Olga Zemlakova, a short-haired woman in her 20s with three silver rings in her left ear, is part secret agent, part guardian angel.
Her current focus is a young St. Petersburg gang, whose members spend most days begging outside a subway station and sniffing leather dye. A few of the adolescent girls have sold themselves as prostitutes.
"This gang is collapsing now," Ms. Zemlakova says, after a month's work. "That's the main aim. But it is one thing to put people with their families or in institutions, and another to keep them there. This is a long-term project."
The social worker infiltrates gangs, gains their trust, and, eventually, persuades members to return to their families or to seek help elsewhere.
Minimizing the risks of life on the streets is the main aim of several government, local, and United Nations-sponsored pilot projects now under way in Russia's second city.
Zemlakova hugs the children, listens to them, cajoles them. In cases of violence, or when someone has threatening physical or drug-abuse problems, she can call police without revealing herself. Most of the street kids recognize her from her work in a government canteen on nearby Nevsky Prospekt, where many eat one meal a day.
By official estimates, there are 620,000 "social orphans" in Russia - neglected or abandoned children whose parents can't, or won't, look after them. And the number is rising, according to a report in February by a UN special rapporteur on child prostitution and pornography, which cited Russia's "extensive levels of alcoholism" - a rampant problem here - as a main reason.
It's a problem Natasha, one of the girls Zemlakova works with, knows well. It's not that her parents don't love her, she says. This morning, her mother gave her a new pair of shoes for her 11th birthday. But by late afternoon, both of her parents were drunk, again, and she was out on the streets, again. "They really worry about me," she says. "But they can't keep me, because they are drunk all the time."
Natasha has her own plans to celebrate, by filling the plastic bag she keeps hidden under her jacket five times today, instead of the usual three. With one arm inside her jacket, she brings the bag to her nose every few minutes to sniff intoxicating fumes from leather dye, or "karat."
It's a toss-up whether the hallucinations will be good or bad. "The good ones are beautiful, with apple trees in a garden of paradise," Natasha says, flashing chipped fingernails painted light blue. "But the bad ones, there are so many awful small creatures, like spiders and cockroaches."
Julia, one of the leaders of the gang, says she once sniffed dye, but gave it up. "Sometimes I take the [dye] sacks away from them, and they shout insults," she says, shaking her head. Now 16, Julia began street life a decade ago, fleeing an abusive father.
Sometimes she works hand-in-hand with Zemlakova. But she is locked in a power struggle with a rival gang leader, who has introduced some of the girls to intravenous drugs and is both a pimp and a prostitute. Julia says the presence of a juvenile pornography film ring in the city has made the lure of prostitution for "her" girls far greater, because the reward is high. Several, including Masha, a 14-year-old, boasted recently that they would "go with a man" for money to buy rollerblades.
"Everyone who gets used to the street life becomes absolutely fearless," Julia says.
A recent St. Petersburg State University study found that 16,000 street kids are "working" here - up from zero a decade ago, when the Soviet Union collapsed.
The results of interviews with 1,000 of these children detailed 30 types of "labor" among minors, from scavenging to drug running. Three-quarters of the boys were found to be undergoing "hazardous" work; almost all of the girls were sexually exploited.
The data forms the basis for a joint project of charities and the UN International Labor Organization. Their plan is to streamline social-support systems, creating a reproducible model for Russia by rehabilitating 100 street girls, 1,000 other street kids, and by making a neighborhood "safe zone" with the help of schools and volunteers.
"We want to build cooperation between families, schools, and police," says Alexei Boukharov, head of the ILO's Russia program to eliminate child labor. Worried about cross-border sex tourism, the government of Finland is a primary donor.
Preserving the family unit is high on the agenda. "People see the family as a reliable nucleus for stability and moral and spiritual support, but more than 80 percent of families live below subsistence level," says Elena Voronova, a sociology lecturer and coauthor of the university study.
"We want to create conditions so that families can support themselves in the future," adds Vera Smirnova, another coauthor of the study who heads a child-protection group. But getting parents to cooperate can be hard, especially when alcohol is a factor. "It is most difficult if parents are carried away with their own problems and don't care about their kids," Ms. Smirnova says. "We aren't trying to solve the problem all at once, but are trying to create a model and go from there."
"We feel like explorers in this field," says Bagan Kanaye, one of Zemlakova's bosses and director of St. Petersburg's Center for Preventing Orphans and Minor Drug Addicts. He estimates there are some 30,000 to 40,000 "transient" children here. As many as 10 percent of them, he says, "prefer" the life of the streets.
Vladimir Gushin, another social worker who penetrates gangs, deals with tougher groups of skinheads and punks. He tries to convince gang leaders to send home very young children.
He is often successful, he says, "because in their heart of hearts, they know what they are doing is bad."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor