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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Has Russia Abandoned Its Homeless Children?

In a previous column, I recalled with a shudder how the popular and influential Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky also hailed the founder of the Cheka, Felix Dzerzhinsky, as a model citizen to whom young children should aspire. I was worried that the author who wrote some of the best children's stories in 20th century Russian literature would also be known to Vita as a man who admired the head of an organization responsible for butchering hundreds of thousands, or even millions, according to some estimates, of our fellow countrymen and women.

But then a Russian friend reminded me that it was thanks to Dzerzhinsky that the problem of besprizorniki -- homeless children -- was successfully solved in the early years of the Soviet Union.

When militant opposition to the Bolshevik regime had subsided, Dzerzhinsky was appointed to deal with the problem of homeless children. At the time, the problem was regarded as a national security issue. Thousands of criminalized children and teenagers were swarming the cities peddling drugs, aggressively begging, robbing, mugging and organizing child prostitution rackets.

Within a couple of years of taking charge, the "Iron Knight" of the revolution, Dzerzhinsky, solved the problem, with the real criminals jailed, the sick being cared for and the rest in reform homes -- all of them receiving obligatory elementary education.

Although we now know the education was cruel indoctrination, a whole generation of Russians were very grateful to Bolsheviks for their efforts to raise a literate population loyal to the idea of reforming society and building a future free of hatred, envy and social inequality.

Of course, it all went horribly wrong as all idealistic social equality philosophies inevitably do, but the dream of creating a caring society took deep root in Russia and was also an enormous influence on the development of Western societies.

Recently my own paper, Izvestia, ran a front-page report from a depressed mining area on the lives of the children there who spend their days scavenging in dumpsters, sniffing glue, thieving and selling their girlfriends for sex. Toddlers and teenagers alike are riddled with syphilis and skin diseases. Two boys, 12 and 8, killed their four-year-old friend because he was nagging them to take him home on a tram.

In our local park in Moscow, the All-Russian Exhibition Center, we wheel our strollers through gangs of glassy-eyed kids who spend their days sniffing glue and pickpocketing. Around Belorusskaya station and across the city, children as young as Vita dodge cars to beg from wealthy motorists.

As the headline in Izvestia poignantly asked: Does Russia no longer need her children?