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The New York Times
Moscow Journal
Minus 4 on Mean Streets: Nonpersons Are Dying
By Steven Lee Myers

This city's health department provides a daily update of the brutality of Russia's winter and, to some, its indifference to human suffering. It is a toll of those who have frozen to death on Moscow's hard, cold streets. Today it reached 272 since the onset of winter.

"Nothing unusual this year," said Dr. Igor S. Elkis, chief of the city's ambulance service. In Europe's swankier capitals, winter may produce a mild despondency, treated with sunlamps and vitamins, but in Russia it is an existential experience.

Winter here is always hard, notoriously so throughout history. But this year an unusual stretch of bitter cold -- compounded by snow and, in the Far East, fierce storms -- has struck with a severity that has left dozens dead, crippling aging heating systems and, this week, prompting a sharp rebuke of local authorities by President Vladimir V. Putin.

In Moscow, those who have suffered the most are those who have the least. Most of the dead so far have been homeless or drunks, or both. While officials say the toll is not yet out of the norm, this winter's extremes have only underscored the plight of the city's least fortunate.

Advocates say the homeless -- known here, pejoratively, as "bomzhy," the Russian acronym for people "without a specific place of residence" -- receive little support from the government and, often, outward hostility from the police and the public. On average, about 400 die each winter, some found only when the spring thaw melts banks of snow where the victims fell.

For much of the last month, temperatures in Moscow have routinely fallen below minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit, compared with an average of 14 above zero. Weather forecasters have said it has been the coldest winter in two decades.

On Tuesday, the Russian Christmas, the temperature in Moscow reached an overnight low of minus 24 Fahrenheit, the coldest so far this winter. Six people were found frozen to death on Moscow's streets the next morning.

Doctors Without Borders, the international relief organization, which operates a clinic in Moscow for homeless people (they cannot be treated at city hospitals because they lack residency permits), has now started a campaign to raise awareness of the suffering.

The organization plans to distribute thousands of fliers to inform the homeless of the few services that are available and to press the city's government to do more.

The city estimates there are 35,000 homeless in Moscow, though advocates say the government's own statistics suggest there may be as many as 100,000 in a city of 10 million. Most do not have permits to live and work in Moscow.

The city operates 12 homeless shelters, but they have a capacity of only 1,600. Vladimir V. Korushin, the deputy of the city's social security committee, said that even now they were far from full.

"We cannot force them to go," he said.

As a result of this winter's rare cold, the city has eased the rules for those seeking shelter. Before, homeless people without proof of residency -- a tautology, it would seem, anywhere but in Russia -- were turned over to the police and forced to return to their hometowns. Since November, however, the shelters have been ordered to accept anyone.

In a gritty industrial zone in northwestern Moscow, one of the city's shelters offers 30 beds in simple, clean rooms. Four remain empty. Lilya M. Salinkova, an administrator, said anyone could come in from the cold, though those without residency permits are still referred to the police the next morning.

The shelter's rules are also strict. No alcohol is allowed. One man who showed up today, a previous resident, was told to return with proof he had completed a drug-treatment program. He had not returned by tonight. Ms. Salinkova did not know where he ended up. "It's my opinion that some people do not want to follow the rules," she said.

Mr. Korushin also said that city officials had held meetings with the police over the New Year's holidays, ordering them not to roust the homeless from train and metro stations. At the Kazansky Station, however, the police were doing exactly that tonight, passing up and down rows of waiting passengers in search of homeless people.

"If they're obviously bomzhy, if they smell or have insects, of course we don't want them next to the passengers," said one officer, who refused to give his name.

Mark Walsh, a spokesman for Doctors Without Borders, said the city's rules -- as well as the remoteness of the shelters -- effectively discouraged the homeless from seeking help. He also said that the police and emergency-services officials needed to be more aggressive in seeking out those at risk.

Elsewhere in Russia, the extreme cold has burst pipes of centralized heating systems, drawing far more public attention than the steady rise in Moscow's deadly winter toll. As of today, more than 25,000 people in 19 cities and towns remained without heat, many of them in the northwestern regions of Karelia, St. Petersburg and Novgorod.

On Wednesday, after meeting with Prime Minister Mikhail M. Kasyanov to discuss the emergency, Mr. Putin was shown on state television chastising local officials for not responding effectively to those suffering from the extreme weather. Among them was the governor of Karelia, Sergei L. Katanandov,

"In principle, your region should be prepared for these kinds of temperatures," Mr. Putin told him coldly in a televised telephone call. "It's a northern region, after all."

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