Oleg Mukhin lives with several friends in a hollow beneath the platform of Moscow's Vikhino railway station. The thin, small and nervous 11-year-old insists that it's not a bad life. But sometimes, he says, the police try to round the kids up by spraying tear gas into their hiding places and hitting them with truncheons.
A native of the central Russian city of Orel, Oleg ran away four years ago from a family he won't talk about and headed for Moscow. "I wanted to see the world," he says, with a touch of bluster.
Like tens of thousands of street children who live in Russia's capital and belie official claims of an economic boom, Oleg makes do with a little begging, a bit of petty theft, and increasing help from grass-roots charity and social-action groups.
He knows the working hours of every soup kitchen in Moscow, and speaks warmly of the charity volunteers who distribute food and clothing. As for the police, he says, there are good ones and bad ones, "but it's best to stay away from them in general."
More than a dozen children questioned in three Moscow railway stations and the "Little Runaways" private shelter for homeless kids accused police of beating them, extorting money, and other forms of harassment. Yulia Segeyeva, who is 14, says police at Yaroslavl train station dragged her into an office and "attacked" her. She says she ran away.
A Moscow police official, who asked not to be named, denied that such things are common and said police procedures are being overhauled to ensure no abuses occur.
He said that street children quickly become "criminalized," and that their accusations are not necessarily credible. "No child can survive long on the street alone, because it is a very harsh environment," he says. "They find a surrogate family in gangs, where older criminals organize their lives and take the place of parents."
Until recently, the only official faces most street kids ever saw were those of Moscow's police. And, even barring abuse, the only treatment a non-Muscovite street kid like Oleg could expect, if caught in one of the periodic police sweeps, was to be held in a juvenile prison and then returned to authorities in Orel.
The Moscow Interior Ministry says it has scooped up 29,100 children in city railway stations and streets so far this year, most from other parts of the country. Most of them were "returned to their homes." Oleg says he's been sent back to his family twice, only to escape and make his way once again to the capital.
"Unfortunately, Moscow has not handled the problem of homeless and runaway children very well," says Valentina Teryokhina, a Russian Labor Ministry official specializing in programs for minors. "They have tried to simply clear the city of street kids, rather than take responsibility for helping them. I believe this is going to change."
A city of 10 million people, Moscow has two official shelters for children, where psychologists and social workers address individual situations, and these shelters are open only to kids registered as living in the capital.
Estimates of how many children are on their own in post-Soviet Russia range from 50,000 to more than 1 million. Nine different official agencies are charged with dealing with the problem, including the Education Ministry, Labor Ministry, and Interior Ministry.
In practice, little has been done as numbers of homeless kids exploded over the past decade. But this year a central commission, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko, was formed to coordinate policy and devise new approaches.
"Our data suggest the problem is growing and requires urgent solutions," says Sergei Vitelis, who heads the effort for the Education Ministry. "Most runaways are children from dysfunctional families, where there is alcoholism, violence, and abuse. In the absence of anywhere else to go, these children fall under the influence of false 'families', such as criminal gangs. We must provide systematic alternatives for them."
Oleg Mukhin and his friends at Vikhino station say they haven't seen any changes in the way the police deal with them.
A more optimistic picture can be found at "Little Runaways," a private shelter in the Moscow suburb of Medvedkovo, funded by Assistance to Russian Orphans, a nongovernmental charity supported by various international agencies including USAID. The center was founded two years ago by Andrei Babushkin, a local politician and champion of children's rights whose main aim was to reach street children before the police did. Several former street children work as volunteer counselors for the shelter, and charity groups contribute food, clothing, and books.
"We are creating a database of abandoned and runaway kids in Moscow," says Mr. Babushkin. "We bring them here, feed them, listen to their stories, and refer them on to other specialized agencies, foster homes, or back to their own families. We've made enough progress that the local police have started bringing street kids to us."
Babushkin acknowledges that his center is not a solution, but he hopes that authorities will take note of the model. The cramped former communal flat has space for only about 20 children to sleep, and, he says, and its resources are "extremely meager." Still, several kids in the center's library/sitting room one day last week seemed clean and relaxed, and said they were happy to have found their way there.
"You can't do anything with a young person until you get to know him or her personally," says Andrei Mayakov, 17, who spent three years on the streets before coming to work at the center. "But once you're friends, you can start helping them with their future plans."
Babushkin agrees that Russian officials are becoming more sensitive to the plight of homeless children, but he smiles wryly at mention of the Matvienko commission. "There are two ways to deal with a problem: One is to do something, and the other is to form a committee," he says with a shrug.