Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Juvenile Crime: Boom Area That Is Out of Control

They knocked the drunk down and beat in his face with paving stones, kicking and punching him with all the viciousness coiled in their wiry bodies, until his rattling grunts stopped.

They watched him die.

Then the three Yakovlev brothers, all under 15, cleaned out his pockets -- although they did not kill him to rob him, said the youngest. "He swore at us, and we're just kids, and he said bad words about our mother, we beat him for that, that's what we killed him for," Volodya, 11, said.

Volodya and his brothers are a new phenomenon, and perhaps the most ominous symptom of the rot afflicting the heart of Russia.

Juvenile delinquency is booming, fueled by daily proof that crime pays and helped along by disorder in the courts, schools and city councils that used to help keep it under control.

In 1993, crimes by minors jumped 13 percent, nearly 10 times more than the overall crime rise of 1.4 percent, and they are multiplying even faster this year. Officials say Russia now has 60,000 homeless juveniles, while money for boarding schools and rehabilitation dwindles, producing a class of what social workers refer to as "children in crisis."

"A generation of criminals is growing up right before our eyes," said Vladimir Kolokoltsev, the chief of the 108th district police department that covers central Moscow.

On the city's streets, it has become common to see children of 8 or 9 weaving through traffic to hawk drinks and newspapers or to beg from drivers in the middle of what should be a school day. Train stations host bands of urchins and police report a sharp rise in juvenile prostitution.

The Yakovlev family -- Volodya, his six siblings and widowed, semi-invalid mother -- has gained a certain renown as the face of social decay. The Kuranty daily used their tale of murder as a jumping-off point for a list of recent hideous crimes by minors.

Natalia Ptushkina, the juvenile officer at the 108th district police department, first noticed the Yakovlevs early last year, when they started coming downtown from their working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Moscow.

"What could literally be called a children's gang was forming," she said. "It began from a common interest in money -- first they washed cars, then begged in the streets, and soon took to stealing."

Gangs are not uncommon in Russia, but a children's gang, and such an aggressive one, was something new.

When the police pulled in Volodya and three of his brothers -- Dima, 12, Vitya, 14, and Andrei, 15 -- they often found packets of money, expensive toys and personal stereos on them. The boys admitted to rolling drunks for the money, but because no victims ever came to complain, the police could not file charges.

A similar legal loophole has kept Volodya and Vitya on the streets even after they admitted to participating in murder. Russian law says that children under the age of 14 cannot be held responsible for crimes. Vitya turned 14 only after the killing; Andrei, who also took part, is in a juvenile detention center, possibly for years.

Last year, about 100,000 Russian minors under 14 committed crimes for which they cannot be held responsible, according to police.

"Technically, we can send them to reform schools, but unfortunately we now have very few such institutions and only about 3,000 of those kids who committed crimes last year were sent to such schools," said Lieutenant General Vyacheslav Ogorodnikov, the head of the Russian Interior Ministry's public order division.

The Yakovlevs steal, they say, to support their mother, Svetlana, 44. Social workers and police say she actively sends the boys onto the streets to bring home money, but she denies it.

"I don't send them to steal or gather bottles," she said. "I pull them home with both hands."

In the old Soviet days of totalitarian control over private lives, the problem of the Yakovlevs would have been solved simply, police say.

First, there was a curfew that did not allow children under 16 out on the streets without their parents after 11 P.M. Second, the district commissions on juvenile affairs had the power to deprive abusive or neglectful parents of their children and send the kids to orphanages or reform schools. Authorities could also fine parents for their children's crimes.

"Before, there were levers," she said. "If parents didn't take care of their kids, you could go to their workplace and hold meetings to put pressure on them. And the commissions on juvenile affairs worked much better than now -- during the reorganization of Moscow for a couple of years they ceased to exist altogether."

Now, she said, "I can't even say we have a system" to deal with troubled children.

Ptushkina says she is sure there is only one possible outcome for the Yakovlevs: "Their road leads straight to prison."