The Street Kids of St. Petersburg

Lena smokes a cigarette near Nevsky Prospekt in the center of the city, where homeless children congregate.
"Lena" smokes a cigarette on a rooftop near Nevsky Prospekt in the center of St. Petersburg.

Elegantly renovated facades line Nevsky Prospekt, an avenue in the center of St. Petersburg. The gaps between the buildings are concealed behind large billboards. But the syringe-strewn stairwells of buildings in the second and third rear courtyards of the boulevard bear witness to another St. Petersburg—that of the street kids.

Their exact number is widely disputed. German humanitarian aid organizations estimate that between 30,000 and 40,000 of them are living in the city, out of a population of 4.7 million. Russian social workers who provide services for the children place the number at 17,000.

Most of the children are running away from family situations they can no longer tolerate. They live together in cliques, earn money doing odd jobs, beg or steal—and sell their bodies. Roughly 40 percent of the girls and 1 percent of the boys work as prostitutes or in the porn industry. Half [of the street kids] are under 13 years of age.

At the same time, these children and young people are in constant danger of being picked up by state authorities. For this reason they often spend their time in busy squares, where it’s easier to disappear into the crowd at the first sign of the police. The police are instructed to pick up minors who are on the streets in the late evening or early morning hours. If their parents can be contacted, they are allowed to pick up their children from the station. If they can’t be located, the children are turned over to juvenile homes, special schools, or juvenile detention. There, in addition to crowded and unsanitary conditions, they are subject to strict military regulations: uniforms, shaved heads, and ritual punishments.

According to official sources, one-third to one-half of all children released from state care at age 18 will become homeless. One-fifth will take up a life of crime. And one-tenth will commit suicide.

“LENA,” 12:

Why did you run away?
I had a fight with my sister and with my mother, too, with everyone at home.

Because I get fresh with them and don’t want to do what they say. Sometimes we hit each other. I’m afraid of my big brother. Once, he hit me so hard with an iron rod that my entire back turned black and blue. And my sister and I don’t get along, because when I was 7 she threw me down on the street, right onto the pavement. Two of my ribs were broken.

Where do you live, since you’ve run away?
In the tower on Nevsky Prospekt. It’s completely run-down, but we sleep there anyway.

How many of you are there?
Sometimes 12, 13 children. There are grown-ups, too.

How do you younger ones get along with the adults?
They leave us alone and don’t hit us. When they see us begging, they tell us that it’s better to stay here; they’ll bring us something. But we’d rather do it ourselves.

Do you beg every day?
Yes, when I have nothing to eat. But it’s embarrassing. When people with kids walk by, I don’t beg from them. And everyone yells at us.

What do you eat?
Packaged soup. We cook at the neighbors’. They know that we live here and they don’t care. They only tell us not to make trouble.

How long have you lived on the street?
For about a year. They weren’t giving me anything to eat at home and told me if I needed something I’d have to get it for myself. So I left.

Have you tried drugs or sniffed glue?
No. I see the other kids doing it—but I won’t do that. They say that once you start sniffing, you stay the same in your head as you are now. I don’t want to be like that. And besides, the glue doesn’t smell good. If you’re with people, having something to eat, they yell at you because you stink of glue. I smoke.

Do you think it was a mistake to run away from home?
No, and I don’t want to go back.

“NADYA,” 18:

You’ve been living on the street for a long time.
Yes, I was 8 or 9 years old when I left home. My parents drank a lot. Our family was very big, and didn’t have enough to eat, and I had to get some money somehow.

How did you get money?
I begged. Or I dealt in subway tokens. I’ve sold ice cream and newspapers. Now and then, I’d give my mother some money. That was childish, maybe, but I wanted to do something. It was hard, selling ice cream. We didn’t have a license, and the police were constantly checking the vendors. They always hit me, and then they let me go or called my parents to come and take me home. But they usually couldn’t even come to the station, because they were drunk.

Have others threatened you with violence on the street?
Yes. Once, these guys came here from the south, from the Caucasus, that is. They were more grown-ups than boys, 19 to 20 years old. I was 15 then. They lived in the same stairwell and wanted a couple of girls. Two other girls lived with me then; they were scared because the boys wanted something from us. I said we should fight back, and that’s what we did. They left us alone then, let us sleep and didn’t bother us.

You weren’t afraid?
If you show them you’re afraid, they’ll do with you what they want. You can’t show any fear, even if they hit you.

Do you take drugs?
I started sniffing glue at an early age, at 9. My brothers did it, too. It gets your imagination going. You can think up all kinds of great things. I couldn’t get off it. When the tube is empty, you want more, you look for more glue, and you want a refill and keep sniffing. After that, I went on to heroin.