St Petersburg was once the glittering capital of Russia. Today its magnificent metro stations have become home to a generation of street children who survive by begging, informal child labour or prostitution. The end of communism may have brought many positive economic changes in the lives of ordinary Russians, but it’s also led to soaring rates of unemployment, alcoholism and family breakdown – driving children as young as seven to leave home to seek some kind of a living on the streets.
There are believed to be over a million homeless children in Russia, and in St Petersburg alone, 16,000 children live on the streets. President Vladimir Putin has described the situation as the ‘most threatening of his country’s economic and social indicators’.
In ‘Cheated of Childhood’, 11-year old Yuriy and his 13-year old buddy Max describe their life in the eastern suburbs of St. Petersburg – from the attic hovel where they sleep during the day at the top of an eight-story apartment block, to the computer clubs where they stay up all night in order to avoid the unwanted attentions of paedophiles or the police and social workers they don’t trust.
Max explains that they live off dry pasta – they have nothing to cook on. Max and Yuriy have been living together for the last eight months, and they share their ‘home’ with two kittens they rescued. They ran away from home for different reasons – Yuriy was being beaten by his alcoholic stepfather, and Max had no parental support – his mother is dead and his father was never at home. They’ve both abandoned school and neither of them want to return home or to move to the government shelters which have been offered to them. They met on the streets when they were begging.
Most street children in St.Petersburg hang around the Metro stations to beg from passing pedestrians. Max explains: "We come here every morning, day or night. We come here to these kiosks and we start begging. Sometimes we ask for change and sometimes we ask for food." Yuriy completes the description of their day: "Sometimes we have to collect empty bottles, whenever we can find them. And then we sell them. That’s how we get our money. From six or seven in the afternoon we try to get money for the computer games. We get back from the computer club at about eight in the morning, and sleep until late – five or six in the afternoon."
It’s a dangerous life. Max: "For me, the most dangerous thing about living on the street – in attics and cellars – is paedophiles. That’s the most dangerous thing… I know lots of people, who have been – how do you put this? – abused." Some of their friends sell sex to survive. In the last few years the St Petersburg authorities have set up a force of special, child-friendly police to help – and protect – the growing number of children who live on the streets. But the boys run away from them to avoid being sent to the young offenders’ unit – and from there to reform school, shelters, an orphanage or even prison.
Teams of social workers have been introduced – but the boys don’t really trust them either. Nataliya Evdokimova, Head of the St Petersburg Committee of Social Affairs, admits: "Our children’s homes are out-dated – big, prison like institutions that house 150 to 200 people… The children live in huge rooms like army barracks, and there is no personal attention to anyone."
Vera Smirnova works for the NGO ‘The Protection of Children’, (a partner in the ILO’s programme for working street children). "Sometimes we have to visit these children many times because most of them don’t feel they can rely on adults… There are about thirty different kinds of job children are doing – children usually start collecting bottles or begging when they come to the street but very soon they are getting involved in criminal activities – involved in prostitution – they start using drugs, drinking, smoking."
Obviously there are health risks as well. Médecins du Monde runs a drop-in centre which offers girls and boys who live on the street medical, social, and psychological support. Paediatrician Lena Cherkassova says that as well as dealing with many burns and injuries, they have many cases of diseases connected with drug addiction: hepatitis C, hepatitis B – and HIV/AIDS. "We get many girls coming to our centre who are involved in the sex business who make money for drugs and for their needs by selling sex. The blood tests results in 2001 showed that every tenth child whose blood was tested was HIV positive -and don’t forget we are talking about children aged between 14 and 18."
Dima has been living on the streets for the last four years, and now he sleeps in an abandoned car. He frequently runs away from state shelters, he’s been ill several times and visits the centre when he needs help. His parents like many others in St Petersburg sold their city centre apartment to opportunists – leaving the entire family homeless – they were alcoholics and beat him. Psychiatrist Michael Nikitin says he has mental problems and his outlook is not good. "He can’t stay in shelters more than five days because he is a very active, very aggressive person. I think he will be a criminal. In two or three years he will be sent to the prison or to the hospital with some disease."
There are some successes. Many of those who come to an IPEC centre to meet up with other families who have faced similar problems are rehabilitated. Svetlana was picked up on the streets when her mother couldn’t cope, but is now back at school. "These classes are really useful and interesting for us – we learn lots of new things – we have to talk about our experiences and now were like one big happy family…"
Yuriy knows it’s only a matter of time before things on the street could get worse. His dream is to go back to a home where his mother and real father are together again, and he won’t get beaten by his drunken stepfather. Max harbours a secret desire to return to school and study to be a doctor. But the outlook for them is grim.
Alexei Boukharov, National Programme Manager of the ILO IPEC project in Russia, says: "Russia should think about its children – those children can still become normal citizens, can become mothers, can become soldiers, can become workers who will work for the prosperity of Russia… And if we do not support them now, they will become street people – useless people who will be a burden to the state. Now we have got only one generation of street children who are in the age bracket of lets say 7 to 18 right and most of them will grow up and have their own children and this will create street people… The main barrier we are facing is a lack of understanding. This issue is still underestimated."
Read the full transcript of Cheated of Childhood