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The homeless: down and out in the USSR

By Aaron Trehub / May 19, 1988



SOVIET officials have long boasted that there are no homeless people in the Soviet Union, thanks to a constitutional ``right to housing.'' To give the boast bite, Soviet newspapers and magazines often print photos of homeless people in the West. In fact, there are homeless people in the USSR. They can be found in abandoned houses, cellars, coal bins, and garbage dumps, around railway stations, or in special detention centers run by the uniformed police of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). Here they are held for a month while their identities are checked and attempts are made to find them a job and a place to live. These attempts are seldom successful.

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The Soviet homeless come from various backgrounds. Among the inmates of the detention center in Tashkent, a Soviet journalist encountered a proud husband who had walked out on his wife after he discovered she was cheating on him; a disillusioned engineer; a senile old woman who had gone out one day and forgotten her way home; and an insane young girl who imagined herself a deposed queen. A large number of the homeless are ex-convicts who took to the road after being denied residence permits in their native cities. Many are alcoholics who have trouble holding down jobs. They fall into the category of ``parasite'' - the term reserved for people who are not, in Soviet legal parlance, engaged in socially useful labor and are therefore liable to prosecution.

The official fiction that there are no homeless people in the USSR has fallen victim to glasnost. In May 1986, Literaturnaya Gazeta published an article about homeless people and vagrants in the Kazakh Republic. The author, Anatoly Sterlikov, did not estimate the number of homeless people in the USSR; he did say, however, that ``they have already begun to stand out against the background of contemporary life.''

In February 1987, the popular weekly magazine Ogonyok printed what is still the most vivid piece of reporting on homeless people in the USSR. The author, provincial journalist Alexei Lebedev, wanted to experience life among the homeless firsthand. So he hid his internal passport and other documents, donned an old overcoat, and, with three rubles in his pocket, descended for six months into the lower depths of Soviet society.

Mr. Lebedev's exploit seems to be a first for Soviet journalism. He described in detail the special detention centers for vagrants that can be found in every large Soviet city and railway station, the places where homeless people find shelter, the temporary jobs they take to survive, and the fine distinctions between different classes of vagrants, from hopeless alcoholics to quasi-professional drifters.

Recently, the government newspaper Izvestia inaugurated a column featuring letters that would have gone unprinted a few years ago. The first letter was from Leonid Kirienko in Sverdlovsk. ``Judging from articles in the press,'' he wrote, ``[Soviet] editors believe that homeless people exist only abroad. Well, there are enough of them in our country.''

Mr. Kirienko ought to know: He has been homeless since 1980. Although he admitted that he was to blame for his plight, he objected to the ``parasite'' label. ``A parasite,'' he wrote, ``is somebody who sits at home and has a residence permit but doesn't want to work. A person without work and without shelter is not a parasite but a lost and dying man who should be helped back on his feet again.'' As Izvestia discovered, attempts to get Kirienko back on his feet failed. Sverdlovsk police directed the homeless man to a couple of local factories, but neither offered him a job. After the second interview, Kirienko vanished without a trace.

Izvestia returned to the subject a few days later, in an article by Albert Plutnik, who tells the story of Pyotr Maslov, a skilled worker and decorated war veteran who took to drink and became a tramp, eventually winding up in a small city in Uzbekistan. Here he was literally picked up out of the gutter by an Uzbek worker who took him home and gave him a corner to sleep in (illegally, since Mr. Maslov had no identity papers). ``Kirienko was right,'' Plutnik concluded, ``there are homeless people in our country, too.''

How many are there? Plutnik did not give a figure, saying only that their numbers are growing. Although the Ministry of Internal Affairs keeps count of the number of vagrants who pass through its detention centers, these figures have not been made public. This is one result of the pretense, only recently abandoned, that there are no homeless people in the USSR. It can also be attributed to the traditional Soviet obsession with secrecy, especially where social problems are concerned.

Lebedev, the journalist who went to live among vagrants, says in a recent interview in Moscow News that there are ``hundreds of thousands'' of homeless people in the USSR. This is a rough but plausible estimate, but may be on the conservative side, given the fact there are 4.5 million officially registered alcoholics, more than 5 million mentally ill people, and, according to a secret MVD report obtained by Agence France-Presse several years ago, at least 500,000 ``parasites.''

Ironically, the problem of homelessness in the USSR is being acknowledged at a time when the prospects for alleviating it are bleaker than ever, since Soviet enterprises and factories have shifted to economic accountability.

In the past, the danger was that vagrants and ``parasites'' would disrupt discipline and prevent the collective from fulfilling its plan and getting its bonus. Today, when enterprises must pay their own way, disincentives to hire the down-and-out are even stronger. Mikhail Gorbachev's attempt to make Soviet enterprises more efficient appears to have complicated the task of rehabilitating the homeless.

Aaron Trehub is a social affairs analyst with Radio Liberty Research in Munich.