matter how ill-suited they were to work. Now, privatised companies welcome the prospect of a bomzhi worker with about as much relish as a tax demand, and rarely take them on. Andrei had seven years of secondary education before being injured in a bad fall: "Who will take me as a worker? You have to be able to do something."

News that the city is finally moving to provide shelters elicited no more than a shrug from him. Nor was Miss Keegan popping open the champagne, although she gave the announcement a cautious welcome: "We would be very happy if they can do something, but our experience here has taught us to adopt a wait-and-see attitude." An announcement by Itar-Tass news agency underlines her point. "Yeltsin orders an end to vagrancy and begging," it trumpets. But it was dated 3 November 1993.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
News
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
music
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine