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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Whither Russia's Waifs?

Western journalists covering the storming of the White House expressed surprise at finding children in the crowd of onlookers, adolescents darting fearlessly in and out of the fife, many of whom died or were wounded. Some of the bodies are still unclaimed because these were nobody's children.


Furthermore, eyewitnesses say that during the storming of Ostankino, a teenage gang terrorized passersby on nearby streets, stopping public buses and ordering everyone to get off.


Children like these have been seen warring and marauding in hot spots from Moldova to Abkhazia to Armenia. They are as dangerous as armed soldiers. As a rule, they lay low during the day and come out at night. But during those October days, the militia could not deal with them and so they snatched up sticks and stones with impunity and went off to fight. It did not much matter with whom.


Law enforcement officials estimate there are 150, 000 waifs in Russia today - roughly as many as there were after the revolution and after the war. The only difference is that those children were orphans, whereas these children are runaways.


They run to the big cities to get away from their hated relatives, schools, local militiamen. St. Petersburg, Tyumen, Chita, Krasnodar, Krasnoyarsk, Omsk, Kemerovo and Yekaterinburg are all home to between 3, 000 and 15, 000 homeless children.


The train stations in these and other cities are for many the only shelter. The newest runaway is immediately spotted by the veterans. For a piece of sausage they make him their slave. He is obliged to collect and return bottles, steal, beg, to engage in prostitution and rackets, to fetch for adult gangs. The kids who make it are the meanest ones, the most cunning and the most resourceful. There is no place for compassion here where children live by the laws of the underworld. They place no value on human life, they have no pity.


According to Vasily Kushnir, head of the Moscow reception-distribution center for minors, the rise in juvenile delinquency in Russia has, for the first rime, outstripped the birth rate. The center handles up to 6, 000 adolescents annually, mainly boys. Some come in voluntarily, others are brought in by the militia for petty crimes. But this is nothing compared to all the thousands of other homeless children hanging on in Moscow.


The privatization of living space has made for more homeless children. When alcoholic parents sell their apartments and move into attics or cellars, their children flee: some to fruit-filled Tashkent, others to war-torn Sukhumi, still others to Moscow.


A militiaman on duty at the Kursky train station, a favorite haunt of homeless children and adults, remarked that the underage vagrants there always have a lot of money. They live ON Snickers bars, smoke Marlboros, spend hours every day in the hall with the electronic games. The only ones who get caught stealing are the new ones.


Almost all of them are sloppily dressed, with dirty hands and hair. Most have lice, are poorly educated. Every other one is mentally ill. Many have venereal diseases. If taken to the reception-distribution center, they try to infect each other to get sent to the hospital from where escape is easier.


Why doesn't the militia arrest them for vagrancy?


"And then what? " Kushnir asked. "In our country there are no shelters for children like these. We have to return them to their parents, and then they run away all over again. We can't put them in re-from school because their parents still have their parental rights. We're like so many Don Quixotes dueling with windmills. Children are not protected from the cruelty of their parents, and society doesn't build shelters for runaways, we are powerless".


For now the only thing indignant citizens can do is to listen to predictions about the increases in crime to come. Everyone should be disturbed by this: crime will increase because there are more and more homeless children. Look around you! Teenagers died at the White House! and nobody even stopped to wonder what they were doing there, why they were dodging bullets and squealing with delight. Surprised correspondents from CNN were the only ones to ask the world: Whose children are these? Why are they here?


Tatyana Kozlova is a correspondent in St. Petersburg for Slovo i Delo. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.