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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No Good Will for Homeless

ST. PETERSBURG -- Alexei Kuzmin is 72 and homeless, and he is afraid to walk St. Petersburg's streets.


"I have to stay here for the next two weeks, out of sight," said Kuzmin, a small, energetic man with a sharp wit as he paced the small kitchen of the homeless shelter at 10 Pushkinskaya where he lives for now. "I'm afraid to go out during the Goodwill Games."


The games, a 16-day sporting event founded by American media mogul Ted Turner, have brought thousands of journalists and visitors to St. Petersburg, while television coverage is bringing the city's streets into millions of homes worldwide.


Mayor Anatoly Sobchak wants those streets to look clean and inviting. And so, aided by President Boris Yeltsin's crime-fighting decree -- which has made probable cause and search warrants ideas of the past -- police have spent weeks stopping, frisking and document-checking anyone they like. They have done so in bars, on trains and even by walking unannounced into apartments.


Police are also aided by a decree Sobchak issued in November, under which those who lack a St. Petersburg propiska, or residency permit, can be subjected to petty harassments, fines and, in some cases, "deportation" -- that is, being ridden out of town.


Naturally, the rules are selectively enforced. Sobchak, after all, has invited guests from across Russia and the Soviet Union to come to the Games. Police only check documents among what they call "the wrong kind of visitors"-- those they suspect of being thieves or drunks, the homeless, and other elements deemed distasteful to foreign television viewers.


Valery Sokolov, an activist for the homeless whose soup kitchens feed 1,000 people daily, has hours of film of police searching for residence-permit violations.


In one of many scenes, two officers pound on the door of a communal apartment. "Good day," they say, swaggering past the surprised woman in a nightgown who answers the door. They open an inner apartment door, and a young man in a gray sweater stands up in surprise. "Who are you?" one officer asks. "A relative," he answers. "Documents," the officer says.


In another room of the same apartment, an elderly drunk man frets as an officer pokes through the trash on the floor. "What's all this? I think there's a crocodile living under your bed," the officer says. "I haven't had a chance to clean up," the man says. The camera sweeps along slippers stacked neatly in a corner, then zooms into a trash can filled with rotting banana peels.


Sokolov's camera crew shows officers frisking young boys on suburban trains bound for St. Petersburg. Those without the propiska are put off at the next stop.


At the Finland Train Station, police rouse a man asleep in a chair, his head in his hands. He is tired but sober, a working man in a clean blue short-sleeved shirt and black jeans. Apologetically, he says he has lost his passport; his friend, sitting next to him, vouches for him.


"It looks like you're a bomzh," says one officer -- using the Russian acronym for a person "without a definite place of residence."


"Seriously?" the man asks, suddenly wide awake and pale.


The police lead him off.


At a press conference Saturday, Sobchak reaffirmed his commitment to the residency permit regime, saying that if Russia cannot control its borders, St. Petersburg would have to draw a line of its own at the city limits.


"Until we have normal, controlled borders, I will do all I can to keep the propiska system in our city, to control who is arriving in the city," he said. "They say it's undemocratic to control comings and goings. Wrong, it's democratic. In every developed state entering and leaving are strictly controlled."


"There's no country in the world that does this," said Sokolov. "Everyone controls illegal immigrants. But to harass and jail and deport citizens of your own country ... that's criminal."


In the days of the Soviet Union, the government prepared for the 1980 Moscow Olympics with mass arrests of prostitutes, drunks and anyone else deemed suspicious by roving police patrols. Those seized were placed on sealed trains or buses and shipped in any direction at least 100 kilometers from the city.


According to Vladimir Vlasov, head of the St. Petersburg transport police, "There's no analogy between today and the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Those days when we loaded them onto buses and shipped them to the 101st kilometer, they're over."


But Vlasov said police are "cleaning the city" of the homeless -- "they're just doing it more subtly, to avoid having to make explanations."


Beggars and drifters say they have been threatened with vague yet dire repercussions unless they stay out of sight during the Goodwill Games. And so the city's homeless -- who, according to police and activists, number more than 30,000 -- spend sunny days hidden away in shelters or condemned buildings.


Deep inside the Smolensky Cemetery, several elderly babushkas sat on benches, soaking up the sun. Usually they can be seen begging in front of St. Petersburg churches, but they are taking this week off.


"They told me I couldn't beg during this holiday in front of Prince Vladimir's Cathedral," said one babushka in a quavering voice, a blue kerchief on her head. "It's too close to the Jubilee," she said, referring to the Sports Palace.