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COLUMN ONE

Russia's Harvest of Have-Nots

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

What the Yakovlevs live on is unclear. They laugh when asked. But the anger that emanates from the forsaken boys is palpable. Their speech is underworld jargon, all swagger and swear words. Lyosha, the oldest boy and at 20 an ex-convict, carries a flick knife.

That anger, psychologist Nina Yuditseva says, is the legacy of brutal Russian state care in a society that doesn't understand the notion of rehabilitation--for all the orphans and juvenile offenders she sees.

"People who come out of any kind of state child care here are alienated and don't believe they or anyone else have any value," she says. "Their emotions aren't awakened, and they can't become fully integrated people.

"When you get them to draw you pictures, kids from homes draw war, rape, chaos, blackness, horrors. The pictures often have no people in them. The main feature of their drawings is fear, and aggression to protect themselves.

"They've lived up to 10 years in these homes. What social adaptation can be expected?"

Brutal Hazing, Suicide Part of Military Life

Top among the other Russian institutions that produce graduates headed for crime is the army. Russia's vast and poverty-stricken armed forces number nearly 1.5 million, most of them reluctant conscripts younger than 27. Under the law, they must serve for two years.

Those with strings to pull--a friend in high places, or just enough money for bribes--get their sons excused from the army. The stories of vicious hazing, starvation, suicide and murderous rampages through garrisons are too frequent and disturbing for any concerned parent to do anything else.

Those who are unable to think up ways to dodge the draft legally tend to be orphans and the children of the poor. Once called up in a twice-yearly conscript intake of, in theory, 190,000, they run away in droves--thereby breaking the law and laying themselves open to arrest and imprisonment.

According to Valentina D. Melnikova, head of the Soldiers' Mothers Committee, an organization that campaigns to protect the rights of the young soldiers and keep them safe, every year 2,000 runaway conscripts knock on her door with complaints of sadistic bullying, theft, hunger and illness.

Even those who complete their service are at risk in society, she says. They face alcoholism, stress-related illness and a high failure rate in marriage: "Boys who do make it through military service have post-traumatic stress from being trapped in a desperate situation for so long. They're anxious, and they're trying to restore the balance in their lives. They very often marry the first girl who comes along, a thoughtless marriage, an attempt to escape their loneliness. Or they take to the bottle.

"The ones who fought in the war in Chechnya are the worst off. Everyone knows they came back with huge psychological stress. No one wants to give them a job. It's virtually impossible for them to get work."

For many, prison is the end of the line. In Russia, prison means years of darkness, unbearable heat, overcrowding and exposure to the deadly tuberculosis that infects nearly half the inmates of the prison system.

"Our state criminal policy is cruel and arbitrary," says Valery Abramkin, head of the Moscow Center for Prison Reform. "The severity of sentencing is out of proportion to the severity of the crime. People who steal a loaf of bread because they're unemployed and hungry get three to four years in jail.

"Because it's official policy to liquidate marginal groups, about 40% of the people in prison have done nothing worse than be rounded up for being homeless. Our prisons are the theater of the absurd."

He added: "A lot of people of employable age get locked up unnecessarily. Then their kids suffer--and the vicious cycle moves on to the next generation."

Crime From Different Quarters

In modern America, there are 565 convicts per 100,000 people; in Russia, there are 780. A perception that Russia is in the grip of a crime wave is only partially borne out by government statistics. These show the total number of reported crimes falling--from 2,760,652 in 1992 to 2,397,311 in 1997. But the number of "underclass" crimes--murders, robberies and random street violence--has risen, as have the numbers of crimes committed by drunk people.

This violent crime by have-nots is unconnected to the "glamour" end of illegality in Russia--the high-powered organized crime that has emptied government coffers, allowed shadowy tycoons to share economic spheres of influence, and led to the assassinations of meddlesome bankers.

"Three-quarters of the people involved in crime are the educated ones in some kind of organized activity," says Vladimir Grib of the Interior Ministry's Laboratory for Analyzing Organized Crime. "Then there's the rest: the people we call 'the Frostbitten.' They're from institutions, orphanages, prisons, the unwanted veterans of Afghanistan or Chechnya--the aimlessly violent, people who have lost their direction in life."

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