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Russia-The Homeless

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The urban homeless are a category of the socially disadvantaged that received no official recognition in the Soviet era. Because Soviet law banned beggars and vagrants, the homeless (meaning anyone who lost his or her place of residence for any reason) were imprisoned or expelled from the cities. When the ban ended in the early 1990s, thousands of homeless people, mostly men, appeared in Russia's cities; the majority had migrated to urban areas seeking work or were refugees from the armed conflicts that erupted in the Caucasus and Central Asia when the Soviet Union dissolved.

In 1995 Moscow authorities estimated that city's homeless population at 30,000, but Western experts put the figure as high as 300,000. An estimated 300 homeless people died in Moscow in the first half of the winter of 1995-96, and on-site medical personnel reported widespread disease. At that point, Moscow had one shelter, with a capacity of twenty-four, and other Russian cities offered no sanitation or temporary residence centers of any sort. In the mid-1990s, the government of mayor Yuriy Luzhkov followed the Soviet pattern of forcibly removing vagrants from the city, especially at times when large numbers of Western visitors were expected. Police routinely harass and beat vagrants found on the streets. The Soviet propiska system of residency permits, which granted housing and employment to individuals only in the place where they were officially registered, has been found unconstitutional several times by Russia's Constitutional Court. However, many local authorities, including those in Russia's largest European cities, continue to require Soviet-era documentation; in 1995 Moscow assessed a fee of 35 million rubles (about US$7,000) for registration as a permanent resident of the city, and several other cities adopted similar measures. In the face of such restrictions, many homeless individuals are unable to change their status.

Through the first half of the 1990s, no specific agency of the Russian government has borne responsibility for aiding the homeless; the Federal Migration Service, a badly underfunded and understaffed agency created in 1992, has not been able to carry out its legal responsibility to locate housing and employment for internal and external migrants (see Migration, ch. 3). A number of Western humanitarian organizations, such as the Salvation Army and Doctors Without Borders, are the main source of assistance. In late 1995, the many deaths of homeless people prompted the Moscow government to announce plans to build ten new shelters and to ease the procedure for obtaining residency permits.

Private charities in Russia have suffered from an absence of government support and a general lack of social acceptance. In 1995, for example, the soup kitchen of the Christian Mercy Society in Moscow, which fed 400 poor people daily, had to pay city officials to stay open, and the organization was unable to obtain a designated space in which to operate. In fact, Russian law gives no status whatever to private charities, so such organizations must fend for themselves in helping the increasingly large number of urban poor. Russian society generally distrusts charities, partly because no such institutions existed either in tsarist times (royalty and the nobility provided whatever assistance went to the needy) or in the Soviet era, and partly because society has become fragmented by the difficult economic conditions of the 1990s.

According to Western experts, a comprehensive system of social protection is an urgent need of the Russian government, both for humanitarian reasons and as a prerequisite to financial stabilization and economic restructuring. The quality of future Russian society also will depend on reversing a steep downward trend in the quality of education and health care that has eroded the ability of Russians to improve their economic standing and to feel the sense of basic security that the Soviet system provided to some degree. Under Russia's conditions of drastic social and economic change, such forms of support are especially missed in the mid-1990s.

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A number of useful monographs published in the 1990s include discussion of various aspects of Russia's social conditions. In Redefining Russian Society and Polity , Mary Buckley discusses major changes in housing, health care, and social expectations, with substantial background on the Soviet period. The Environmental and Health Atlas of Russia , edited by Murray Feshbach, provides useful details on the health crisis and its causes. Education and Society in the New Russia , edited by Anthony Jones, includes discussion of education trends as they apply to changes in post-Soviet society. Local Power and Post-Soviet Politics , edited by Theodore Friedgut and Jeffrey Hahn, illuminates the role of local governments in areas such as welfare and housing. The World Bank's 1995 report Russia, Housing Reform and Privatization gives a full picture of the economic forces and existing traditions at work in forming a new housing market. Igor Kon's The Sexual Revolution in Russia is a detailed and well-documented analysis of sexual attitudes in the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. Russia's Youth and Its Culture by Hilary Pilkington is a sociological study of groupings and behavior. A series of articles by Penny Morvant, published in the Open Media Research Institute's biweekly Transition in 1995, are concise studies of poverty, the role of women, and the health crisis in Russia. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of July 1996

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