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Russia's Harvest of Have-Nots

COLUMN ONE

Nation's bureaucrats and social institutions fail to prepare youths for society. Instead, they foster the growth of an angry and alienated underclass that turns to crime and violence for its survival.

September 22, 1998|VANORA BENNETT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — When he was arrested with his three older brothers for kicking a tramp to death, 10-year-old Volodya Yakovlev was still a round-faced kid from a problem family in deprived outer Moscow.

Despite his confession, Volodya's innocent smile and sweet treble voice made the 1994 crime seem unbelievable. Police and courts blamed his oldest brother, who was then 14, for instigating the violence. Volodya was not punished, although he was later separated from his mother and sent to a state children's home.

Now, however, after three years of brutalizing "care" by local authorities, Volodya has started to look like a hardened criminal. Tall, gangling, shaven-headed and perpetually grinning, he boasts between cigarettes about his lock-picking expertise, thefts, truancy and multiple arrests.

His future? More crime, he says. At 13, it's too late for anything else.

"Jobs? No way. And I won't be bothering with military service, either," Volodya says in brutal street speak. "There's nothing to do. The army wouldn't take me with my record. Anyway, there's nothing to steal there."

The story of Volodya Yakovlev bears chilling witness to the way Russia's grim social institutions--orphanages, children's homes, reform schools, the army and, later, prisons--fail in their stated aim of creating order in society. Instead, a mix of official neglect and excessive severity at these institutions actually encourages the formation of an angry and alienated underclass, with no way of surviving except through crime and violence.

Social workers and human rights activists are unanimous in saying that the best way to get rid of Russia's criminal underclass is not to attack the violent victims of society who make it up--but the state officials whose negligence and greed create it. They accuse the chinovniki, the self-serving class of invisible bureaucrats who channel funds from budgets to institutions, of cynically perpetuating an abusive system that does little to correct wrongdoing or foster civic virtues--for no other reason than to line its own pockets.

For children such as Volodya, one step into this system can become a life sentence. Horrifying statistics cited by activist Boris Altshuler, head of a children's rights program, reveal that the 200,000 youths in state homes are likelier than others to inflict violence in the future.

"Every year, 15,000 to 17,000 of these kids are released into the real world at 18. But they're completely institutionalized. They can't handle normal life," Altshuler says. "So, in their first year of freedom, 5,000 of these kids go to prison, 3,000 become tramps and 1,500 commit suicide."

Brothers Beat Man Until He Dies

Volodya's story is typical. The attack on the 60-year-old tramp took place in 1994, in a badly lighted underpass next to McDonald's in central Moscow. As he told it at the time, he and three of his brothers asked the man for a cigarette. When the tramp kicked at Volodya, the four brothers, ages 10 to 14, "defended themselves" by beating the old man until they realized he was dead. Then they called an ambulance.

Only the 14-year-old brother was officially deemed old enough to be punished. He was sent to a juvenile penitentiary. Volodya's mother insisted that her younger children had done nothing wrong.

Disturbingly, however, while in detention, the Yakovlev boys also claimed to have killed five other people at railway and subway stations around Moscow.

Indifferent police refused to investigate the claims, insisting that the children must have made them up. But no counseling or social help was given to help establish what might have caused them to make such claims.

The local school refused to have any more to do with the Yakovlevs. So Volodya and his brothers carried on roaming the streets, stealing. When his mother, Svetlana, the mentally ill widow of a violent and alcoholic husband who died in 1992, was taken to a mental hospital, Volodya also ended up in local authority care.

Like the other kids in the children's home, Volodya lives under surveillance. But it's the weekend, and he's done what he does most weekends--slipped through a hole in the wire fence and headed off into the real world. No one bothers to mend the wire, he says with a shrug. Why would they?

Either he goes to the center of Moscow to get some money by begging, picking pockets or mugging, or he returns to the apartment where he was raised.

"He stays here till he steals something. Then, if they feel like it, the police come around and take him back," explains his sister Nika, a 21-year-old unemployed shop assistant who shrugs after the explanation.

Volodya is one of seven siblings. In theory, three of them are currently locked up. But they come home to the filthy apartment whenever they escape from prison or reform school. There's always someone in the ninth-floor apartment--papered with girlie-magazine nudes--to feed meat to the caged black rat with the foot-long tail, the terrified cat, a parrot and a muzzled pit bull terrier.

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