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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

When Street Life Is Your Only Life

SMOLENSK, Central Russia -- Sergei Alishev, 14 and living on the streets, wants to be a tram driver when he grows up. They don't have to go to school, he figures, but are paid "enough to eat well."

To eat at all is a daily struggle for Sergei, who lives on the 30 rubles a day he can panhandle in front of Smolensk restaurants, where he is a familiar figure, dressed in his old rabbit fur hat, jacket with a broken zipper and boots that are way too big.

When he sees somebody he thinks might have money, his reaction is quick and looks professionally worked out. He darts up to the person. "Please, dear sir, I have nothing to eat," he exclaims, crying.

"I have no mother and father and have nobody to feed me. Don't have a cruel heart and don't leave me like this. Give me just 50 kopeks. God will bless you for that." For emphasis, he tugs the sleeve of the stranger's jacket.

His life history is a typical one for a Russian street kid.

Sergei used to live in the village of Novospasskaya, 60 kilometers from Smolensk, with his parents - until they started drinking heavily. "My father is a tractor driver in the local collective farm. They have nothing to do because everything is bankrupt," he says. His mother has some money from a job in Yelnya, the nearest small town.

His father starts his day by meeting friends to buy vodka, and his mother joins the drinking when she returns from work. Once in a while, his father would beat him up. "He did not care where he beat me. He was doing it with his arms and sometimes with his feet to my stomach, kidneys and head as if I were a dog," Sergei says. "One day he beat me up so badly that I could not get up and lay on the floor for several hours. I decided to run away."

So he took the train to Smolensk, 400 kilometers west of Moscow. There, he heard that kids his age could earn up to 100 rubles a day as drug couriers in Moscow.

"The capital, I thought, was big and I was going to find new friends and business there. I heard that guys like me work transporting and distributing drugs there. It is not dangerous for people my age, I was told. I wanted to be cool," he says.

So he persuaded the conductor to let him ride just one stop, then hid between carriages until he reached Moscow.

It did not take him long to find new "friends" in Moscow. "It is correct to say that they found me," Sergei recalls. "This guy Alexei, about the same age as I am, met me right in the railway station and said he could propose a promising business."Alexei and seven others were living in the attic of an apartment building near Belorussky Station.

The group had different lines of "business." One was robbing drunks, which the other boys did while Sergei served as a lookout. Some of them went to a gay pickup spot in Kitai Gorod near the Kremlin and worked as prostitutes - something he said he didn't care to do.

His adventures in Moscow were finished, however, when police picked him up for begging and sent him back to Smolensk, where he later escaped from a youth shelter. But he did not want to go to Moscow again because, as he says, "I did not want a criminal future."

"Money should be made honestly and I decided that being a beggar is the best thing for me," he says. Sometimes friends' parents let him stay over at their apartments and sometimes he finds a place to sleep on the wall of the town kremlin.

Good days bring Sergei some 30 rubles ($1.50): "I don't ask for money from old people because they just don't have it. I also never deal with young guys because some bastards I once asked for money beat me up."

He has developed his own market research of sorts. "Women give money quite often, but it is small change because they are mostly cheap, while a man who gives money is rare, but if he does give money, it can be as much as five rubles," he says.

Sergei says he spends 20 rubles for food a day and saves the rest. All he's got are his clothes and money he has saved. When asked where he keeps his savings, he smiles and says that "it is in a safe place. It is buried under a stone in one of the [kremlin] wall's towers, and you will never find it, even if you try."