HARD TIMES FOR RUSSIA'S CHILDREN
Economic and social chaos falls heavily on youngest memebers of society.
MOSCOW — IN some ways, Kiril Arminsky is your typical Russian 10-year-old. He prefers cheeseburgers to hamburgers. He loves to ski, and his favorite subject is math. If he has his choice of cartoons, he says, he'll take Chip and Dale over Mickey Mouse any day.
But in other ways, Kiril is anything but typical. He's severely underweight and unusually small for his age. He wears tattered blue slippers instead of shoes. His T-shirt is dotted with stains, and his dirty brown shorts hang so loosely around his small waist that he needs a heavy belt to hold them up.
Kiril plans to start the new school year with his peers on Sept. 1. By then, he says, he hopes to be wearing better clothes and living in a shelter for children from abusive families. But for now, he has perfected a rather lucrative summer routine: begging in a concrete stairwell next to Moscow's largest McDonald's restaurant.
``I don't like to go home because my mama drinks all the time,'' Kiril says, holding a greasy cardboard sign with the words ``Help. I want to eat. Thank you,'' written in Russian in careful, childlike letters. ``Mama rents out a room, but when she gets the money, she drinks it all up. I don't give her money; I spend it on food.''
Many of the myriad changes transforming the Russian economy into a market-based one have taken their biggest toll on the country's least-protected citizens: children.
Russian children were considered the only privileged class in the Soviet Union's ``classless'' society. Children traditionally were spoiled, coddled, given the best of everything.
Most were forbidden from working - even part-time baby-sitting jobs. But in today's often chaotic post-Communist world, many children are finding themselves in desperate situations, with few places to turn to for help. Economic Chaos Puts Russian Children at Risk
``The root of the problem is broken homes,'' says American John Varoli, who recently founded the Moscow-based ``Off the Streets'' charity organization. ``Some kids who live on the streets probably have homes, but chances are they are so undesirable they don't want to go back.''
Problems are manifold. The divorce rate has tripled since 1960. Parents unable to cope with today's problems of soaring prices, unemployment, and declining living standards are turning increasingly to alcohol and illegal drugs. Reports of parents privatizing and then selling their apartments to make quick money to buy drink are common, and more and more families are ending up on the streets.
Homelessness, an offense once punishable by jail or a sentence in a labor camp, is rapidly increasing. As many as 4 million people in this nation of 148 million are without permanent residence, according to ``Homelessness in Russia,'' a report prepared for the British Charities Aid Foundation. (The United States, with a population of 238 million, has an estimated 600,000 homeless on a given night.)
Estimates of the number of homeless children range from 300,000 to 1 million, the report says. Some are abandoned, others are recent graduates from the state orphanage system, which cannot guarantee housing for its wards after they reach the age of 18. Still others are either mentally or physically disabled, which is still considered a stigma here.
Ethnic conflict is also to blame. Thousands of refugees fleeing violence in former Soviet republics have come to Moscow in the last four years, and most of the families still have no permanent homes. A significant number have been refused refugee status, and the archaic Soviet-style propiska, or residence-permit system, makes finding jobs without one close to impossible.
Breadwinners at age 4 or 5
As a result, children as young as 4 or 5 are thrust into the role of family breadwinner, and tiny children begging for handouts or selling newspapers are common on the capital's streets. Attractive urchins are sometimes hired out as beggars by their alcoholic parents for a fee. Police rarely interfere.
``Lots of kids are making good money stealing, prostituting themselves, or begging,'' says Mr. Varoli, whose organization, funded by Russian emigrants in the West, helps families find permanent housing and jobs. ``Begging and stealing are the most popular. Sometimes they can rake in a lot of money.''
Kiril, who says he doesn't steal, can make up to 16,000 rubles (about $8) a day begging, thanks to his angelic looks and polite demeanor. He stays away from the crowds of elderly pensioners selling bread and beer around him, preferring the company of Kolya, another little boy. ``Kolya runs away from home a lot,'' Kiril says matter-of-factly. ``When he comes back, his parents beat him with sticks.''
Before the 1991 Soviet collapse, virtually all Russian children spent their summers in state-funded Pioneer Camps or enjoyed summertime activities subsidized by the Communist Party. But now it costs 400,000 to 800,000 rubles ($200-$400) to send a child to camp - far out of reach of most Russian wage-earners, whose average monthly salary is about $250.
``We are seeing families today who simply don't care what their children are doing, whether they are begging at subway stations or washing cars,'' says Nadezhda Vodo, deputy head of the government's Committee for Families and Youth. In Russia's ``Snickers society,'' materialistic goals have taken precedence over family values, she adds: ``In the past, that simply didn't exist.''
But for parents like Galina, who asked that her last name not be used, the income generated by children can mean the difference between starvation and survival.
Galina and her seven-year-old daughter, Nadia, came to Moscow in 1990 with a flood of other refugees fleeing ethnic persecution in Baku, Azerbaijan. When the government refused them refugee status, they spent four years sleeping in a train station.
Last year, they were allotted a room in Hotel Ostankino, a welfare barracks on the outskirts of Moscow. ``The hotel is yucky; we have cockroaches and rats,'' Nadia says. But it's safer than the train station, even though it costs 20,000 rubles ($10) a night, slightly less than the monthly state unemployment benefit.
To pay the rent, Nadia works with other children at a busy downtown intersection, where they wait until the light turns red and then hustle cars for cash. The children, none of whom attends school, scamper in front of the vehicles, beating their small hands on the windows and breathing exhaust fumes for hours at a time.
On a good day, Nadia earns about 25,000 rubles, just enough to pay the rent and eat. Galina, who works part-time at a book kiosk, would earn that much working full-time for a month. ``I don't want my child to work,'' she says. ``If I had my way, I'd earn more money and she'd do nothing.''
The Russian government, wracked by what it considers more pressing problems, is ill-equipped to deal with the growing number of children like Nadia - and others whose parents have abandoned them.
These days, Russian grass-roots organizations work with Western charities to fill the gap. But shelters for children are few, and shoestring budgets mean they can't accept everbody.
The Moscow Center for the Medical and Psychological Care of Children and Teenagers, for example, has turned away children in recent months for lack of space. A Russian Orthodox shelter nearby also has limited places.
The center, which depends mainly on donations, is cramped and smelly. Most of the children wear filthy, ripped clothing, and it is rare to see a child with matching socks. Baths are infrequent because a plumbing problem means that only boiling-hot water comes out of all the taps. But the children play with colorful donated toys, eat hearty food, and appear to be well-loved.
Tamara, Sveta, and Sasha - all under age 6 - came to the shelter with their 12-year-old sister after their father was sent to prison and their alcoholic mother disappeared. When the militia brought them, Sasha's face was completely swollen; center workers say he was beaten by strangers who were using the family's apartment for drinking when he stole a piece of bread.
``When Sasha first came in, he wouldn't look at you or anything,'' says volunteer Stephanie Snow, who works at the shelter as part of a University of Kansas program. ``But now it's like he's turned back into a little boy again.''
The shelter used to be frequented by 12- and 13-year-old prostitutes who wanted a few days to ``eat, sleep, and breathe,'' says director Oleg Zykov, who runs it in connection with the Moscow-based NAN (No to Alcohol and Narcotics) charity. His main worry, he says, is that the children will follow in their parents' footsteps someday.
``Ten percent of the children come to live here; the rest have already adapted to living in the streets,'' he says. ``Their home is the street.''
Homeless gather at train station
For others, home is the train station.
On a recent evening outside the Paveletsky Terminal, two women -
their heads shaved because of lice - walked past brightly lit kiosks, dragging a tired toddler wearing short pants and winter boots. Homeless men - most of them drunk - congregated in small groups swigging bottles of vodka and eating vyobla, the traditional Russian dried fish.
Inside, a small group of mostly homeless families sat languidly on the station's hard benches, their belongings piled in large heaps partially covered by blankets. One teenager, who says she left her husband after he beat her, tended her five-month-old daughter in a baby carriage.
Maxim, 11, came to the terminal in April with his mother and four siblings after their home in the former Soviet republic of Moldova burned down. Despite repeated pleas for government help, they have yet to receive assistance. ``I want to go home. I'm sick of living here,'' says Maxim, a solemn boy in a polyester track suit. ``Sometimes we need money to eat and there's no money.''
Lyuba, 45, has lived in the terminal nine years. She and her two children, aged 5 and 7, were only recently released from a hospital. (Poor health is common among the homeless, reports the Moscow branch of Doctors Without Frontiers.)
``It was so good in the hospital,'' reminisces Lyuba, who was sober for several years but recently went on a drinking binge she has yet to emerge from. ``I had my own bed, my own radio, I could just lie in bed all day and read.''
Maj. Ivy Nash, a British Salvation Army worker, visits Lyuba and her children at the train station several times weekly. She says she has been deeply saddened by what she terms the ``exploitation'' of the children at the station.
``When I see them begging on the metro, I could just go up and shake their parents,'' she says. ``They know the best way to get money is through the child, as Russians just love children.''
Vague and laxly enforced Russian laws mean that rarely do police or social workers gain the authority to take a child from his or her parents. But Major Nash believes that is the child's only hope. ``These children are something quite special,'' she says. ``They have a lot of love to give, and this isn't the place they can learn how to give it properly.''
For decades, the Soviet system tried to isolate the homeless and other ``undesirables'' from society instead of rehabilitating them. Now, says Andrei Babushkin, a Russian human rights activist who works with homeless people and prisoners, these people have adapted to living apart from society: ``They like to be the victim.''
Police say parents are to blame
But Commandant Maj. Gennady Volchkov, who runs the terminal's police precinct, says the parents are to blame. ``The kids start as little criminals and grow up to be big criminals. Their parents teach them from a young age to steal, to beg, to deceive,'' he says.
The homeless, however, often blame the police. The police ``take favors from them [the homeless]. With girls it can be sex, or it can be bottles of vodka,'' Varoli says. ``Officially, it's against the law to live in the train station, so they can set the rent at whatever they want.''
Stopping the cycle is not easy. Shelters are only temporary solutions, as are sending children to orphanages, which, while better than abusive homes, are often dreary institutions. Legal complications make adoptions difficult, although the waiting list for would-be parents in Russia is miles long.
One solution is a new system of ``family orphanages,'' 361 of which have been set up in Moscow. Under the program, foster parents receive 90,000 rubles ($45) monthly per child from the state. Some families have taken in as many as nine children, and a few have set up communal-style living arrangements in the countryside that mirror the old collective farms.
An eight-year-old runaway who now lives with a foster family is testimony to the success of this project. ``He's now studying fantastically, and all his teachers are praising him as a very talented, gifted little boy,'' Varoli says. ``The most important thing they're giving them is a mother.''
But for others, the future looks bleak. Seven-year-old Natasha and nine-year-old Vova have supported their mother, Tanya, since 1989. Their recent move from the train station to a welfare hotel seemed like a step in the right direction. But all it really means is that now the children have to beg longer hours to pay the rent.
``I regret that the Soviet Union no longer exists,'' says Tanya, as her children run up to a shiny Mercedes and beg for money. ``The Soviet Union needed us. I can't believe it's gone.''