In Soviet times, there were no beggars in Moscow. Actually, that’s not quite true; you just didn’t see them. All the homeless people, drunks and other "asocial elements," as they were called back then, were simply rounded up by the authorities and dumped at the "101st kilometer," the distance that marks the limits of the Moscow region.
The disabled or former collective farmers, who received miserly pensions of sometimes no more than 18 rubles a month – enough to buy 6 kilograms of meat – lived with their relatives or in old people’s homes, and so were also out of sight.
I was 20 when I saw a beggar for the first time. It was an old woman foraging in a garbage can near a market in central Riga, and it threw me into shock. But these days, such sights are part of the everyday picture in Russia.
In Moscow today, beggars are everywhere – in the streets, the metro, in underground passages and shops. Some of them are professionals working for underworld bosses. Any large city attracts this kind of "business." These "professionals" are most commonly found among men in camouflage gear posing as war invalids, women with other people’s children, often pumped full of drugs to keep them from crying, "refugees from war zones" and gypsies, for whom begging is a principal activity.
But some of those putting their hand out for a coin really are desperate people who don’t know where else to turn. Above all, this is the case of old people and the disabled, on whom the new Russia has turned its back. I always do what I can to help these people.
I remember how in the fall of 1998, just after the financial crisis, I came upon a frail-looking woman in her mid-50s sitting on the ground at a metro exit in the center of Moscow. A short little man was frantically trying to help her.
It turned out they were a couple, both disabled, who had been promised financial help from some bank or other. The bank gave them nothing and the couple left. But in the stuffy air of the metro the woman’s blood pressure shot up and she felt dizzy. The man couldn’t help her out by himself, and he was afraid to leave her to go and call an ambulance. None of the passersby came to help.
I happened to have some medicine on me and was able to help the man get his wife up to the street and sit her down on a bench. Then the man asked me if I couldn’t give him and his wife a little money to buy some food.
I was wearing a once-expensive coat, which, despite the fact it was 10 years old, still looked quite decent. It was very difficult for me to explain to these people that my situation wasn’t so different from their own, although I was at least able to earn enough money to feed myself. In the end, I scraped together all the change from my pockets, and when the man made the sign of the cross to bless me, I hurried off so as not to cry.
I don’t consider myself a particularly sentimental person, but I can’t look indifferently at the way the state has abandoned its most vulnerable citizens. In the past, a pensioner or disabled person didn’t always get much money, but at least it was enough to have a full stomach. And families helped more back then. These days, wage arrears and unemployment mean that pensions are often the only source of cash a family has.
But it’s even harder for people who are on their own. They can’t survive on their pensions alone; there’s no one to look after them; and not even young and healthy city dwellers manage to grow food in their distant vegetable plots, let alone old people. Old and sick people have no hope of finding work, either. But many of these people are in need of costly health care and medicine.
Russia is a potentially wealthy land. If we wanted to, we could feed not just our own population, but the whole continent. But so long as Russia’s wealth continues to go into the pockets of a select few, the number of beggars will only increase, and there will be ever fewer people able to give them anything.
Just recently, I saw a terrible scene on the street. Two old people, a man on crutches and a woman with a walking stick, were fighting over an empty bottle. The fight was such that bystanders had a hard time separating them. Society, it seems, has sunk about as far as it can possibly go.
True, people have to help themselves, ourselves included. But all the same, I ask those who can to please help the people who have hit rock bottom. Most of them are not paying for their own mistakes, and there has to be some kind of justice in life.
(Tatyana Matsuk is a regular columnist for The Russia Journal and a former researcher for the Russian Academy of Sciences.)