Make a wish: Homeless in Russia on New Year’s Eve

Photo by Mari Bondarenko
Each year, when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, millions of Russians write down a wish on a small piece of paper.  They burn the paper, put the ashes in their champagne and drink it down – if the glass is empty before the clock stops chiming, the wish will come true.  It’s harmless fun for a superstitious society, built on a hope that the future will be better than the past.  And yet for all the celebrations, there are some Russians for whom this traditionally carefree evening is the hardest of all.

Zarina, a 32 year-old woman from Kalmykia in the south of Russia, normally makes a wish each year.  In the final hours of 2013, she sat in her kitchen with her (now ex-) husband.  “We had a big dinner, salads and candles on the table,” Zarina says.  “Putin’s speech was on the television.”  She drank her champagne and wished for the health of her family.

Staring at the floor, Zarina’s eyes now well up with tears.  The young woman recounts this happy memory sitting on a metal bench in a homeless shelter situated in Vyborgskaya, in northern Saint Petersburg.  Outside, snow falls in the darkness.  It’s the middle of the Russian winter, a beautiful thing but one that can inflict serious damage on the unprotected.  Zarina’s voice quivers as she retraces her past life up to the present: “I used to be a lawyer, at the top of society, but I have been on the bottom for nine months now.”

Zarina tells her story in the shelter’s cramped office cabin, away from the main tent.  She has degrees in economics and law: one year ago she was working in the military prosecutor’s office, married to a man that she loved.  After being seriously injured in a grenade attack during a work trip to Chechnya, she started to drink, and she was fired from her job.  She separated from her husband, who sold their apartment and vanished with the money.  The stars aligned, and all of her support disappeared simultaneously.

“On my first night without a home, I went to my neighbour and slept on his couch,” Zarina says.  “On the second night, he asked for a lot of money.”  She couldn’t pay.  An old acquaintance alerted her to a community of homeless people on Lesnaya Prospekt.  “Entering this community was so strange.  I’m still trying to get used to it,” she says.  “The hardest thing is the humiliation.  People look at you differently.”

She spent the first hours of 2015 at this shelter, a heated tent erected each winter by Nochlezhka, an organisation dedicated to helping the homeless across Saint Petersburg.  There was no champagne to make a wish with, as alcohol is forbidden in the tent.  Absent too was the hope that inspires one to wish in the first place.  New Year’s Eve is the most popular night of the year in this tent: it’s a horrible night to be homeless.  Milestones are daunting when one’s life is headed in the wrong direction; the air is thick with the paralysing fear that next year will be just like the last.

Sitting across the room from Zarina is Misha.  A rotund, jolly figure with a thick moustache and persistent demeanour, Misha was homeless for 12 of his 59 years.  He now works supervising the shelter and its guests.  He is supportive and stern, persistent and positive.

He likes Zarina: “she has a huge will to prepare herself for a normal life again, to heal her bruises”.  He says she has potential, but she is with a man named Sasha who is taking her down.  “She should break up with him.”

Zarina stares at the floor, blushing and saying nothing.

“Why are you always with Sasha, Zarina?” Misha asks her bluntly.  “He drinks, he is bad for you.”

“I cannot be homeless alone,” she replies.

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IMG_4866-e1425997202790
Zarina, centre, and Misha, Right.

Redemption

Misha comes from a classic Jewish family, but his young life changed after his father was killed by two drug dealers.  Misha says he was a suspect for his own father’s murder, arrested and placed under investigation.  After Misha’s name was cleared, he left prison to discover that distant relatives of his had taken his house out of his name and sold it.  He lost everything.  Twelve years of homeless followed, a long journey back to normal life replete with false starts along the way: jobs lost, vices acquired, imprisonment.

“I was taking any job offer I was able to find,” says Misha.  He first worked with Azerbaijani immigrants as a loader in the markets.  The money was barely enough for food, let alone a place to live.  He eventually got a job as a street sweeper and his boss arranged a nearby basement for him sleep in.  “I was so happy, I brought some chairs into the basement to make it feel more like a home,” Misha says.

These days Misha has a proper home of his own, and says he enjoys the responsibility of working in the shelter.  Some guests ask him to look after their documents, if they still have them.  “I open their passports and I see what they all looked like before they became homeless, before they started to drink,” Misha says, “If you look at them now, you cannot recognise them anymore.  The same transformation happened to me, many years ago.”

Misha can remember the feeling of being homeless on New Year’s Eve.  “There were no celebrations.  I was very sad, I always wanted to be left alone, not talking to anyone, not being noticed,” he says, “I used to go and sit in a quiet corner and think about my past, the things I did wrong…”

As Misha’s voice trails off, the silence is interrupted by the sudden rapping of knuckles on a window: it is Sasha, Zarina’s man.  He’s drunk, standing outside in the -10ºc cold, slurring his words behind the glass in an attempt to win Zarina’s attention.  She and Misha shoo him away back into the main tent.  Misha collects himself.  “Sometimes you are going through tough times,” he says.  “I do not like to speak about them anymore.”

* * *

Homeless guests in the Nochlezhka heating tent | Photo by Mari Bondarenko

A Spectrum of Hope

Tales from the homeless shelter are invariably severe in their gravity.  There are 50,000 of them currently scattered across Saint Petersburg: stories of untimely deaths, betrayals and trickery, loneliness and bad choices.  Each individual responds to these hardships differently: some are desperate change their situation, others are resigned to their fate.

In the last week of 2014, Misha had introduced me to Artem and his girlfriend Angela, who were spending the evening in the shelter.  There was something unsettling about Artem.  I first saw him sitting on the ground, elbows on knees, wearing a black t-shirt and grey tracksuit pants, leaning forward sceptically.  His eyes were blue and piercing.  A role reversal was taking place: a homeless man, forever the intruder in society, found himself intruded upon.

“What do people with their own homes want from me?” Artem asked Misha, gesturing at me with an open palm.  Amid a sea of Cyrillic tattoos, LIFE IS STRUGGLE was etched in English on his inner arm.  Could he speak English?  “No,” he pointed to the tattoo in the dim light and said defiantly, in Russian: “but I know what this means.”

Slowly, Artem began to speak.  “There are three kinds of homeless people,” he said.  “The bottle collectors, the metal collectors, and the beggars.  I am the second kind.”  He rummaged through his backpack and retrieved an old hard drive and a knife.  “Look here.  There are magnets inside, you can easily get them out.”

Artem explained the rules of the game: an empty glass bottle can get you 50 kopecks (€0.01) from the recycling depot, while coloured metal is worth 200 roubles (€3) per kilo.  A day’s work collecting either will usually get you enough money to survive.  Many homeless people work in pairs so the work is less dull, even though the proceeds must be split.

Artem has been homeless for fifteen years.  He talked about it indifferently, as though it were a small birthmark.  “You start to get used to it.  It becomes a kind of habit, you can’t live normally.”  Growing up in an orphanage, he didn’t have a family.  He escaped from the orphanage when he was 17 and hasn’t had a place to call home since.  “I don’t really care if I’m living in prison or living on the streets,” he said.

“I’m sorry, but we cannot talk any longer,” Artem says.  “We have to wake up early and work tomorrow.”  He shakes my hand and climbs under a sleeping bag with Angela.

Two weeks later, I return to meet Artem and Angela, but they’re nowhere to be found.  “They ended up being very bad people,” Misha says.  “Three days after you met them, the police came to the shelter looking for them because they committed a robbery.”  Artem and Angela are still on the run from police.  They can no longer sleep in the homeless shelters around Saint Petersburg, if they try the police will be called.  Where will Artem and Angela go next?

“They’ll hide somewhere,” Misha says, pouting.  “Maybe roam around.  I don’t know.”

 

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RICHARD ENSOR

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