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.

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
News
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
news
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
  • 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

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

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