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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Dark Secret Amid the Boom

APDenis, right, and another boy smoking outside a day shelter for homeless children run by the Salvation Army. Denis and his twin sister ran away from home.
The 15-year-old twins sleep among trash and dirt in a nook under a railway platform and spend their days at a Salvation Army shelter in a grim Moscow neighborhood.

But Denis and his sister Olesya prefer being homeless to living with their parents in Elektrostal, 58 kilometers east of the capital. They say their mother abused them physically and verbally, and then kicked them out in July, telling them to find jobs.

"It was hard at home, uneasy," said Denis, who spoke on condition that his last name not be used.

The twins are among a growing number of children who face abuse and neglect despite an economic boom that has brought unprecedented wealth.

A report by human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin says children's rights violations remain "systematic" and more parents are victimizing their children. While oil wealth has enriched a minority of Russians, the poverty, social decay and endemic alcoholism that are at the root of the child abuse have deepened since the Soviet collapse.

Public sensitivity to child welfare is growing, however, as Russians face up to the fact that the population has shrunk by about 4 percent per year since 1993, to 142.7 million. President Vladimir Putin sounded the alarm in 2006, saying in his annual state-of-the-nation address that the country was on the verge of a demographic crisis and that children needed special care.

Official statistics show the number of children has fallen from 36 million to 29 million over the past eight years, part of an overall fall resulting from low birth rates, an antiquated public health care system, poverty, alcoholism and crime.

Child's Right, a Moscow-based advocacy group, says that every year about 2,000 of the country's 29 million children aged up to 17 are killed by their parents or other relatives -- a rate of about 6.9 per 100,000.

By rough comparison, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that in 2005, the overall homicide rate for children 13 and under -- regardless of the perpetrator -- was 1.4 per 100,000. The overall U.S. rate for children aged 14 to 17 was 4.8 per 100,000.

Mikhail Metzel / AP
Teenagers eating a meal at a Salvation Army-run day shelter in Moscow.
Child's Right, citing state statistics, says about 50,000 children -- one out of every 580 -- run away from home each year. Another 20,000 flee from state-run orphanages and other institutions.

Boris Altshuler, head of Child's Right, tells the story of 11-year-old Vlad Yakovlev from the west Siberian city of Kurgan. Police say Vlad's alcoholic mother starved her son and taunted and beat him. He hanged himself with the belt of a dressing gown one evening in November 2005. This year, Vlad's mother was jailed for 2 1/2 years for driving her son to suicide.

"Many people see children as their property. There is no concept that they bear some social responsibility for their children," Altshuler said.

Authorities can either do nothing or take the child away from parents and place him in an orphanage, Altshuler said, but there is no middle ground, such as family counseling or monitoring by social workers, and no law that obliges the state to act. "The whole country is one orphan-making factory," he said.

He said Putin appeared to be trying to reduce the number of children in institutions. But he predicted the bureaucrats who control the $1.5 billion spent each year on orphanages and children's homes would try to derail the effort.

"They need children like firewood to keep this system going," he said.

With the Kremlin raising awareness, the media in recent months have paid more attention to cases such as that of a 7-year-old boy in the mining town of Guryevsk, in the Kemerovo region, who was hospitalized with cirrhosis of the liver; he had been driven to alcohol abuse by his father, who wanted a drinking buddy. This year, prosecutors investigated medical workers at a hospital in the town of Orekhovo-Zuyevo, 85 kilometers east of Moscow, on suspicion of tying a 1 1/2-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy to their beds with sheets so they could be left unsupervised. The toddlers had been abandoned by their parents.

"It's a bit shocking when you see such strong violations of children's rights going on in a country that has accumulated such huge wealth," said Carel de Rooy, a UNICEF representative in Russia.

Their health is becoming a higher priority, he added. But the change is probably driven more by demographic concerns than greater awareness of children's rights, de Rooy said.

At Moscow's Salvation Army shelter, a spacious room in a gated building, Denis, Olesya, and a dozen other homeless children wash their clothes, play table tennis and watch a video.

The twins still have a hard time talking about their experiences at home.

"Did your mother beat you?" a visitor asked. Denis looked down and nodded. Were there fights at home? Another nod.

Olesya said she liked her new "freedom," which means begging for money at railway stations, using drugs and "dating young men."

She said she would think about the future one day. When? "When I grow up."