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Empowered Victims: Moscow's Homeless Children

The "divide in worldview between Russian adults with homes and Russian homeless children is immense," stated Clementine Fujimura, Associate Professor, Department of Language Studies, U.S. Naval Academy, and former Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute at a 25 October 2001 lecture at the Kennan Institute. "Each understands childhood in different terms: the adult sees childhood as a protected time of life, while the homeless child sees childhood as a time of independent struggle with the demands of the adult world." Relatively few adults concern themselves with the future of these children, and the infrastructure to support them is inadequate or absent. As a result, a rising number of children seek to define their identity and self-worth among themselves in groups and gangs.

The problem of homeless children is not a new one in Russia. During the 1920s thousands of children took to the streets in the aftermath of the civil war, and following World War II millions were orphaned. The precipitating crisis in today's case, however, is a decade of economic decline, and it encompasses the breadth of Russia. According to Fujimura, there are as many as 100,000 street children in Moscow, and statistics show that at the opposite end of the country, in Primorskii Krai, one out of every ten youths becomes homeless. These street children, past and present, derived a sense of empowerment from their ability to provide for themselves in the adult world. With that sense of empowerment comes a distrust of adults and their motives.

Homeless children in Russia today have good reason to distrust the adults in their lives. Many of them were abandoned by their parents--some directly to state orphanages out of economic necessity; some through neglect and abuse that causes the children to run away. One boy interviewed by Fujimura was told by his father that he was not allowed to spend the night at home if he did not return with a bottle of vodka. Other children simply fall through the cracks in the Russian legal system. Another boy interviewed by Fujimura traveled to Moscow from Kyrgyzstan with his family. Along the way, the father deserted the family, his infant brother died en route, and his mother was sentenced to seven years in prison for assault. Now the boy is trapped in a Moscow shelter without status, ineligible to go into a Moscow orphanage.

Once on the street, children develop a sense of power in providing for themselves, a sense of belonging in the street culture that they create, and a distrust of adults. The institutions and orphanages offered by adults are not perceived as alternatives, but as shelters of last resort to be used temporarily in times of dire need. Such places are under-financed and understaffed, and provide little more than shelter and mediocre food. When living on the streets, homeless children are driven by the need for immediate gratification. Once their immediate physical needs for food and shelter are met, they look for something to take away physical and emotional pain--drugs and alcohol being the most common solution. Engaged in crime and drug abuse, these children risk falling into the most abusive and threatening institution of all--prison.

Even in such terrible conditions, the children feel themselves empowered within their constructed culture of self-reliance. They further define their future success in opposition to the adult society that rejects them. Boys commonly dream of being well-paid killers, and girls routinely aspire to be prostitutes for wealthy westerners.

Addressing the issue of how such a pervasive problem could arise and persist in a society that prizes childhood, Fujimura noted that the economic situation in Russia is at the same time the principal cause and primary obstacle to solving the problem. Two socio-cultural traits among Russian adults, Fujimura stressed, also greatly contribute to the intractable nature of the problem. The first is a pervasive feeling among Russians that they are unable to make a difference in such a big problem. Historically, the average Russian citizen has been discouraged from proactive engagement of social issues, and apathy on the part of Russian adults towards the plight of homeless children is a reflection of that ingrained reluctance to get involved.

The second issue at play is reflected in a common Russian attitude towards adopting children. When asked whether they would ever consider adopting, according to Fujimura, a common response is: "Perhaps if there was no way I could have my own. But even then I would have to think about it. One's own is always better." The sense of "one's own," or svoi, is important to a Russian's sense of identity and society. Homeless children, with their propensity towards crime and drug abuse, are perceived by many Russian adults as ne svoi, not ours.

"Homeless children, in a sense, are at war with the adult world in which they live," concluded Fujimura. The adults, whether from western charity organizations or employees of the state, fuel this war by rounding up homeless children and trying to force them to grow up in prison-like institutions. Both sides of this "war" will lose, continued Fujimura, unless adults take the time to understand homeless children and how to take care of them beyond their physical requirements.


About the Author

F. Joseph Dresen

F. Joseph Dresen

Senior Program Associate
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more