Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 4

By Svetlana Sidorenko-Stephenson

The problem of Russia’s street children has over the last few years become a matter of a serious national and international concern. Although no reliable data exist on the number of children living and/or working on the street in Russia as a whole, indirect evidence confirms that the number has grown since the start of market reforms. Compared to 1988, the number of children brought from the streets to special militia reception centers in 1998 doubled. It is the militia (rather than the handful of charities active in the field) that plays the key role in dealing with street children: it takes them off the streets and sends them either back to their families, or to state children’s homes.

Between 1996 and 1998 the number of large state homes for so-called “social orphans” has doubled, reaching about one thousand institutions, and there are plans to build many more. These homes are seen by the authorities as the main solution to the problem of neglected and abandoned children. Often however they act as “revolving doors.” Children run away from oppressive and degrading treatment, only to be brought back again and again.

The increase in the numbers of street and homeless children in Russia is a sign of the erosion of the social fabric at its weakest point. Most affected are the families of unskilled manual workers, whose precarious employment status is often made even less secure by alcohol problems and a history of conflict with the law. In Soviet times, such families depended on the state and its paternalistic policies for their economic survival and place in society. Nowadays it is children from such families, plunged into poverty, who find themselves forced, through direct abuse, neglect or economic necessity, to seek their survival in the streets.

Children leaving home and living on the streets are often portrayed as deviants who have been allowed to “run loose” because of the collapse of the social control that was exercised under the Soviet regime by schools, after-school classes, Pioneer and Komsomol organizations, and Pioneer camps. However, the survey of street children that I conducted in Moscow in 1997-1998 found that, in fact, the children who end up living and working on the street do so because they are searching for strong and reliable social ties, ties that will help their economic survival. They hope to be able to settle with their friends and to find new families and new opportunities in the city.

Those who are unsuccessful in finding protective social networks join the ranks of the “bomzhi”–homeless street people, sleeping in cellars or lofts or on underground hot water pipes. The homeless children call themselves (and are called by others) “little bomzhi” (little bums) as opposed to the “big [adult] bomzhi.” The “little bomzhi” identify with the stigmatized adults and share their fate. The 1920s term “besprizorniki,” which referred to homeless children as a special social group, is no longer used in this community.

About half the street children in Moscow come from the capital itself. They have parents or relatives there, and periodically they return to their homes to sleep, eat or get (or, on the contrary, bring) some money. About a quarter are migrants from Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova; the other quarter come from provincial Russia, mostly from impoverished small towns and villages.

In our survey, we found that about 10 percent of the homeless children had come to Moscow with their families and lived at first in hotels or hostels, later migrating to train stations, cellars and lofts. Often, children are the main breadwinners for such families, since they are more successful in begging or trading in small merchandise like stationery or books. There are also “seasonal workers” who come to the city with their parents or relatives, or are hired from the parents by other people, and who go back home after earning substantial sums of money through begging.

Most of the street children work at the markets, wash cars, clean kiosks and do other odd jobs. These jobs help them to survive but do not guarantee what they need most of all–stability and protection. Occasionally the traders help some of the children, but on the whole relationships are purely functional. Incomes at the market are supplemented by petty thieving–usually from the market stalls.

There is also an informal, alternative society in Moscow created by the children and young people which allows many of them to survive in the situation of adversity and urban alienation. This is the so-called Arbatskaya Sistema (Arbat System). The “System” originated with the hippie movement of the mid-sixties. In the mid-1980s, it was taken over by the youth subcultures (the so-called “neformalniye ob’yedineniya,” “neformali,” or “informal organizations”) which emerged in Russia with the beginning of Gorbachev’s reforms. The “System” takes its name from Moscow’s famous Arbat street, which was first pedestrian zone established in Moscow in imitation of those in Western cities. It soon became a center for informal trade (mainly for tourists), drug-dealing and prostitution. When the Arbat was remodeled–supposedly to look like a nineteenth-century Russian street–it became clear that it was not a safe place for promenading but rather a center for all sorts of shady and illegal activities. As a center of unregulated activities, the Arbat became a Mecca where the “neformali” could listen to street musicians, recite poetry, drink alcohol and take drugs.

Today, the Arbat System is a conglomerate of sub-cultures: punks, hippies, ravers, Tolkienists, skinheads, Satanists and so on. Children migrate from group to group. Often, it as a matter of pure chance which particular group they join.

Street children are attracted by the system because of the protection it gives them. For example, it provides a network of “vpiski.” These are places–usually the flats of Moscow-based System members–where one can find temporary sleeping accommodation. Quasi-familial relationships develop. There can be a System father or mother, sisters and brothers who are engaged in informal exchange of food and money and emotional support. The ties are quite weak, and mutual obligations are not always fulfilled. There are no strict hierarchies, although there is a division between “pioneers” (newcomers) and “oldies” (those who have been in the System for a long time).

The Arbat community has developed its own normative code, which includes prohibitions on stealing and begging. The only permitted way to beg is to “ask” (askat’), which means approaching passers-by with polite requests for money or food. This personalized begging is not considered degrading, as donations supposedly take the form of “civic assistance” rather than charity. With its lack of serious resources and loose structure, however, the system does not really provide adequate protection. And, while its members boast about its egalitarianism, there are clear divisions between native Muscovites and, on the one hand, those migrants who come from middle-class families, and, on the other, those children who have run away from problem homes.

Sixteen-year old Olya first ran away from her home near Minsk at the age of eight. Her reasons were typical–parental alcoholism, rows and beatings. She lived for a while with a friend from Moscow and then at various temporary sleeping places, earning money by “asking.” According to Olya, “The children who run away from home, who start very early to smoke, to drink, and to wear ragged jeans and “balakhoni” [special jumpers with subcultural symbols]–we’re just ‘grass.’ Those who live at home, study at university, get an education–they’re ‘trees.’ We’re below, they’re above.” At the same time, even those who are “below” in the System are regarded as an upper caste by “little bomzhi” and underage prostitutes.

The opportunities of upward and downward mobility on the Arbat depend a lot on access to sleeping places. Olya, despite her great desire to stay in the System, did not survive in it for long. For about a year she stayed with a girl from Moscow and worked as unpaid domestic help, but this arrangement came to an end. Now she lives with several other girls in the flat of a “mamochka”–a madam–and earns her living by prostitution.

Lena, who is also from Belarus, seems by contrast to have a stable position in the System. She started running away from home when she was ten. At first, she went to stay with friends in Minsk; later, she started to travel to Moscow, normally with three or four friends from Minsk. Now aged fifteen, Lena has managed in the intervals between her travels to acquire nine years of schooling. She wants to be a linguist and to study at Minsk State University. She lives with her mother who works at an academic institute. She migrates from one group to the other, survives by “asking”, but categorically denies that she will ever engage in prostitution or theft. She is critical of those children who drop out from the System and become street homeless: “Everything depends upon the individual. If they have no moral values, don’t care where they sleep, don’t think about others, then they’re bomzhi. They live in dirt, become alcoholics, and have crossed the line.”

It seems, however, very easy to cross the line in this community, given the almost universal abuse of drug among its members. Although our respondents claimed that the Arbat accepts everybody, they also told us about procedures that can be seen as mechanisms of social closure, cutting off “inappropriate” newcomers. In order to be eligible for support, for example, one has to be a member of the “tusovka”–the group.

Lena: On the Arbat everybody is a brother or a sister. She’ll help me and, if I have the opportunity, I’ll help her or somebody else.

Interviewer: And what about those children who live in lofts and cellars?

Lena: If they are members of the “tusovka,” then they are helped as well, and if not, nobody cares.

Underage vagrants, the homeless and prostitutes are not welcome on the Arbat (even though these people also think of the Arbat as their own!). However, if a young person is well spoken and “his theme is well developed,” he will more easily win acceptance by the community. It is even all right to eat leftovers and sleep in rubbish bins as long as one can argue that one is a punk and is acting according to one’s convictions, rather than a loser who has lost all dignity.

To be accepted into the Arbat community, the newcomer must pass a test. “We have a law. When an ‘oldie,’ who is an established member of a tusovka, sees a ‘pioneer’ in a T-shirt with the logo of the Sex Pistols or Kino (Tzoi’s group) or Alisa [popular punk-rock groups], the oldie asks: ‘What [kind of music]do you listen to? Which discs do you know?’ If the newcomer cannot answer the question, his jumper is taken away and he is chased off.”

The problem with the system as an alternative community is that it is mainly accessible only to children who possess sufficient social skills to get by and who can display the required knowledge of norms and symbols. Those children and young people who need the System most–those who come from deprived backgrounds–are often rejected. Then the only way to avoid descending into being a bomzh is through joining organized prostitution or crime.

The complex ways of survival and adaptation developed by children in the informal economy and society are a tribute to human ingenuity and the capacity to overcome the most adverse circumstances. But they are also a result of a failure of social policies to develop adequate responses to increasing poverty and the marginalization of youth. However inventive and adaptable children are, living on the streets is precarious and full of dangers. Even those of our respondents who were resilient and had been fortunate enough to join the street elite, longed for “normality.” They saw this as life lived either with their parents (as long as the parents stopped drinking or beating them), or in a foster home. To meet their needs, the state should develop family-centered strategies rather than build new children homes. There are some examples of progressive policies (such as the experiment in Samara Region, which aims to get all homeless children out of institutions and into foster homes), but these are still woefully inadequate in relation to the needs of Russia’s street children.

Svetlana Sidorenko-Stephenson is a Research Fellow in European Social Policy at the University of Luton, UK. This article is based on a survey of street children that she conducted in Moscow in 1997-98.