- The Washington Times - Monday, January 21, 2002

MOSCOW Sasha, 12; Andrei, 13; and Kolya, 14, wander the streets around Yaroslavsky station in Moscow. When they can beg or steal enough money, they buy glue to sniff at a station stall. At night, they compete for sleeping space above one of the metro air vents, as the temperature plunges far below zero.
A record 50,000 homeless children live this way on the streets of Moscow, slipping into lives of petty crime, drugs and prostitution. As winter bites, the more resourceful among them have found their way into the relative warmth of the capital's sewer system, risking disease and carrying it into the heart of the city center.
Abandoned to squalor and accustomed to living outside the law, these bezprizorniki, or neglected ones, arouse as much fear as sympathy in passers-by.
Some, such as Sasha, have fled a family where alcoholism is rampant. Others have absconded from the often brutal regimes at the 800 state-run orphanages. Most of the children have two economic options: begging or crime.
Terrified by the marauding packs of teen-agers who stalk the train stations and shopping malls of the city, ordinary Muscovites have long pushed for radical action to remedy a social malaise that, until now, the Kremlin chose to ignore. Last week, stung by the public criticism, President Vladimir Putin finally responded.
The president told his prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, that "the number of homeless children and the criminalization of teen-agers has reached threatening proportions in the country. Urgent measures are required."
Later, on national television, he issued a public rebuke to Russia's social affairs minister, Valentina Matviyenko, for doing too little to solve the problem. A government inquiry has been rapidly launched.
Some steps to curb the activities of the homeless gangs have already been taken. Bands of children were recently rounded up and ejected from central sewer networks.
New legislation is also being planned to toughen up parental obligations toward their children. Seven new Moscow orphanages are to be built in the next year and Russia's beleaguered social services will be provided with dedicated funds to deal with 'families in crisis.'
The experiences of Sasha, Andrei and Kolya suggest that legislation and new orphanages may not be enough. In the economic and social chaos of the new Russia, becoming a homeless Muscovite can seem a highly desirable option.
More than 1 million children across Russia are homeless. But Moscow, where average incomes are five times the national average, acts as a national magnet. The Independent Street Children Center estimates that only 6 percent of homeless children in the capital are actually Muscovites.
Sasha and his friends arrived at Yaroslavsky station about four years ago, after leaving the small rural town of Kazovanova. By Russian standards they now have a good life, earning between $12 and $15 a day from begging on the subway an income just below Russia's average wage.
"Life at home was bad because of all the drinking," said Sasha, while munching some sunflower seeds that the boys had stolen recently from an elderly stall manager. "I had to get out so I came here."
Kolya's father left before his birth. Unable to cope, his mother abandoned him to the state orphanage system. He ran away to Moscow when he was 9.
For now, the priority is to survive the winter. Moscow has just experienced a week of nights during which the temperature dropped to minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit.

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