Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Adult Stigmatization and the Hidden Power of Homeless Children in Russia

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Adult Stigmatization and the Hidden Power of Homeless Children in Russia

Article excerpt

In this article I focus on the plight and hidden power of homeless children in Russia, adult attitudes toward them, and the main cultural hurdles that they have to surmount to survive in Russian society. The project developed as a result of earlier research conducted on the Russian concept of childhood (1) and attitudes toward orphans. (2) My research indicates that Russian parents and educators believe in certain principles of education that apply to all children; however, in practice, not all children are valued as equals. Similarly, the ideal concept of childhood, as a stage in life untainted by adult problems, does not apply to all children. Even though Russian parents and educators view childhood as potentially the most joyous time of life, many children, abandoned by their families, are victims of Russia's social crisis and barely survive from day to day. Relatively few adults concern themselves with the future of those children, and so the infrastructure to support them is not well developed or, in some cases, is absent. As a result, a rising number of children seek solace among themselves, in groups and gangs.

However, despite what appears at first to be a tragic victimization, given the suffering and hopelessness of homeless children, there is a power that comes from the children themselves. In a recent article addressing the cultural synthesis of poverty-stricken people, Metcalf suggests that, in studying poor countries, anthropologists have tended to emphasize the relative powerlessness of individuals in changing political and economic realities, thereby neglecting the power such individuals have in constructing "their own worlds in cultural terms." Metcalf points out, "Indeed, they not only can figure out for themselves what sense to make of a world full of rootlessness, alienation, cultural pastiche, and the rest, they must do it themselves." (3) Amazingly, homeless children in Russia are very much like adults in poor countries in that they too experience power in agency, that is, power in their instrumentality to survive and help others like them to survive, by creating for themselves a culture beyond an adult world that offers little more than rootlessness and alienation to them.

The mistrust and contempt that exist between homeless children and the adult world can be traced back to the 1920s, when hunger and abandonment forced thousands of children to take to the streets, as they do today. Many spent little time begging and quickly discovered benefits in stealing. According to Ball, one study conducted from 1925 to 1928 found that the likelihood for children to take to theft largely depended on whether or not they came from the city: "those who had engaged in begging only briefly before moving on to stealing came much more often from urban families than from peasantry." (4) The longer a child remained homeless, the more likely he or she was to become a petty thief. Marked as potential thieves, homeless children were viewed by adults as despicable.

Homeless children, in turn, had little faith in their surrounding society. As Ball explains, "Time and time again, in their actions, interviews and reminiscences, homeless youths expressed aversion for a surrounding citizenry that represented to them only potential victims or persecutors." Already in the 1920s, they had lost their childhood to society. No longer open to adult care and no longer hoping for true empathy, street children found power in paying back the adult world, which only hindered their potential. Homeless children believed, as they do now, in the reproach proclaimed in the title of one of their songs, "And Now My Soul is Hardened." (5)

That homeless children have found power in each other's company is not to suggest that they do not desperately need help. The problem is that, in the past, help offered by the Russian government has been less than a small bandage to cover a deep wound. These children need more than a cold room, a hard bed, and minimal food. …

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