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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Surviving on the Streets

They snatch up leftovers from restaurant tables, pick pockets and beg. They sniff glue and sell their bodies. They sleep in building stairways and homes of strangers. Still, they say their lives are better than with their parents who often drink and beat them. They are Russia's street children, covered with grime and dirt, and growing in numbers into the millions.


"Today's children and teenagers are Russia in the 21st century," declared President Boris Yeltsin in a speech on International Children's Day earlier this month. The truth in his statement bodes a dismal future for the country. In Soviet times, street children were mostly ushered into orphanages. But these days underfunded public institutions and local authorities don't have the resources -- nor sometimes the will -- to concern themselves with society's most vulnerable.


Moscow authorities believe there are about 50,000 children on the capital's streets, and estimates for all of Russia range between 1 and 2 million. A month of mingling with Moscow's street children at some of their numerous hangouts -- by the All-Russia Exhibition Center, on the Old Arbat, in the children's department store Detsky Mir and the city's train stations -- produced the stories of five boys: Zhenya, Sergei, Alyosha, Yura and Dima. The following is a glance into their lives and the world as they see it.


Vagabond Stowaway


Kursk, Belgorod or the Crimea. Zhenya can't decide where to go. But he will soon be on a train to one of these destinations. "I'm ready to go," he shouts over a Queen ballad blaring from one of the kiosks at the Kursky Station. "I don't like to stay in one place too long."


Zhenya is 13, but his wiry frame, pixie-like features and tousled blond hair make him look more like 10. The adult-size adidas tracksuit pants he wears, checkered with black grease, balloon out around his ankles.


Zhenya has been on the road for more than two years. He begs for spare change from train passengers and pleads with those who are eating to give up half a sausage or a crust of bread. He fishes clothes out of garbage cans. He sleeps in traveling train cars and the nooks and crannies of stations.


Before, Zhenya lived with his mother, an older sister and two younger siblings in a two-room apartment in the city of Ishim, about 300 kilometers northwest of Omsk in Western Siberia. One day, his then 5-year-old younger sister set their home on fire. "Olya found matches and burned down our building," Zhenya says, chuckling nervously.


Nobody died in the inferno, but his family found themselves without a place to live. His mother was already unemployed, and city authorities said there were no available apartments. So the family boarded a train. "I like traveling," Zhenya says. "I see a lot. I learn a lot."


Within a year, Zhenya struck out on his own. His mother's attention was increasingly concentrated on the two younger children and her new quest -- vodka. "Mama told us that we needed to beg for money if we wanted to eat," he recalls. "We got money, but then she would use it to drink."


The younger siblings, Olya and Sasha, with cherubic smiles shining through their dirty faces, were especially good at convincing railway passengers to give up rubles, Zhenya says. Meanwhile, his mother's lifestyle didn't show any signs of changing. Frustrated son and drunken mother got into increasingly heated arguments. One of Zhenya's thumbnails still hasn't grown back after his mother struck it with a pan.


"Mama finally told me to go," Zhenya says. "She said I was old enough to look out for myself. I don't care. I was ready to leave anyway. She beat all of us."


Unlike many street children, Zhenya neither smokes nor drinks. He is proud of his physical fitness. Dropping to the tiled floor of the train station, Zhenya shows off his ability to do Jean-Claude Van Damme-like splits. Springing back onto his feet, oblivious to the stares of passersby, he whips off his thin T-shirt to reveal a well-developed torso. "Hi-ya!" he grunts with a grin, flexing his arms into a Bruce Lee posture. "Ya-ya-ya!" he shouts, positioning himself on one leg while kicking the other in the air.


"I love action films," says Zhenya, straightening up and slipping the shirt back over his shoulders. "I want to be like Arnold Schwarznegger and be rich and beat up people. I want to be a kickboxer."


But first, Zhenya needs to decide if he wants to visit Kursk, Belgorod or the Crimea.


Hustler Blues


"I have a home, but I don't have the key," begins "Together for a Step Forward," the song by teen icon Viktor Tsoy, lead singer of the St. Petersburg band Kino. The forlorn lyrics mirror the predicament of Tsoy's No. 1 fan, 14-year-old Sergei.


Sergei's mother kicked him out of their apartment in Kolomna, about 100 kilometers southeast of Moscow, two years ago, after the boy refused to stop running away to the capital -- where he now lives on the streets. Sergei had been making the pilgrimages since he was 11. "Life in Kolomna was boring," he says. "I didn't want to live there. I don't want to live there."


Sergei thought Moscow would have excitement, entertainment and "a better life." But he was quickly reduced to living a hand-to-mouth existence, begging for money and food.


Slowly, the brown-haired youngster learned what may be the final lesson for every homeless child: A ticket to day-to-day survival is always available through satisfying the sexual passions of older men. "The first man said he'd give me 30,000 rubles," then worth about $15, Sergei says without any emotion. Filthy and starving, Sergei went with him. "I didn't really want to, but, you know, three years ago I thought 30,000 was a lot of money."


Since then, Sergei has earned many more rubles plying his trade. He cruised the gay prostitution area by the Bolshoi Theater until the park was closed for restoration. He now works around Kitai Gorod, although police are increasingly chasing hustlers away from there as part of the city's initiative to move prostitutes out of sight. He has suffered from syphilis and several skin diseases.


Two winters ago, Moscow police called his mother when they picked up Sergei, wandering the city's icy streets barefoot, clad in only his underwear. "My clothes were stolen by some bandits," says Sergei. "I really wanted to go home."


But his mother told the police she was tired of a son who kept running away and requested authorities to give Sergei a psychological examination to determine if he wasn't mentally disturbed. Doctors locked up the boy for a month in an institution, Sergei says, where his therapist wanted to examine one thing -- the boy's body. "They're all dicks," Sergei sneers. "Men only want one thing, and I have it."


After the hospital released Sergei to his mother's custody, she threw him out.


With his income from selling his body, Sergei has purchased a new set of clothes -- an homage to his beloved Tsoy. The rocker's face is emblazoned on the front of his black T-shirt. Tsoy lyrics are scrawled in black across the back of his blue-jean vest. A Tsoy button is pinned to the front of the vest, and a rectangular shiny icon of Tsoy dangles on a silver chain around his neck.


Sergei's favorite spot is the "memorial wall," located just off the Old Arbat. A dozen battered posters of the singer on a building wall, flowers and hundreds of cigarettes and cigeratte butts commemorate Tsoy who died in 1990, at the age of 28, in a car crash. "Viktor Tsoy loved to smoke, so we leave the cigarettes here for him," Sergei says, dragging on a Marlboro. Sergei wants to reach the same heights of stardom as his hero. He's now saving up for an electric guitar.


He also plans to die just as young. "I've seen everything," he says. "I've done everything. The only thing left is to sing. I'm ready to die."


Delivery Boy


"Look here," says 10-year-old Alyosha, opening his grungy brown jacket to reveal a small packet of white powder. But then he quickly jerks back. "F--- you," he says. "This cocaine costs $1,000."


Rough-talking, chain-smoking Alyosha may be the busiest street kid in Russia. Every day, he says, he has business transactions to take care of in downtown Moscow. Remarkably, Alyosha claims to be a courier between drug-selling old women and their suppliers -- the police.


Recently deloused by city authorities -- who savagely cropped his hair in the process -- Alyosha and his 8-year-old friend Yura were smashing discarded beer bottles one evening against a wall of the Kuznetsky Most metro station. Bored and hungry, they quickly took up a stranger's offer of a meal of hamburgers in exchange for conversation.


Alyosha hasn't slept at home in years. His father has a disposition for alcohol and whores, and if he doesn't have one or the other, he becomes violent. And when Dad's passions are satisfied, explains Alyosha, chomping into a burger, he beats the boy anyway. "I don't give a shit about him," says Alyosha. "The street is much more interesting."


Yura shares a similar tale of a broken home. State authorities declared his mother mentally ill and locked her up in a state institution. "Yura doesn't sleep much at home because his father f-- him," Alyosha says, making an obscene hand gesture to illustrate the abuse.


The ruffians sleep in the stairways of apartment buildings or at an adult friend's apartment in the far south of Moscow. They refused to divulge further details about the "friend." Alyosha has not attended a single day of school in his life.


According to Alyosha, police approached him several months ago and gave him the option of being thrown into a detention center or becoming a delivery boy. "I'm no fool," says Alyosha of his decision to assist in trafficking. "Sometimes I deliver drugs, sometimes I carry money," he boasts. "I had $5,000 one time." In stark contrast to the hostility and fear toward police shared by most street kids, Alyosha readily approaches certain downtown officers and chats amicably with them.


When he's not making deliveries, Alyosha says, he mingles with the swarms of urchins in Detsky Mir, playing computer games in the arcade of the department store or in computer shops staffed with tolerant clerks. "I love Mortal Kombat," he says, his eyes lighting up as he refers to the violent computer game.


Just as quickly, though, his smile vanishes and voice hardens. "Police are all bandits, bastards. I say f--- them all. But I'm not scared of them. They don't touch me," he says. "I don't need parents. I don't need a home."


What Alyosha really wants is a simple companion. "When I was small, I wanted to be a cosmonaut. Now I only wish that I could have my own puppy."


Lockup Limbo


Lanky, brown-haired Yura celebrated his 12th birthday in a place that gives most kids the shivers at just hearing the name -- priyomnik, or the dreaded youth detention centers.


Yura has been roaming the streets since he was 8, typically, to get away from a hard-drinking mother. "Mama was always angry when she was drinking," says Yura, pausing from flying a spaceship in a video arcade in the Kazansky Station. "She talked like a fool, she acted stupid. I didn't like to be near her."


Last year his mother was sentenced to three years in jail for assaulting a neighbor, so the soft-spoken lad is all the more determined to live on the streets, avoiding authorities who could throw him into an orphanage.


Yura considers himself an expert on the police, having grown up in a rough neighborhood in Lyubertsy on the southeastern edge of Moscow. "Police have picked me up maybe 20 times since I was 8. The first time [because] I stole," he says. "No," he quickly adds, squinting as he tries to recall the incident. "It was because I was walking in a train station late one night, I think. I don't remember."


But the birthday spent in custody was his first, and last, he hopes. Leningradsky Station police arrested Yura and a friend and put them into the priyomnik last October. "We were only walking around the train station. The menty stopped us and asked where we were going," he says, using the derogatory slang for police. "We said, 'Home,' and they asked for documents. Of course, we didn't have any."


With some reluctance, Yura recalls the white, five-story detention center, surrounded by a high fence. He slept in one of the two large rooms on the third floor, with 30 other preteen street urchins and petty criminals.


"Police beat us for no good reason," Yura says, citing a time when an officer ordered the youngster to drop to the floor. "I was watching TV, and a cop told me to do 50 push-ups. When I was trying to do them, he yelled at me to go faster, and when I couldn't, he slammed his foot onto my back. Those black boots hurt."


Often the officers made the boys do push-ups and sit against the wall. And always the boys' efforts would not meet the officers' standards, and kicks and punches would follow. "They beat our arms, chest, legs. Only our heads were off limits," says Yura, as head injuries could put police officers in hot water. The boys could go to the hospital and get written evidence from a doctor of police brutality. Other bruises could be brushed aside as the boys' own falls.


Yura's 12th birthday passed with barely a nod. He told one of the police officers about it, and the cop gave him an extra room to mop. Fyodor, his mother's ex-lover, stopped by with an armful of chocolate bars.


Rolling up the center's thin brown carpets and washing the underlying floors occupied Yura's two-week detainment. All of the boys shared the same daily 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. job. Even if they had just mopped the floors to a shine, the boys were told to roll up the carpets and wash again.


The center had two television sets, and the boys could watch programs and videos in the evenings. They bathed once a week, on Sundays. Meals were a high point. "The food wasn't bad. We ate soup for every lunch. It was better than food on the streets," says Yura, whose street diet consists mostly of stale bread picked off of restaurant tables and hot dogs purchased after panhandling.


Yura's friend left the center after one week, when his mother picked him up. If no one comes for detained boys, they are supposed to be transferred to orphanages. "I felt a little jealous," says Yura, referring to his friend's release. No one but his imprisoned mother had the authority to take Yura out, so he had little hope of being released. For some unknown reason, however -- perhaps they were too lazy to do the paperwork -- one week after his friend left, the police told Yura to hit the street.


Turning back to his video game, Yura says somewhat wistfully, "People don't need to beat. Why beat?"


Why Dima?


Dima's brown eyes seem to be perpetually downcast. Perhaps because at 12 years old, the gaunt blond-haired youngster who hangs around the VDNKh metro station and the All-Russia Exhibition Center, spends much of his time sniffing glue or getting beaten up.


Abuse from his mother inspired his foray to the streets. "She drinks," says Dima, a boy of few words. A vicious temper kicked in when she became drunk, he explained, and she would hurl bottles, books and plates at the child. A pale scar running down his right leg testifies to a bottle that splintered on impact. Dima occasionally sleeps at home, "but not if she's been drinking."


Dima has found reprieve in the packet of glue he keeps tucked inside his new sweatshirt. The green shirt and baggy girl's jeans are gifts from Antony, a self-proclaimed missionary who feeds and clothes the urchins around VDNKh through an unregistered religious charity.


"This is my last bag. Honest," says Dima, as he inhales the fumes. The vicious-smelling substance and the bags are easily obtainable in VDNKh kiosks. In 45 minutes, Dima easily panhandles 25,000 rubles -- more than enough to buy his next fix. Pressure from streetmates complicates Dima's resolution to kick his habit. Matvei, 13, introduced Dima to glue's temporary escape, and along with other friends, teases Dima for wanting to stop.


Dima claims indifference to the various injuries dotting his body. He attributes the dark bruise under his left eye to "a fat man who hit me for no reason." On the large, red wound by the other eye one week later, he says, "A rock hit me. It was an accident."


An emotional dam broke, however, during a walk through the All-Russia Exhibition Center. Near the ornate, golden Fountain to the Friendship of the People, Dima abruptly collapsed onto one of the benches, placed his head in his hands and began to weep silently. His pinched shoulders heaved as some enormous pain engulfed him. He sat quietly for 10 minutes afterward and refused to explain his tears beyond saying, "I was remembering something."


Two weeks later, he hinted at what may have been on his mind.


"Why is my life so bad?" he said in a rare talkative moment at a park near the Ostankino television tower where he sometimes sleeps. Stretching out on the grass under a bright, quiet moon, Dima mused: "Did you ever think about it? Why do you have a mother and a father who love you, and I don't? Why are you American, and I'm Russian? Why do I have to live like this, and you have an apartment?"


"It's not fair. It's just not fair."