AS dusk settled coldly over the railroad sidings at Moscow's Kursky station one recent evening, a line of shabbily dressed men shuffled toward a tureen of soup.
The only hot food that most of them ate that day was the steaming broth that Lyudmila Pavlova - a Salvation Army volunteer -
ladled into the cut-off plastic bottles they clutched. And the good-natured banter that Lyudmila's boss, Maj. Ivy Nash, encouraged was likely the only human touch the men enjoyed in a city where the homeless are treated as if they did not exist.
``For some people on the station we are their only link to humanity,'' said Major Nash, an English woman who has taken the homeless to her heart. ``Normally they are treated like animals.''
``The only government people who care about us are the militia [Moscow police], and they only care about us with their nightsticks,'' complained Volodya, one of the homeless men, as he sucked down his soup. ``There are many authorities to punish us, but none to help us.''
The attitude of the militia toward the homeless was best illustrated last December, when Mayor Yuri Luzhkov ordered a preelection cleanup of the streets. Homeless people were gathered at stations, hosed with cold water, herded onto trains, and deposited 50 miles outside Moscow in snowy fields.
The only reason Nash can think of for hosing them down ``was so that they would catch pneumonia and die.''
Volodya, who preferred not to give his full name ``because I have relatives,'' is one of an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 homeless people in the Russian capital, and the figure may be far higher. Nobody can be sure, because the homeless are always moving - from elevator shaft to subway tunnel, from construction site to railroad station.
But it is clear, say social workers, that the count has rocketed in the past five years, as Russia has embarked on the painful transition from Communism to a free-market economy.
Cradle-to-grave safety nets that the government once held under every Soviet citizen have long since disappeared, and the breakup of the Soviet Union has snapped organizational links, leaving many people stranded in a bureaucratic and social limbo.
``Our patients come here because there is nowhere else for them to go,'' said Nadine Delamotte of Doctors Without Borders at a mobile clinic that the Belgian charity runs for the homeless outside Paveletsky station. ``Nobody helps them.''
SOME of the homeless are victims of life's misfortunes, and are apparently helpless before them. Lyubov Solovyova, scarved and stockinged like all Russian babushkas, seems to be waiting for a train to go home as she sits at Paveletsky station. In fact, her home was destroyed in a freak explosion three years ago, and now she lives in the Paveletsky waiting room, ashamed to be begging.
Others sleeping roughly are ex-convicts who never managed to get their papers back after they were released, or those who lost their internal passports without which no Russian can get a job, a home, or anything else.
Lyosha Nikiferov, for example, lining up for soup at Kursky station, said his papers were stolen three years ago, when he was on his way home to Baikonur in Kazakhstan after finishing his Army service in Moscow. He can only replace his documents in his home town, but he cannot get there. ``Now Kazakhstan is another country, another government,'' he said. ``I don't know how I'll ever get home.''
His problems are compounded, he complained, by the way drivers whose cars he washes often prefer not to pay him cash, but to give him a bottle of cheap vodka. ``They say that's good enough for a homeless person.''
The typical Russian view - that the homeless are lazy drunks who would get a job if the Salvation Army wasn't feeding them - ``is not right,'' Nash said. ``If there was some sort of rehabilitation, some of these men could make something of themselves.''
But the homeless are not among the government's priorities as it struggles to build a new Russia, and even the departments nominally responsible for the deprived say they do little.
``It is not us, it is primarily the Interior Ministry [in charge of the militia] that deals with the homeless,'' said Boris Dolotin, spokesman for the Ministry of Social Protection.
Faced with callousness and the scale of the problem, Nash says she sometimes despairs of ever being able to make a dent. But she shows she cares.
``Most of them know that we can't work miracles,'' she said, as she listened to another litany of woes from a homeless woman at Paveletsky station the other evening. ``But at least I am someone they can let off steam to.''