‘It’s like I drew a door and disappeared through it’ Meduza correspondent Irina Kravtsova asks Russia’s homeless population what it’s really like living on the street — and what’s keeping them from returning to ‘normal life’
Homeless people in Russia have their own terms for things — people who aren’t homeless are “domestic” people, while they themselves are “street” people, or simply “bums.” Meduza’s special correspondent Irina Kravtsova spent several days with homeless people in St. Petersburg, asking them the most obvious questions “domestic” people usually have: Why can’t they just update their documents, get a job, and rent a place to live? According to Igor Antonov, who’s worked with homeless people for years, questions like these underestimate the extent to which life on the street can transform a person. When it comes down to it, returning to a “normal life” is easier said than done.
Kirill Nikolayevich is a typical retiree — a lonely, trusting old man with kind eyes. For most of his working life, he was a locksmith for a large company. Later, because his pension was so small, he also did some part-time construction work on a church — it didn’t pay well, but they fed him. At the construction site, he got involved with some scammers who talked him into taking out a micro-loan on his apartment — 300,000 rubles, nearly $4,000 — so he could buy into a metal trading company.
His “business partner” then disappeared with the money, the pensioner couldn’t repay the loan, and the court evicted him from his apartment. “Kirill Nikolayevich isn’t able to defend himself in court,” said Igor Antonov, a volunteer from the charity organization “Nochlezhki.” “He ought to be watching a movie while they catch the criminals, walking his dog in the evenings, but instead, they’re dragging him to court. And in court, as he told me, instead of defending himself, he just said, ‘You’re all assholes — not judges, assholes.’ But the judge said everything was by the book. Now, Kirill Nikolayevich lives on the street in St. Petersburg, his hometown, where he has to ask volunteers to boil water so he can make instant noodles.”
“It’s very difficult to catch someone right at the moment their life is falling apart — when they get sick, they lose their job, they started taking payday loans, and use alcohol to blunt the pain,” Antonov said. “And it’s extremely difficult to help someone who’s already been on the street for a long time. People change dramatically out there — that’s what nobody realizes.”
‘I don’t have anything at all’
49-year-old Anna has a swollen face, red eyelids, and gray hair that’s grown to her shoulders. When she was still a “domestic” person, she would dye her wavy hair a chestnut color before going to her job as an elementary school art teacher.
When Anna’s daughter was 20 years old, she got married and brought her 28-year-old husband back to Anna’s one-bedroom apartment to live. They didn’t live with the husband’s parents (who had a two-bedroom apartment) because his parents insisted that newlyweds should live separately from their parents to avoid fights. Anna began sleeping on a sofa they had in the kitchen, while Anna’s daughter and her husband took the bedroom. For the first year, the setup worked well.
One night, when her daughter was at work, Anna’s son-in-law caught her walking out of the shower and raped her for the next several hours, filming her all the while. When he was finished, he told her she was a “bitch,” that he was “fucking sick of cowering around her all the time,” and to “get the fuck out” of the apartment.
Anna went to stay with a friend. After several weeks, she called her daughter, who hung up on her and then sent a text message asking her not to call them anymore. “I don’t know what he told her,” Anna said.
Eventually, she bid her friend farewell and “left to wander.” She spent the first nights in the entrance to an apartment building, then relocated to the building’s cellar. Anna struggled to remember the first nights she spent on the street. “I sat in one park, then moved to another, and when it became completely dark, I started to feel uneasy about staying on the street — before that, I was completely afraid of the dark. There were a bunch of drunk guys wandering around. I bought some kind of alcohol, went into an apartment building, and dozed off by the morning.”
In the fall, when it got cold, Anna started going into a convenience store to warm up. When a security guard asked why she was there, Anna said she and her son-in-law “weren’t getting along.” “Got it,” said the man. The next day, he brought her a warm jacket and a hat, both of which had belonged to his mother before her death. He also gave her the cardboard she now uses to sleep on in the store vestibule, and he started slipping her expired — “but not spoiled” — food, according to Anna.
It’s difficult for Anna to determine the exact moment she started feeling homeless. When asked about her own feelings, she often answered, “What do you mean how? I just did it,” “Oh no, it wasn’t scary,” or “Well, I just started drinking a lot.” But during our second meeting, Anna became more introspective and tried to determine how exactly she’d felt. Before that “I hadn’t dug so deep,” she said.
“Seriously, your questions are all like, ‘How were you feeling? When was the last time you were at peace?’ If that’s the way I thought about things, I would have killed myself already,” said Anna. “I remember how, the first night, I was so sick, there aren’t words to describe it.”
There was a pause, and we walked in silence for a while. I wasn’t sure whether to keep pressing her for answers; I knew that when I left, she would be all alone with her thoughts. It turned out, though, that she was just searching for the right metaphor. “It’s just like in a cartoon, see: I took a piece of chalk, drew a door, and disappeared through it.”
“Hey, you want to get ice cream? It’s on me!” Anna offered suddenly, despite the fact that neither of us can feel our legs because it’s so cold outside. She didn’t want to go into a diner, either.
“You’re asking about my home — how was it, what happened to it. But the tragedy isn’t the fact that I don’t have a home. It’s that I don’t have anything at all. A home — fine, whatever. The issue isn’t that I live on the street. It’s just that my old life is over. I can’t go back to it. That’s the hardest part.”
During our conversation, Anna would often fall silent, think about something for a bit, stop responding to questions, then return. She recalled how, at first, she didn’t see herself as a homeless person. “I still held onto the feeling that real bums don’t have homes, that they drank them away or realtors came and took them, but I still had a home. My apartment’s right over there, and I’m its owner, and I can go back to it whenever I want. I just don’t go there because I don’t want to — it’s my decision. But I do have a home.”
She started thinking of herself as a “bum” gradually. There was the time, for example, when she drank the coffee someone had left on a bench, and she caught someone looking at her as they passed by. “I realized he had seen that I was drinking a stranger’s coffee, and that he saw me as a bum. And I basically realized it was true.”
Anna works part time as a janitor at the convenience store, through someone else’s contract; she gives part of her paycheck to the person who works there officially. She doesn’t have anything but the clothes on her back, and she doesn’t have any plans for the future.
“I’ll live as long as I live,” she said. “There’s nowhere for me to go. And besides, you can get used to anything. It’s hard on the street, but was it easy at home? Everyone wants you to be kind, be good, be comfortable. And even then, nobody fucking needs you. And it’s not like that on the street, honestly. You’ve already crossed the line, at some level — you’re already bad by definition. It’s freeing.”
‘Why are you helping a dirty bum like me?’
According to Igor Antonov, homeless people are often happy to be diagnosed with tuberculosis — for them, it means a year and a half in safety. “It sounds like dark humor, but even I get happy about it, because treatment is provided for homeless people with tuberculosis. Even if you get an arm and a leg amputated, after two or three days they’ll stick your torso back in the snow and put on the form that you’re ‘discharged and home,’” he said.
Antonov mentioned one woman whose feet turned black from frostbite. She tried three times to get treated at the hospital, but they continued to kick her out. “This woman with rotting, bad-smelling feet was finally given shelter by a passerby, and now she lives in the hallway of his building,” said Antonov.
“We’re trying to help her, but she probably won’t get into the hospital until the foot needs to be cut off. I took some pictures and sent them around to doctors, and they said, ‘Yes, she needs to be hospitalized, but it’s not an emergency — they might take her, they might not,” Antonov said. “But when someone’s already completely unconscious — when they have gangrene and worms — that’s when they’ll take them. When I talk about worms in people’s feet, that’s not just a scary story. It happens to homeless people very often.”
All homeless people were once “domestic,” and once viewed homeless people as “degraded,” anthropologist Pavel Inozemtsev told me. “Believe me, it’s not only you who feel contempt toward homeless people, it’s the homeless people themselves. One of them asked me, ‘Why are you helping a dirty bum like me?’ In their own eyes, they’re no longer just people who’ve had some bad luck but will soon recover and keep moving; they no longer feel like a part of their former world.”
Many people take the word “homeless” literally: a description of a person who doesn’t have a home, Antonov said. “But at the end of the day, it’s not about the house, we all know a lot of people who don’t own a house — they rent apartments and stuff like that. But still, true homelessness is when the absence of one’s own space combines with social exclusion.”
‘I lie down in the snow, shake for 15 minutes, then fall asleep’
I met 40-year-old Sasha outside of the Sortirovochnaya train station in St. Petersburg. For the last 11 years, he’s been living here on the street, spending winters on a blanket he lays right on top of a snowdrift in a strip of forest five kilometers (three miles) away.
Sasha used to have a room in a two-story log cabin in Ulyanovka, a township in the Leningrad region. When he was little, his mother was a heavy drinker and left him with his father, a soldier. After serving in the army, Sasha became a plumber for the emergency services. When he was 24, his father died.
“I basically buried him, then sat there and thought, ‘I don’t have anybody left.’ I went to work, returned home, boiled pelmeni, watched television. I had no family, nobody close. Not even anyone to talk to,” said Sasha. So he started drinking — and quickly developed a drinking problem, even blacking out a couple times.
“Then I came to, these gypsies were in my apartment, and I owed them a bunch of money. They started forcing me out of my room. I called the police, and it turned out the officer knew them, so he took their side. Now I can never go back to that room. Although I could!” Sasha said. “I never signed any papers giving them the room.”
According to Igor Antonov, this kind of thing happens a lot — people drive out their roommates and change the locks. “A lot of people aren’t able to stand up for themselves, to keep living in a place they’re constantly being driven out of. The police usually treat these situations as disputes, but they don’t try to resolve or settle the disputes — they don’t see it as their job.”
“Then whose job is it?”
“Nobody’s. Only the person himself. Either a person has the inner strength to fight for his territory, or he doesn’t.”
Since Sasha was kicked out of his apartment, he’s gone back to his old home a few times. He’s seen the lights on through the window, but he’s never dared to go inside. Since he’s been homeless, he’s run into his mother a few times (she’s now remarried and had more children), but he’s never approached her, and she’s never recognized him.
Sasha spoke quietly, looking around like he was distracted. While we spoke, he often used the word “home” to refer to the spot where he sleeps. He said he sleeps “under a canopy” and is separated from the frozen ground by “as much as” ten centimeters (four inches).
Sasha didn’t understand what everyone was afraid of. “The main thing is to warm up in the summer, find a blanket, and then you can live!” He didn’t show me his home right away. We walked around St. Petersburg’s Obukhovsky district, along the beltline on one side and a tall iron fence on the other. “Yes, I do sometimes get sick,” said Sasha. “But it’s like this: when I lived in a house, my teeth would hurt, and I often went to the dentist. And now, all my teeth have rotted, and it doesn’t hurt at all, I don’t even feel it!”
Eventually, Sasha found his own footprints leading back to his sleeping spot, and we turned to follow them. We climbed over a fence and started crawling through some branches. Sasha wasn’t used to leading guests, so he neglected to hold back the branches, letting them hit me in the face behind him. After walking a few more feet, he suddenly said we’d reached his home. On the snow-covered ground were an orange, a few plastic bottles, and a thin, beige blanket covered in black fabric. Sasha referred to this as a “tent.”
It was -19 degree Celsius (-2 degrees Fahrenheit) outside, but at 80 percent humidity, it felt more like -35 degrees (-31 degrees Fahrenheit) — you got the feeling that if you went to sleep, you wouldn’t wake up. “At night, I lie down here, shake for 15-20 minutes, then fall asleep,” said Sasha. He doesn’t have a watch or a phone, but he estimates that he usually falls asleep around 11:00 p.m. — recently, though, he’s started going to bed later, around 1:00 a.m.
Sasha gets up “at nine in the morning” and sets off on his usual route, searching for food in dumpsters. He travels about 13 kilometers (eight miles) a day doing this. In the evening, he goes to the Nochlezhki “night bus,” where volunteers give out hot food. He drinks hot tea and eats soup, not talking with anyone and giving monosyllabic answers to any questions. He knows people come with problems, so he’s tried to keep to himself for a long time.
He lost his passport six years ago. When asked why he doesn’t get a new one, Sasha answered vaguely, “Well, yeah, I ought to do that, I just can’t seem to get around to it.” I kept asking in disbelief, is it really easier to live this way than to get new documents, get a job, gradually save up to rent a place? However hard that may be, it can’t be worse than living in these awful conditions, can it? Especially since Sasha, according to himself and people who know him, almost never drinks.
Sasha didn’t open up about this until our second meeting. He said he’d actually tried to get a part-time job before, but homelessness is “a vicious cycle” that he hasn’t been able to get out of. “When an employer knows you’re homeless, that’s the attitude they take towards you,” he said.
“Motivation is all about anticipation,” said Igor Antonov. “Let’s say I’m anticipating a sip of hot coffee in a thermos, so I extend my arm and get an electric shock. The second time, I extend my arm to the thermos and get another electric shock. And then you, Irina, say to me, ‘Igor, would you like some coffee?’ I’ll answer, ‘No, you know, you feel free to have some, but coffee hasn’t been working out for me.’”
That’s why people who have spent a long time living on the street are often unreceptive to the ideas and solutions that volunteers suggest. “I’ll say to a woman, ‘Let’s get you to the hospital — your feet are rotting!’ And she’ll answer, ’No, I’ve already been to the hospital three times’,” Antonov said.
We live in different worlds, in different realities, Antonov continued. “For me, as a ‘domestic’ person, the hospital means treatment. But they’ll take one look at that woman, and ten minutes later, she’ll be in the snow in a different part of the city, with the same hurt feet. She’ll already know on that door, and she knows how it ends for her. But from the outside, sure, it seems like their problems should be very easy to solve.”
Sasha’s least favorite part of his current life isn’t the lack of a house — it’s that every day is exactly the same as the rest. “Every day you get up, look for food, struggle, then boom — it’s nighttime, then morning, and it all starts again.”
Everything Sasha owns is on his body. He doesn’t even store food. “Why do I need so much? Everything I need, I find and eat. If I need more, I’ll find it.”
‘I was free’
Denis is 42 years old. He and his wife Larisa live behind the garages, a few hundred meters from the “Europolis” mall in St. Petersburg. The space Denis has built looks like a house without a roof or walls: a sagging door frame without a door, a wardrobe with a mirror, a fireplace, and a bedroom consisting of a tiny canvas tent. A nearby tree is decorated with tinsel for the holidays.
In 2006, when Denis worked at a construction firm, his boss took a large advance for an order and disappeared with the money. It fell to Denis and his colleagues to pay the debt. Denis was forced to sell his apartment and work for three months without pay. After that, he was only able to find work as a mover or a shipping agent — his reputation in the construction industry had been ruined. “As long as he still had savings, we lived, and when they ran out, my wife said, ‘I’m not gonna feed you,’ and kicked me out. I left my stuff, my computer, and everything I’d earned with her, slammed the door, and left. I left in the clothes I was wearing. That’s my nature — an idiot,” said Denis.
After leaving home, he “wandered around the street for a bit,” then got a job. According to Denis, he sent some money to his wife for a while before finding out that she and her friend were living off of it together. “It went down, down, down from there. And now I’ve hit rock bottom,” he said. He wanted to become a janitor or a mover, but in the mid-2000s, these jobs were all occupied by migrants, who were being paid “a quarter of a quarter,” so practically nobody was hiring Russians. Even still, Denis eventually found a job “through acquaintances” as a janitor and plumber in Petrogradka.
One day, Denis was introduced to a friend’s sister, Larisa. Soon after, he moved in with her. Larisa is 15 years older, and Denis calls her Lyalya. Some time later, Larisa’s daughter got divorced, returned to her mother, and started using drugs. According to Denis, the daughter eventually kicked them out, but he was close to leaving himself because he could hardly restrain himself from hitting her and “going to jail under [article] 105 [murder], seeing how she “shakes down her mother for money.”
At first, Denis rented a room for himself and Larisa. At that point, he still made enough money from working as a courier. Eventually, though, the company went under, so they moved in with friends, then “to the dacha” (Denis has a building further out in Moscow Oblast, but it’s unfurnished, and there are no jobs in the area). In the fall of 2007, Denis and Larisa made their hut between the railroad and the garages and began living on the street. Denis started selling scrap metal and jars.
“There was a really nice clearing,” said Denis. “I set up the tent. Then more people started coming, and eventually we had a little tent city. It lasted about two years before the authorities came and cut down the ‘jungle’ [the trees growing around them].”
Denis spoke proudly about the tent he had made. “It was so warm in my tent that me and Lyalya would sleep in T-shirts and underwear when it was -25 degrees [Celsius, -13 degrees Fahrenheit] outside,” he said. “First of all, I insulated it, and second of all, there’s an old army method I use. You take two-kilogram metal milk powder cans and make four holes at the bottom. When your fire burns out, you collect the red coals and put them on two bricks in the tent, and in three minutes, no matter how cold it is outside, you can start to undress.”
“What did it feel like when you first started living on the street?” I asked.
“No feeling at all. Do you believe that? No regret, nothing. It might have even felt like relief.”
“Relief that I was free.”
“In what way?”
“I lived through a war, I got into so much trouble here, in Petrogradka, as a regular, working person. And now I don’t have to get up at nine to go to work. I don’t have to report somewhere every 15 minutes. I just don’t have to, you know? I got up, and I left. If I do something, it’s for me. If I don’t do something, it’s fine. Nobody’s standing over me and blaming me.”
Sometimes, Denis and Lyalya climb into the tent, huddle together for warmth, and sleep like that for a day or two because they can’t bring themselves to go out into the cold. “But then we can go out for three days. We’ll go for a walk, get something to eat, get a little something else [alcohol], and have a smoke.”
Getting out of the tent and getting dressed is hardest in winter, especially when their boots have frozen and shrunk. “You should hear how much I curse when I’m pulling the boots on!” said Denis. “And when you’re collecting those cans, the ends of your fingers freeze really badly.” It’s also hard for them when “it’s impossible to run somewhere to warm up or hide from the rain, if you’re far from your tent.”
Despite the difficulties, however, Denis and Laisa aren’t saving up for a more permanent place. “I think me and Lyalya have become complete street people. It wouldn’t make any sense.”
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale