Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 151

New Yorkers were shocked recently when they learned that the blind Mexicans begging on the subway were being kept in conditions of slavery and forced to hand over all their earnings to criminal gangs. A similar case of slavery has been revealed in Moscow, where limbless ex-servicemen, claiming to be veterans of Russia’s wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, are a familiar sight at underground passageways. According to the newspaper Izvestia, most of these people actually lost their limbs in industrial accidents and "saw Chechnya only on the TV screen." (Izvestia, August 12)

The newspaper claims that the beggars are controlled by what it calls gypsy gangs, most of which are said to be Moldovan in ethnic origin. According to Izvestia, the beggars are forced by the gangs to hand over all they earn from begging — an average of around $40 a day. In return, the invalids receive transportation to and from their patch of street and somewhere to sleep at night. Most importantly, they receive protection from other street gangs. No one, Izvestia asserts, begs on Moscow’s streets without Mafia protection, because anyone trying to operate independently is beaten up and forced off the street.

This is the classic role of organized crime: providing citizens with protection under circumstances in which the state is too weak or too corrupt to fulfill its customary obligations. The failure of Russia’s law enforcement agencies to protect the weak is exacerbated by low wages, which leave police officers especially vulnerable to corruption. In any case, the militia complain that they are powerless to break up the gangs. They say that the liberalization of Russia’s penal code swept away the old Soviet-era penalties for begging and that they can prosecute beggars only if they are found to be in Moscow without registration papers. They say the beggars do not complain about their conditions of servitude: "Even if it’s bad work, at least they do have work of a sort, and they’re grateful for that."

One of the Monitor’s correspondents in Russia casts doubt on at least parts of Izvestia’s story, however. He says that while Moldovan gypsies are certainly active in Moscow, Izvestia’s claim that they control beggars throughout the city is implausible. He says his conversations with beggars have revealed little evidence of systematic control. Although gypsies are the streets’ only tight-knit group and this puts them at an advantage when it comes to survival, controlling large numbers of other street people is not, according to our correspondent, a real possibility. He says the Moldovan gypsies tend to come to Moscow during the summer months but have no permanent presence there. He attributes Izvestia’s story to the difficulty experienced by Russian journalists, like those in other countries, in finding sensational stories in the "silly season." In reality, he says, "life on the streets is chaotic. There are no rules, no laws, no allegiances, no friends."

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