Cutting edge

March 3, 2000

The lives of Russia's street children mirror the post-communist society, in which adults are finding their way in an unknown world Since the start of the market reforms, the presence on the streets of Russian cities of dirty and ragged children begging for food has become a striking manifestation of the social costs of transition. I have been working over the past three years on studying the origins of street children in Moscow and their "destinations" in the urban underworld.

Research showed that there are now about 800 truly homeless street children in Moscow, while up to 4,000 sleep out most nights though periodically come home to their parents. The survey of 123 street children in Moscow funded by the Ford Foundation demonstrated that most of the children come from the families of low-skilled manual workers who lost their incomes and jobs with the collapse of industrial production and dismantling of state welfare. Poverty and a loss of social status of the parents, fathers in particular, have dramatic consequences for the children: 80 per cent experienced physical violence at home; 70 per cent reported parental alcohol abuse. Many leave home.

While street kids are often viewed as delinquents who have become disaffiliated by a lack of parental control or absence of leisure facilities, this picture is far from the truth. Indeed, most of them are searching for reliable and trustworthy social ties, ties moreover that will directly help their economic survival.

Children who are not successful join the ranks of the stigmatised street homeless people. Older homeless people and younger ones - "old bums" and "young bums" - live together in train stations, cellars and lofts and provide for themselves by washing cars, cleaning kiosks and other odd jobs. Some, after a period of homelessness, join organised prostitution, protected by mafia or militia who get a share in the profits. They settle at the flats of so-called mamochki, madams or pimps, who take a share of their money from the sex trade.

Some children and young people join the "Arbat Sistema", a fascinating informal society centred on the Arbat - a transport-free street in the centre of Moscow. It consists of a conglomerate of youth subcultural groups: punks, hippies, ravers, "Tolkienists", skinheads, rockers etc. Street children are attracted by the Sistema because of the protection it gives to its

members. There is a network of places where they can sleep temporarily. There are quasifamilial relationships. Young people take upon themselves the roles of Sistema fathers or

mothers, sisters or brothers. The "relatives" help each other with food or money and give emotional support. It is a taboo to steal and the members of the Sistema survive mostly by

begging.

Other children, predominantly teenage boys who ran away from children's homes, eventually migrate towards underage criminal gangs. Although they exist on the periphery of organised crime, they aspire to become its members when they grow up, as they see it as the only possible route to "inclusion". In the meantime many send money, food or cigarettes to inmates in prisons and labour camps, hoping that this will help them to join organised crime when they grow older.

The destinies of children and young people attempting to join or create supportive structures in the informal and criminal economy in a way epitomise the fate of Russian society. The collapse of the paternalistic state has reversed the status of adults to that of children having to find their way in an unknown world. At the same time, children from the most underprivileged backgrounds have had to assume an adult role and try to survive in the emerging street economy and society.

Svetlana Stephenson is a researcher at the department of applied social studies, University of Luton.

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