Vendor rises from the depths to sell Russia's 'Big Issue'

There are three characteristics to which Alexander Riga owes his living and his life. He has enough charm to recruit a few loyal clients; he has a thick skin, leathery enough to withstand official abuse; and he has cunning, enough to know when to vanish at the sound of a policeman's boot.

Yet even these assets are no guarantee of success as he travels on the St Petersburg metro, trying to sell Russia's answer to the Big Issue - a street newspaper which is being developed with the help of British government aid.

In an average week, he expects to be arrested at least once, usually merely for trying to make a living on the underground rather than on the streets. The cops say hawking on the trains is illegal; he says standing outside in a city with one of the most inhospitable climates in the world is lethal.

"The police just spit on us," he says, as we strode along a carriage looking for clients. "I don't know how many times I have been arrested. Often they confiscate my newspapers, and tear up my documents."

Mr Riga, 44, is one of 56 registered homeless people in St Petersburg who sell a newspaper called Na Dnye, or The Depths, so named after a play about poverty by Maxim Gorky. And like many of the city's estimated 56,000 homeless, he has first-hand experience of "na dnye". He's been there.

A well-read man who used to work in a bookshop, he lost all his savings when the rouble crashed, just after he had sold his stake in a communal apartment but before he could buy a new place. Homelessness was coupled with divorce and alcoholism. For six months he slept in basements and stairways.

The newspaper, run by Night Shelter, a St Petersburg charity for the homeless, operates on the same principles as the Big Issue, the successful street paper which was started in Britain in 1991.

Each day Mr Riga invests in 20 copies for a nominal fee of about 2p each. He then tries to sell them for five times as much, pocketing the difference, usually about two or three dollars.

But the St Petersburg market place is far harsher than anything you find in London or Glasgow. Russia's economic collapse has meant that the competition on the bottom rungs of society is fierce, and merciless. Every rouble he earns is despite an army of beggars, and long lines of people selling individual groceries on the street for a few pennies above the shop price.

In the two hours we spent together, he sold three copies, producing 20p in profit. "I usually do a bit better than this," he said. "People are suspicious because I am with a foreigner. I'd normally expect to sell 15-20 a day. Luckily I have a few regulars."

However, he can - and this lies at the heart of the Big Issue concept - lay claim to the dignity of a job. His income of about $80 (pounds 50) a month allows him to survive, albeit only just, and to rent a room. "I have three meals a day," says Mr Riga, who is now teetotal. "Sausage, tea, bread and potatoes. Sausage, tea, bread and potatoes. And sausage, tea, bread and potatoes."

The connection between the Big Issue and The Depths goes well beyond shared principles. A formal link was forged last year by Mel Young, co- director of the Big Issue in Scotland, who met the organisers of the Russian project at a conference and applied to the Foreign Office's Know How Fund for money to help them. The resulting pounds 100,000 allows Big Issue to share its technical expertise - for instance, marketing, advertising, and production skills - with a view to helping The Depths make the transition from a charity into a self-sufficient enterprise.

The Russians certainly need all the help they can get. Their eight-page paper is clattered out once every three weeks on an old computer by a handful of people working in a tiny room. Its solemn diet of social issues has produced a circulation of only 10,000.

By contrast, the Big Issue is the Washington Post of street publishing. In five years it has grown to a 48-page weekly which employs over 200 staff, circulates in dozens of cities and has a nationwide circulation of 300,000.

The Depths' very existence is significant, given that Russia treats its homeless so badly. In Soviet times, they were "non-people". Society considered them criminals.

That view still prevails. The fact that the homeless include many thousands of victims of economic collapse has done little to improve their image.

"People won't give them money because they are attuned to thinking of them as criminals, who are on the streets because its their own fault," said Mr Young, who regularly visits St Petersburg. "But that is clearly not the case these days."

Officialdom is as unsympathetic as society. The Moscow city authorities still demand residence permits, which are difficult to acquire. Anyone stopped by the police without papers is liable to be run out of town. Disease is a constant threat. So is the cold. Last winter, 25 homeless people froze to death in St Petersburg alone.

But in St Petersburg at least official hostility is beginning to crumble. According to Valery Sokolov, director of Night Shelter, the city has a new police chief, who has pledged to end harassment of the "bomzhis" (acronym for the homeless) and also to recognise the residency rights of those who register as homeless. Moreover, for the first time anywhere in Russia, money for the homeless has been included in the city's budget.

It is too early to say if this will flower into real and lasting help, but it is a start. So, too, is The Depths. .

What Alexander Riga lacks is any faith in a better future. He calls himself a "pessimistic realist". He believes that because of Russia's dismal economic conditions, and social prejudice, the newspaper will only ever provide him with the means to survive. Life offers nothing more than a monotonous landscape across which he will tramp towards the grave, surviving on his charm and cunning.