Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
Down the Pan: Desperate Moscovites selling toilet seats. Photo: Chris Groner.
Down the Pan: Desperate Moscovites selling toilet seats. Photo: Chris Groner.

International SQUALL

Western Promise?

The market forces a new revolution

Squall 9, Jan/Feb 1995, pg. 34.

“The raw capitalism which has captured Russia’s imagination will turn around the economy in 1995".

So says Andrew Cowley of The Economist in the magazine’s perky publication The World in 1995’. Of the 150 million imaginations he refers to, 20-30% of adults and nearer 40% of children live below the official poverty line. Now that’s raw capitalism.

Cowley quotes opinion polls showing that under 5% of Russians take an active interest in politics. Indeed low voter turnouts for local elections do indicate disillusionment with the country’s infant democratic process.

This is no surprise. The devolution of power within regions since the disintegration of the USSR has been haphazard and chaotic. Inflation is high and unemployment, the running sore of capitalism, is rising: 1-2 million currently (plus an estimated 4-7 million hidden unemployed). Benefits - at present hard to come by and, as a percentage of a person’s former wage, pathetically low against inflation - are hardly worth claiming.

As for housing, traditional, low-cost state provision is slowly disappearing as privatisation is sold to the people. The government claims that by Summer 1994 some 29% of the total housing stock consisted of private homes. This trend has slackened due to a complex privatisation process (particularly difficult in communal apartments) and, perhaps, as people realise that ownership means maintenance costs and property tax.

The number of empty properties in Russia is on the increase and set to grow further as private enterprise sinks its teeth into the property market and private companies and Russian mafias buy up buildings and begin playing that familiar speculator’s game; leaving homes to rot.

Which brings us neatly on to the homeless and the squatters. Research into Russian homelessness in English is sparse so Squall spoke to Dimitri, an ex-squatter from Moscow. He spoke of a “ridiculous housing problem”, exacerbated by a massive and unpredicted influx of refugees since 1991, of perhaps as many as 200,000 people sleeping rough in Moscow. If you’re going to survive winters up to eight months long with temperatures as low as -20 degrees, ‘rough’, in Moscow, means underground. Dimitri described a sort of wintertime underground city in Moscow with basement squats connecting beneath the streets.

Staggeringly he estimates the number of hidden homeless, by British definitions, to be tens of millions simply because it has long been common practice for extended families to share rooms and for people to live communally in small spaces. Seventy percent of young couples are forced to spend their first year of marriage living in cramped conditions with parents and thus, almost inevitably, 40% of first year separations are attributed to housing difficulties or family rows. Accommodation problems are the most common grounds given for divorce.

Since 1986 up to 35,000 young people have been housed in MZhKs - Youth Housing Complex schemes - around 700 housing projects designed to help young people to build their own homes or renovate buildings. Despite this, at the beginning of the 1990s, an estimated 2.5 million young families were waiting for state housing. Two- thirds of these lived in hostels or shared rented accommodation. In other words, only one-tenth of young families had their ‘own’ place to live. At this time 70% of young people who changed their jobs did so because of their accommodation. Forty per cent of 15 and 16 year old students, forced to move to cities for compulsory secondary education, were living in hostel accommodation.

The homeless in Russia have absolutely no rights. They are treated as criminals. If you are stopped on the street without a ‘propiska’ (a residence permit required for major Russian cities) you can be arrested and automatically imprisoned for thirty days. Dimitri said that people arrested in this way have their hair cut short immediately (for easy identification on escape) and are jailed. Prison work, if you agree to it, includes factory jobs or, more commonly, street cleaning. If you work you get a blanket and a cigarette ration, if you refuse, you are allowed nothing accept one meal a day.

Squatting in Russia is a civil offence and occurs mainly in St Petersburg and Moscow with pockets in Siberia and in provincial Russian summerhouses or Dachas - which are squatted in the winter. Surprisingly, from October to April squatters cannot be evicted at all in law. Less surprisingly, illegal evictions do occur in these months especially if private business/Western companies’ projects are being impeded.

In addition to this safe period for squatters, another piece of bureaucracy seems to work in their favour. Demolition workers and builders receive extra money (around 25%) for working in the winter so they often put off starting work until the winter months. Then, of course, there may be squatters in the building they want to work on ... they cannot be evicted in the winter months so the work is delayed. Dimitri said that in state- owned properties, this cycle has gone on for years. Private owners are much more likely to carry out illegal evictions. Where owners pursue legal eviction, squatters can be removed almost immediately after proceedings have begun.

Your average Muscovite squatter is likely to be either a worker or a family tired of appalling hostel conditions and long state housing waiting lists. Young artists, radicals and illegal immigrants or refugees are also increasingly to be found squatting. Refugees are not supposed to be registered in major cities unless they have relatives there, but many live in Moscow illegally.

Squatting as apolitical act was not really known in Russia until around 1990-’91. At this time two large 16-floor tower blocks in Moscow (being built for already well-housed, top state- workers), were squatted. One by more than 30 families on priority waiting lists occupying workers’ hostels, the other by punks and radicals. In the few months the squats lasted, they supported each other and received considerable media coverage although, generally speaking, squatters are not keen to draw attention to themselves or link up with each other. There is little information about squatting and, as Dimitri pointed out, SQUALL would be illegal.

Squatting in St Petersburg is much easier. It is an old city with lots of grand, old houses awaiting demolition. Once homes for well-off families, each house now accommodates about seven families who share kitchens and bathrooms and live in one room per family. One current St Petersburg squat is the ‘House of Peace’; a large squat housing 20 permanent residents with up to 150 homeless using it as a temporary hostel.

Jevgenija, a Russian journalist, told SQUALL that Nochlezheka, a charity campaigning for the homeless in St Petersburg, say that the number of homeless people in the city is 12 - 14,000 and rising steadily. There are six million people in the entire region and only one homeless shelter with beds for 30 people. She said that in recent enterprising years, large numbers of people have been conned into selling their flats and thus rendered homeless. It is apparently not uncommon these days for alcoholics to find themselves on the streets having sold the rights to their flat to some dodgy businessman for a couple of bottles of vodka.

The Russian Mafia are now getting involved with buying and selling property big-time. All sorts of scandals are developing. One particularly gruesome story from Autumn ’94 involved the prosecution of ‘businessmen’ accused of swindling and poisoning over 30 old people. After answering ads in newspapers these people signed over their houses to a phoney charity who promised to ensure they would receive a good funeral. The old people were then systematically murdered.

Other post-Soviet additions to the homeless population include ex-soldiers, sent home with nothing following the withdrawal of troops from former Soviet republics, and workers who used to be provided with flats by their factory or plant. These days most companies have sold the hostels where they previously housed workers from out of town.

In the present competitive chaos, with Japanese imports flooding the market, wage arrears are a real problem. Andrew Cowley may be right, consumption may be increasing and the sale of cars may be higher than ever, but such rhetoric is of little comfort to Dimitri’s mum who, as a state oil-engineer, had not been paid for four months to December. Last November the government admitted that, at the beginning of October, 48% of reporting enterprises owed wages to their workforces. As a result, Dimitri explained, people are selling absolutely anything on the city streets and some are refusing to pay their rent.

The Yeltsin administration has promised the situation will change. The government says it will improve benefits and alter the ‘propiska’ laws. However, Jevgenija noted with some disgust that Yeltsin passed a law in November 1993 stating that the homeless would be provided with jobs, flats and medical care. She followed the story closely and waited for something to happen. It didn’t. No funds were made available and as state housing disappears from the picture (waiting lists now consist mainly of veterans, the disabled etc), the homeless, many of whom are those who simply cannot afford to buy their own place in Russia’s burgeoning free market, are left to fend for themselves.