Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 20

The problem of homelessness is growing in Russia

By John Varoli

Russia’s transition to a market economy has exacerbated many Soviet-era social problems. The country’s homeless population, both children and adults, has increased dramatically in the past five years. Out of a total population of 147.2 million, Russia’s homeless now number no fewer than 1.5 million, a figure that excludes the country’s several million refugees and forced migrants. Neither the Russian state nor the public has the necessary finances and will to tackle the problem.

However, it would be naive to lay all the blame on Russia’s transition to the market. Like many contemporary social ills, homelessness has roots in the Soviet past.

While the Soviet Union did not officially recognize homelessness, the problem did exist. Paradoxically, the repressive apparatus of the Soviet state both created the problem of homelessness and kept it in check. Soviet law mandated prison sentences of up to two years for vagrancy and begging. But the regime’s propiska system, which curtailed freedom of movement by requiring every citizen to register his or her place of residence with the interior ministry, was the main culprit in causing homelessness in the USSR.

Many of the Soviet-era homeless were former convicts. Depriving a felon of his residence permit was the state’s way of adding to his punishment, as well as of freeing up scarce housing. With the loss of his residence permit, a citizen lost the right to housing, work and social services. Such a person was known as a bomzh, an acronym standing for a person "without fixed abode." The bomzhi, a class of "non-existent" untouchables, fell through the cracks of the Soviet welfare system. With little chance of regaining their residence permit, many such people became vagrants. This put them at risk of being arrested and sentenced for vagrancy. The vicious cycle was almost impossible to break.

Soviet-era penalties for vagrancy and begging were repealed in 1991. The bomzhi emerged into the light of day. But, with the beginning of economic reform in 1992 came increasing income differentiation, and the country’s homeless population began to increase dramatically. While Russian cities had been free of the homeless in Soviet times, now they are swamped by an influx of beggars and vagrants.

Their increased presence has provoked tensions as urban residents have lost patience with what they see as the asocial behavior and lifestyle of the homeless. The potential health hazards are also great. St. Petersburg’s Nochlezhka (Shelter) is Russia’s leading non-government organization working with the homeless. It estimates that 70 percent of the homeless are infected with tuberculosis, while about a quarter of these have the diagnosis form of the disease. And, forced by circumstance, many of the homeless are guilty of at least petty theft, if not more serious crime.

The average Russian homeless person is male, aged between 30 and 45 years, with rudimentary technical education. Typically, he is an ex-convict, divorced with one child, chronically sick, and with no legal means of survival. The homeless find shelter in basements, attics, abandoned buildings, huts and sheds. They wander from place to place, earning a "living" however they can, be it by collecting bottles, doing odd jobs, or begging. Their main aim is to stay ahead of the police who beat them up and move them on.

Big cities are attractive because they offer anonymity and wider opportunities to make a living, but small cities and villages also have sizable homeless populations. The regional press is full of articles about the problems of local homelessness. Take Nerechta, a small city of 28,000 in Kostroma Oblast. Even so small a town has several dozens homeless people, some of whom are alcoholic men kicked out of the house by their wives, while others are drifters, mostly ex-cons, passing through.

The nomadic lifestyle of Russia’s homeless population is attributable not only to the persecution they meet at the hands of the police, but also to the country’s superb railway system which facilitates movement across the country. Because of its central location, Moscow tended in the past to be the preferred destination for vagrants. But recently that has started to change.

Moscow’s homeless population is presently estimated to be about 40,000. A few years ago, it was put at around 100,000. The fall in Moscow’s homeless population is attributable to Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov’s repressive measures to keep the homeless outside the city. City police often "cleanse" the streets, deporting the homeless to beyond the city’s 101-kilometer limit. A major effort was recently mounted to clean up the city for its 850th anniversary celebrations.

Meanwhile, the Nochlezhka organization estimates that there are now no fewer than 55,000 homeless in Russia’s second city, St. Petersburg. Nochlezhka reckons that about 60 percent of the homeless are former convicts. Each year, 8,000 to 11,000 prisoners return to the city, and 30 percent of them end up homeless because their apartments were taken away while they were in prison.

As stated above, the increase in homelessness in Russia today is not due solely to the country’s transition to the market. In fact, the Soviet legacy continues to exert its influence and to exacerbate the problem. Though Russia’s 1993 constitution supposedly abolished the propiska system and guaranteed citizens’ freedom of movement and residence, both Moscow and St. Petersburg were granted exemptions and the propiska system remains in effect there. Moreover, a new system of social control, called the registration system, has emerged, and many experts consider that it differs little from the propiska system. There are several ways to register if one has not already done so. Either one must secure sponsorship from relatives who have what is officially deemed an adequate amount of living space — a rarity in a country plagued by a housing shortage. Or one must purchase real estate, the price of which is usually prohibitive for those wishing to acquire their first housing.

In the Soviet period, the absence of a housing market was of secondary importance as a cause of homelessness. Today, the existence of such a market has become a major cause. Russia’s real estate business is plagued by an unusual category of crime — apartment theft — something virtually unheard of in western countries. Since many Russians have a poor understanding of the legal technicalities of real estate deals, it is easy for crooked realtors to trick credulous people out of their apartments.

Until only a few years ago, the second largest group of homeless, after former convicts, consisted of people who had run away from home following some family conflict. This group has now been overtaken by victims of apartment fraud. Nochlezhka estimates that today about 30 percent of St. Petersburg’s homeless population are victims of apartment theft, up from 17 percent in 1994.

Apartment fraud draws its victims from Russia’s most vulnerable categories — people living alone who are poor and elderly, alcoholic, or mentally ill. In the West, people from such categories rarely own their own apartments. A large number of Russians, however, have de jure or de facto ownership of housing inherited from the Soviet era. Thanks to economic reform, they may dispose of it as they choose: privatize it, sell it for cash, or swap it for another apartment. In the case of apartment swaps, inexperienced and poorly advised people sometimes sign away their apartment only to learn that the other party has not given them a new apartment. Criminals involved in such frauds are often in cahoots with state housing authorities and lawyers. As a result, victims have little recourse, especially if they are elderly and alone. Those with alcohol dependency have been known to sell off their apartment for a small quantity of alcohol, or to have signed a document while intoxicated. Police estimate that, in St. Petersburg alone, there were about 10,000 such victims in 1995.

Such cases are apparently becoming less frequent, however, partly because people are growing more aware of the problem and less trusting, and partly because law enforcement officers have scored some recent successes against the fraudsters. Several St. Petersburg gangs specializing in apartment theft have been smashed this year. Nochlezhka estimates that there are now around 150 cases of apartment thefts each month in St. Petersburg. Apartment theft nonetheless remains a serious threat for the weaker members of Russian society. According to Valeri Sokolov, the founder and director of Nochlezhka who is himself a former homeless person, "As long as Russia has a property-owning class of poor and defenseless people, they will provide easy prey for the mafia." Except for passing a new law making it more difficult for parents with children to sell their apartments, the state has done little to make people more secure in their homes.

Not only adults live on Russia’s streets. The country has an estimated 300,000 to 600,000 bezprizorniki, or street children. In the post-Soviet era, few things have been more shocking and painful for Russians than seeing children living on the streets. Opposition politicians and the media often try to pin the blame for child homelessness on the process of apartment privatization and attendant frauds. In fact, few children end up homeless this way. Most are runaways from broken homes, who live on the street frequently, though not always, and sometimes return home for brief stays.

The fall in industrial production and rise in unemployment have hit working class families the hardest. Whether it is in the mining towns of Kemerovo Oblast in Siberia or in St. Petersburg’s industrial districts, the process of family degradation is depressingly similar. After becoming unemployed, the father starts to drink. The female spouse eventually becomes worn under the burden of providing for the family financially, taking care of the children and her hard-drinking husband, and putting up with abuse. Eventually, she too may take to drink or just kick her husband out.

Children from such families spend most of their day without parental supervision. Many as young as eight take to the streets and become involved with a gang. From there the child lives a life of crime and chemical substance abuse, often sniffing glue.

In the past few years, street children have received more attention from both the state and private charities. Most cities have a small number of shelters and centers to help them. The issue has become so serious that President Yeltsin dedicated a recent weekly radio address to the issue.

Homeless adults are less fortunate, and receive almost no help and little sympathy from the public. Helping them is not even on the state’s social agenda. Many politicians argue that more pressing problems have a stronger claim to state assistance, and accuse the homeless of having gotten themselves into such dire straits.

According to Eduard Fomin, a sociologist specializing in social problems and deputy director of the Center For Independent Social Research in St. Petersburg, "The government has no coherent social policy at the present moment. On paper, citizens are promised the minimal guarantees for a normal life, but there is no money to meet these social rights." Fomin adds that, although the homeless are no longer persecuted by the state, they are not being helped, either. An illustration is provided by the medical insurance program established in 1995 for the homeless by the St. Petersburg city government together with Nochlezhka. On paper, according to this arrangement, the city’s homeless have free access to city clinics and hospitals, which would normally demand either a registration permit or payment from patients. In reality, many doctors — though not all — refuse to implement the city’s insurance program. The homeless are often turned away without medical treatment.

Perhaps the only positive move to improve the plight of the homeless has been the Constitutional Court’s 1995 ruling that felons may no longer be deprived of their residence permits and housing. Nevertheless, what exists on paper often differs from reality. According to Nochlezhka, the practice of stripping convicts of their residence permits and evicting them from their apartment continues.

Meanwhile, the number of Russia’s homeless continues to grow. They are still legally stigmatized as bomzh — "without fixed abode"– deprived of the right to the free social services that Russia’s 1993 Constitution promises them. And as long as the Russian government lacks the funds and the will to tackle the problem, the situation will continue to worsen.

John Varoli is on the staff of The St. Petersburg Times. He has lived in Russia since 1992 and was the co-founder and country manager of the American non-profit organization, Off the Streets, set up to protect the rights of street children in Russia. __________________________________________________________________________________________

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