The lower depths in Russia today
(opendemocracy.net – December 14, 2013 – Ekaterina Loushnikova)
Ekaterina Loushnikova is radio and print journalist based in the city of Kirov
Over a century after Maksim Gorky’s famous play about homeless people ‘The Lower Depths’ Ekaterina Loushnikova has been looking around her home city of Kirov to see if anything has changed.
The church porch
I stood in the porch of Kirov’s St Serafim’s church, a traditional place for beggars to congregate. I wasn’t asking for anything, but someone handed me two roubles (about 4p). Ordinary Russians are kindhearted and I didn’t turn it down. I passed it on to my new acquaintance, an elderly woman in a flower-patterned headscarf sitting on a wooden box that once contained fruit. Lyudmila Petrovna is eighty years old, and begs for alms outside the church during morning and evening services. She doesn’t get a lot it’s a rare day that she collects one hundred roubles (just less than two pounds sterling) but people also bring her food: bread, toffees, biscuits, pea soup in a glass jar. Lyudmila Petrovna is cheered by their offerings, and asks each of them if there’s someone they’d like her to pray for.
The elderly woman has a monthly pension of 6000 roubles (£110); the average Russian earns about 30,000 roubles (£550) a month. A third of Lyudmila Petrovna’s money goes on the rent for a room in a communal flat in a nearby jerry-built block; the rest has to meet all her needs for the month. In Kirov, bread costs 20 roubles, potatoes 30, milk also 30, tea 40, and sugar 50 roubles. You can survive, of course, but you can forget about buying meat, sausage, fish, eggs and other non-essentials, and you buy any clothes you need in the second-hand shop. Here, amongst a heap of clothing from Europe and the US, Lyudmila Petrovna finds a frilled linen skirt ‘made in Germany’, a Dutch-made jacket and American shoes, which are two sizes too big but will be fine if she wears three pairs of socks with them. She can buy the socks here too, and the whole lot sets her back about 500 roubles. The old lady is as pleased as punch at finding such cheap stuff from European countries she has never seen.
‘Lyudmila Petrovna,’ I ask, ‘do you know where Holland is?’
‘I couldn’t tell you exactly’, she replies, ‘but I know it’s in Europe. I used to get good marks for geography! I was a good learner; I had ten years of school.’
Down and out
Before she retired, Lyudmila Petrovna was a postwoman, but she’s not keen on talking about the years when she worked and had her own flat or about her children and grandchildren either. ‘They said, “Go and stay with relatives or somebody, Ma… or we’ll put you in a care home. You’re in the way here, you get on our nerves with your preachifying.” I’d already transferred the flat to their names. I went to stay with my sister but it didn’t work out, so I came back, and was homeless. Sometimes I’d sleep in an attic, sometimes in a cellar, sometimes right on the street under a tree. People would beat me up, boys would throw stones at me, the police would pick me up and throw me in a cell, then they’d let me go this happened over and over again. But what could they do with me? The children had taken my name off the register for the flat, but if I wasn’t registered anywhere I couldn’t get my pension. I was living off bread and holy water from St Tryphon’s well.’
Lyudmila Petrovna didn’t go to the social services. She was too embarrassed about her tattered clothes, her hands black with dirt, and the rumbling in her hungry stomach, and even more about her inconsolable grief. Sorrow doesn’t like company: it prefers solitude, wrapped in a cocoon of tears that have dried to a crust around the heart. Many people find consolation in a bottle of wine, but you don’t get much wine or vodka in a church porch. What they drink here is hawthorn berries and hot peppers infused in spirit from a chemist’s shop or hardware store cheap and cheerful at thirty roubles a bottle. It’s not something you can drink for long: after a couple of years your skin turns yellow and becomes ulcerated, you lose your feet, then your memory, and finally your right to be called human. If a living corpse like this is lucky, they get picked up and taken to a drug dependency unit or a psychiatric clinic; if not, it’s straight to the cemetery for burial at government expense. While homeless people are alive they survive whatever way they can. They try to avoid contact with social services and charities, thinking that instead of help they’ll end up with servitude.
A saviour appears
Lyudmila Petrovna was lucky she was saved by a happy marriage. ‘I got married when I was eighty. My suitor lived in the block of flats next to the church, and would come and sit in the porch with us for a chat. The old fellow was lonely all his family had died or moved away. But he was nearly ninety, and one day he said, “If only someone would come and help me a bit at home. I haven’t washed the dishes for three years; my porridge is full of grubs; I put my laundry to soak last year and never got round to washing it, and the neighbours are cursing me day and night because of the smell.” So I went round and did a bit of washing and cleaning for him. Then one day I said, “Well, you might give me a bit of floor and a coat to sleep on, it’ll be warmer than the street”. And he said, “You may as well come and live with me. I’m fond of you.”
‘He registered me at the flat, so I could claim my pension. But our happy life together didn’t last long. My old man’s health started going if it wasn’t his heart it was his blood pressure; and I’d be phoning for the ambulance every day. One day he proposed to me: “Let’s get married, love. You never know when I’ll die.” So off we went to the registry office, all dressed up him in a jacket with all his war medals on, and me in a nice flowery dress and I even put lipstick on, believe it or not! We arrived and they said they couldn’t marry us straight away: “You might change your minds, just wait for a month to be sure of your feelings for each other”. So we waited a month and went back, and this time we got married. We didn’t have what you’d call a proper wedding; we had tea and sweets and I baked a cake. I don’t drink wine, but I gave some to the winos to warm the cockles of their hearts on our special day. Everyone drank to us and wished us a long and happy life together, but my old fellow died not long afterwards. The drunks in the porch didn’t even have time to dry out one day they were drinking to his health, the next to his eternal rest.’
Lyudmila Petrovna has a photo album to remind her of her husband, as well as his jacket with the medals, and, most importantly, a roof over her head. She’s also adopted a stray dog called Naida, and the two of them live happily together.
People of No Permanent Abode
Splavnaya Street still has wooden pavements from the time of the Second World War, and is lined with cheap one-storey wooden housing blocks of the same era, probably built by German prisoners of war. The only stone building in the area is the rather grandly named Centre for the Rehabilitation of People of No Permanent Abode or Occupation. Here the social services give homeless people a warm bed with clean sheets, a hot shower and a packed lunch consisting of pasta, vegetable oil, sugar, tea and instant Chinese noodles. There’s no meat for the homeless. It’s also not supposed to become a permanent place of residence: the rules state that you can spend the night there but in the morning you have to go to work. However, many of the people there are unemployed, and some are disabled as well. Aleksei, who was brought up in a children’s home, lost his toes to frostbite when he lived in an unheated hut. The 37-year-old, who looks 20 years younger, has nothing: no father or mother, no place to live, no work, no money – just a younger sister who has a bed in the next room. This is their home; they have nowhere else to go. And there are many like them. The centre has fifty permanent residents and no room for any more.
‘Don’t take my photo!’ warns Valera, a thin man of indeterminate age with a swarthy impassive face. It’s not hard to tell that he’s spent a lot of his life behind bars; and indeed he recently left prison after serving a 20-year sentence. What for? Robbery, burglary all sorts, but no, he’d never killed anyone.
‘Do you have a family, any relatives?’
‘Not a soul’, he tells me, ‘no relatives, no friends, no home. Just me. So I’m living here for the time being.’
It feels as though the ex-con is finding it difficult to get used to freedom. He needs to start a new life, but how do you do that if you’ve spent 20 years behind bars? After struggling on the outside for a few months or a couple of years, former prisoners usually revert to crime just to get back home to jail.
Some have a bit of luck. One of Valera’s roommates, another ex-con, has found a job in the north. His name is Alexander and he did time for murder.
‘Yeah, I stabbed one of my colleagues with a knife. I’d had too much to drink. They gave me 15 years, and I served every day. But now I’m out I’m starting a new life. My mother’s in a care home and I have two sons. I have no contact with one of them his mother has a new family now and she doesn’t want to see me. But my elder son, from an earlier marriage, is doing his military service, and when he finishes he might join me. My mother can come and live with us too. If only I can stay off the bottle!’ he says in the tone of a man who is doomed to suffering or some other unavoidable disaster.
A retired KGB Lieutenant-Colonel
In the next room I meet a man who is in such a state of chronic insobriety that it’s impossible to tell when he last drank this morning, yesterday, the day before or whether his breath just permanently reeks of alcohol. He unexpectedly introduces himself as Nicolas, in the French manner, and he turns out to be a retired KGB Lieutenant-Colonel. ‘I served in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Chechnya’, he tells me. ‘Carried out government instructions. I have medals to show for it and wounds. I started drinking on active service war drives you to all sorts of things. But that’s it I’m quitting. I’ve made my mind up.’
‘Do you get any visitors here?’
‘Yes, my wife came to see me yesterday, but she’s found someone else, she’s left me. Are you married? I’m still a young man, after all;’ and the retired colonel winks at me provocatively.
I’ve never had so many conversations about marriage as in this homeless centre and the prisons I’ve visited. It’s like a dream of paradise for them. ‘I long to meet someone and have a family. There’s nothing worse than loneliness,’ says a talkative, plumpish man as he gets up from his bed, introducing himself as Yury Flegontovich. ‘Wait a minute while I get dressed and I’ll tell you everything about my life. I have such a tale to tell you!’
I hear his ‘tale’ in the centre’s library. Its shelves are full of books by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Durrenmatt and Cortázar, as well as contemporary detective fiction, but my new acquaintance’s life beats them all. He arrives for his appointment with a journalist in an expensive suit, a silk shirt and a colourful tie complete with tiepin.
‘I now work for the Church of the New Testament [an evangelical protestant church] but I used to be a professional criminal’, he begins. ‘When I was young I messed about a fair bit thieved, murdered, beat people up, went to prison once or twice. The first time I got sent down I was 18 I roughed up a cop and got two years for it. When I came out I got my own gang together, and we stole cars, took the windscreens off. Did good business! Then I got sent down again, this time to a high security place. Came out of there, and started thieving and murdering again. I don’t know how many people I killed. Our boss was a guy known as “Cheburashka” [after a children’s TV cartoon character], but then I set up my own business dealing in stolen precious metal goods. I had loads of money, a car, a flat but I lost it all playing the machines in casinos. They tried to kill me and they buried me alive, but I managed to scrabble my way out.
‘I repented of my sins and became a pilgrim I walked 7,000 kilometres around holy places, churches and monasteries. The one that made a particular impression on me was the Holy Trinity monastery in Perm, where I walked into a cell to find one monk had pulled up another monk’s habit and was buggering him like there was no tomorrow! And he didn’t even stop when I came in he just said, “Brother, you should knock before you come in.” I left the next day and went off the Orthodox Church. We have people living here in the Centre that were buggered in prison [and so considered the lowest of the low in the prison hierarchy], and you need to be careful around them. You can help them, but don’t shake their hands!’
‘I’ve been shaking everyone’s hand!!!’ I cried in horror. Yury Flegontovich gave me a look of sympathy. ‘You’d better wash your hands with household soap then. Of course you’re a woman, not a bloke, but wash them anyway. You could catch some kind of itch or heaven knows what they’re all tramps here, after all. In Perm I used to crash out in a shaft at a district heating plant, and I’d wake up in the morning on top of a thick black pile of cockroaches, all crawling around under me. Men and women would be sitting around eating and drinking, and there’d be a stinking corpse lying in the corner. No one had even thought about burying it!
‘And listen to what I saw here yesterday. There was a fight between an amputee and his girlfriend, who’s completely off her head. She had epilepsy and it’s turned into schizophrenia. She bashed him over the head with his own crutch, and he broke a stool over her. When the manager found out he threw them both out. He’s a strict man, but fair.’
Managing – just…
The Centre’s manager is Vladimir Zmeyev, a retired Lieutenant Colonel of police from Soviet times. He began his career as a police officer attached to the women’s department of a sexual health clinic, and later was in charge of detention centres and sobering-up stations for arrestees and alcoholics. Now he runs a homeless centre. Such is life. There’s never a dull moment.
‘My predecessor here was a woman, who sometimes had to hide under her desk when inmates got rough,’ he tells me. ‘One of our employees even got murdered by a homeless guy. The member of staff made some critical remark to him, and he grabbed a knife and stabbed him. The blade pierced his lung and he died instantly…’
The dead man’s wife still works at the Centre. She is coming up to retirement age so it’s not easy to find another job. Not that it’s easy here staff salaries are sometimes lower than the wages of some residents. A construction worker, even if he’s a former tramp, can earn up to thirty thousand roubles a month, while an administrative worker at the Centre can’t earn more than five thousand, and there’s nothing they can do about it, that’s the rate for the job. Staff usually have two jobs, just to survive. After the murder, CCTV cameras were installed everywhere a mouse would find it difficult to avoid them, but experienced ex-cons can and do.
‘They still bring in drink and food, from who knows where,’ laments Vladimir Zmeyev. ‘We can’t feed them properly here. We have an annual budget of just 150,000 roubles (£3,000) for food and drink. But we do get donations and residents who are earning well help the rest out. We’ve had businessmen, bureaucrats, intellectuals; all kinds of military people living here. I remember one police officer that spent a long time working in Chechnya and came home to find his wife had left him for someone else. He did the right thing by her didn’t take her to court over the flat, left her everything and went to live in a vault in the cemetery. Started to drink of course his friends brought him here.’
‘And do people really get back on their feet after coming here?’ I asked.
‘Unfortunately, most of them go back to where they came from cellars, doorways, heating plant shafts. They stay here for the winter, but as soon as it gets warmer they’re off. What can you do, it’s their decision.’
As I’m leaving I see one more sight. They’ve just signed in a new resident. His face is covered in bruises and ulcers, he has the watery blue eyes of a habitual drunkard, and the look of someone who no longer expects anything out of life…
The Centre staff fuss around the newcomer; they will wash him, give him medical treatment, delouse his clothes, establish his identity and renew his papers, but how can they re-establish his life, half of which is already lost?
Back at home, I spend a long time washing my hands with household soap, and wipe them with disinfectant, just in case. After all, you can’t avoid yourself …
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