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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Girls Stuck in Shelter Tug-of-War

Twelve young girls have been caught in a battle between local authorities and a privately run shelter for homeless girls, with each side claiming to have only the young people's best interests at heart.


Former dissident Alexander Ogorodnikov founded the seven-room private shelter in northwest Moscow in June 1995, as an alternative to the shoddy care critics charge is characteristic of state-run Russian institutions.


But police claim that the 17th-century house on the banks of the Yauza River is a slum and that its 12 residents should be placed in a state home.


"Children should be where things are clean, where they can have a bed, and access to a doctor and teachers," said Fatima Koznikova, head of the adolescent defense section of the eastern district city police department. "That place where they are now isn't a shelter. It's a ruin."


Police visited the home on Popov Proyezd early Thursday morning to remove the girls, but were prevented when the girls, crying, hid in the building's basement and refused to open the door, said Koznikova.


Ogorodnikov claimed that two of the girls were so frightened by the possibility of going to a state shelter that they threatened to commit suicide.


Liza Kommissarova, 15, said she wanted to knife herself in the stomach after hearing other children's nightmarish stories of "beatings, mockery" and insufficient food in state shelters. Kommissarova, a refugee from Ukraine, said she has never lived in a state shelter herself.


Later Thursday night, Ogorodnikov said, police in the Ramiki district raided a dormitory basement rented by the shelter on Mosfilmovskaya Ulitsa, where nine of the girls had gone to bathe, since the shelter does not have bathing facilities.


Police took the girls and two drivers into custody after they failed to present identification documents, but released the group a few hours later, said senior police inspector Lyudmila Potapkina.


"We have nothing against charitable organizations or against this shelter," she said. "But if they're going to run a shelter, they should do it legally and make sure these people have documents."


Potapkina added that the shelter has no "permission to operate a bath" in the Mosfilmovskaya basement.


Although a visit Friday to the shelter revealed some basis for official concern, conditions were far from the squalor described by police representatives.


A reconstruction project has left dangling wires overhead, and in the kitchen a large hot plate on a rickety table doubles as a stove. Modern plumbing is limited to three toilets and a kitchen sink that serves as the shelter's only source of running water.


While spartan, three concrete-walled bedrooms filled with mattresses donated by the U.S. Embassy and furniture from the Canadian Embassy were clean and fairly cheerful, with bright patchwork quilts and neatly stacked toy cupboards.


The girls themselves, aged from 8 to 18 years, have nothing but glowing words of praise for Ogorodnikov.


But the shelter residents receive no standardized schooling. Regular lessons are so far limited to 10 hours of weekly "secretarial training" on three computers located in a second floor office. A monk also comes in weekly to teach the girls about religion and religious singing, Ogorodnikov said.


Medical care is just as haphazard, depending on friendly hospitals and volunteer doctors from the Christian-Democratic Union, a social organization Ogorodnikov heads.


Ogorodnikov claims that police accusations and "harassment" are not motivated by concern for the girls, but are simply a cover for an attempt by high-placed city bureaucrats to kick the shelter out of the building so that "someone else" can move in.