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#10 - JRL 7002
The Times (UK)
January 2, 2003
'Snowdrops' on Russia's streets reflect grim reality of homeless
Clem Cecil in Moscow

Police and ambulance workers call them "snowdrops", after the first flowers to emerge in the spring thaw.

They are Russia's frozen homeless, whose icy bodies are picked up daily. Since the beginning of winter, 215 have been found in Moscow alone.

Temperatures plummeted to -20C (-4F) almost every night in December, well below the seasonal average of around -5C (23F) , making it a desperate winter for the city's 100,000 homeless. Already the death toll from hypothermia has doubled from last year and the authorities admit that they are fighting a losing battle.

Kirill Mazurin, spokesman for the Moscow Internal Affairs Authority, said: "When we expect more severe cold weather, we intensify our efforts to get the homeless to refugee points where it's warm. Of course, recent winters have not been as cold as this one and logic suggests that there will be more deaths from cold, in spite of our efforts. It is not just the cold, though that is the main reason - they die in summer as well."

The homeless drink vodka to keep warm and, according to Mr Mazurin, they also drink poisons such as antifreeze, which adds to the problem.

They snatch sleep wherever they can: in stairwells, Metro trains, abandoned houses, rubbish dumps and even near Eternal Flame memorials to the soldiers of the Second World War. Rotting rubbish gives off heat as well as providing opportunities for scavenging. The homeless erect bivouacs on the dumps and sleep in cardboard boxes.

Manholes once provided shelter, but after the Chechen terrorist attack on a theatre in October they are now closely guarded as potential access points for terrorists.

In post-Soviet Russia, it is easy to end up on the streets. After perestroika, apartments became personal property and their owners played with them like children with new toys, selling them for a pittance to buy drink or losing them in scams, expecting to be housed elsewhere, as they would have been by the Soviet authorities.

These are the people wandering the streets now, wrapped in stinking old rags, faces swollen from vodka, skin blackened by frostbite.

Victor Ivanovich, 61, claims that he was swindled out of his apartment in the 1990s and he has been on the streets ever since. "Summer is bearable," he said, standing in the freezing wind, "but I feel lucky every time spring comes around that I have survived the six-month winter."

He has seen several drinking partners freeze to death this year. "You could line the corpses up in the morning," he said.

Hospitals prefer not to deal with the homeless, although they do perform operations such as amputations of gangrenous limbs, the most common form of illness. In addition to the homeless, at least another 300,000 have no registration proving that they live in Moscow and therefore cannot officially be employed.

There is one homeless hostel that only takes men. If homeless men are third class citizens, homeless women do not exist in the eyes of the state. Vera Skripa, 45, has been in Moscow for two years. She came from Ukraine hoping to earn some money. She says she wants to go home.

The Russian Orthodox Church gives out soup at one station every day, and some churches give out clothing.

This year the police have been ordered to go easy with the homeless - to move them on, but not beat them. "We just drive them away from public places, that is our task," one policeman said.

Few of the fledgeling charities have the funds to help. Evgeni Tretyakov, the founder of the Pomosch charity, is frustrated by the financial constraints.

"We have been thwarted in everything we have attempted in the last ten years," he said. "Everywhere I meet indifference and corruption."

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