20 years under Putin: a timeline

Preventative Measures

In 2010, Elena Nikolaeva, Russian Public Chamber's Commission on Social Issues and Demographic Policy, announced that the number of homeless children had reached once again civil war levels. “Every year, 115 to 120 thousand orphans appear in Russia. Every day, between 200 and 220 children are taken away from their parents; 600 thousand children currently live in special dormitories,”  she said, adding that at the moment, there were 28 million children total in Russia. Ms. Nikolaeva also pointed out that the existing system of guardianship in Russia is “more interested in managing the money, rather than the fates, of children.” Therefore, she said, it is necessary not only to improve the orphanages and their supporting institutions, but also to create a system of family support services.


Juvenile correctional facility. Leninsk-Kuznetsk, Kemerovo region, 2000-2001. Photo by Sergei Ilyinitsky.

"The lives of homeless children have dark implications for the individuals and for society. The more time a child spends on the street, the more damage they suffer. The rate of violent and lucrative crime committed by homeless children continues to grow, as the crimes become more organized and graver. One in three delinquent acts in Russia  is committed by a teenager who does not work or go to school," write the authors of a study on youth homelessness in the Journal of Sociology and Social Anthropology [Zhurnal sotsiologii i sotsial'noj antropologii].


In 2008, a group of researchers from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center conducted a study on the state of the homeless children in Russia. One of the subjects of the study was the quality of state-run children’s facilities. On a scale of 1 to 5, they assessed the quality of care provided in various institutions and support scenarios: shelters were rated a 2.5; assimilation into foster families1; transition to other family members3.3; placement at state institutions3.6. Their research confirmed Elena Nikolaeva’s claim that it is better to send a child to an orphanage or a state-run boarding school than to place them in a foster family because government agencies  are reluctant to spend money on supporting foster families.

The research has also recommended several types of programs for preventing child homelessness. The first program was primarily prophylactic, aimed at decreasing the social risks that lead to youth homelessness. It includes raising public awareness, explaining the reasons for this phenomenon, and how the public at large can help children. In some cases, a second program of preventative measures can be applied to this end. These measures would be aimed at socially-vulnerable groups such as families living in poverty, families where parents abuse drugs or alcohol, families with disabled children, immigrants, refugees, and children without guardians or those who have placed in orphan homes and boarding schools. These groups should be targeted for homelessness prevention.

Another program involves seeking out street children, reducing the time periods they have to spend on the street, and minimizing the immediate harm caused to them. Finally, there are tertiary prophylactic measures aimed at dealing with the after-effects of life on the streets, including helping former street children with issues related to education, and providing psychological treatment for post-traumatic disorders and criminal tendencies.

The Orphanage as Punishment

It is no secret that the conditions in state institutions for children are far from perfect. Children in specialized boarding schools for wards of the state are 5 to 7 times more likely to develop behavioral, psychological, social, and communication disorders . More than half of the children in homes have developmental issues. Human Rights Watch reports that due to staff negligence and abuse, children are very likely to run away from these institutions and live on the street. In fact, according to one report, out of 1900 children placed in Moscow orphanages, 1400 ran away.

In 2010, the Ministry of Education published their statistical data on the graduates of orphanages and state-run boarding schools: 50% fall into the category of at-risk groups, 40% end up involved in the criminal world, 33% become unemployed, 20% become homeless, and 10% commit suicide.

In most developed countries, state-run orphanages have long ago been abolished and are now considered third-world institutions. Instead of being placed in state-run facilities, orphan children are most commonly adopted by foster families or taken under some other form of legal guardianship. The idea of eliminating orphanages is also being discussed in Russia. Former Minister of Education Andrei Fursenko has spoken about this, as has Pavel Astakhov, the Children's Rights Commissioner, who, in February of 2012, proposed a new federal program called Russia Without Orphans, aimed at moving away from the orphanage system and toward the adoption of the foster family model in its stead.

Experts are concerned that since the beginning of the 1990s, a third wave of mass child homelessness has swept Russia.

Despite the clear advantages of foster families, some experts believe this idea comes prematurely. As Elena Fonaryova, chairwoman of the Moscow Children’s Fund, has said, the idea of doing everything possible to avoid sending children to orphanages seems very attractive at first glance. “But what is his [Astakhov's] claim is based on? All the attempts to improve the situation hitherto undertaken have been fruitless. Thus, the promise to change everything in just a couple of years seems no more than a PR move that could lead to very serious consequences. An abrupt elimination of the orphanage system will most likely lead to the growth of the number disciplinary facilities for juvenile delinquents. The only way to solve the orphan issue is foster families. But it is naïve to think that after orphanages are shut down, all the children served by them would be able to find such families.”

In a recent op-ed, Ludmila Petranovskaya, a child psychologist, wrote that in order to make Astakhov’s idea work, foster families would need to undergo psychological training. “There should be refresher courses, provisional agreements. Parenting is a full-time job, there are no weekends or vacations, and it requires a high level of qualification. There are two or three dozen professionals capable of leading such training seminars in Russia, and there need to be a lot more. There’s been a lot of talk about this, but so far, nothing has been done.”

NGOs Can Help

While there is no single policy regarding homeless children, a number of non-profit organizations are dealing with the problem. Since 1991, Albert Likhanov’s Russian Children’s Foundation has been providing many children with the social support that they need. The foundation includes over twenty different charity programs, including Emergency Social Support, Chechnya’s Children of War, Children of Beslan, and many others.

The Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation runs charitable foundation called the Center of Support of Homeless Children. Using the Chamber’s network of resources, this foundation provides assistance to certain orphanages, state-run boarding schools, homes for children under three, juvenile correctional facilities, and centers for social rehabilitation. At the recent 10-year anniversary conference, the foundation’s board of directors reported that over 3,000 charity events had been organized by the foundation so far, helping 2,000 individual facilities receive aid in 80 districts across Russia. At the same time, the sum spent on all of these organizations turned out to be quite modest–only 302 million rubles (less than 1 million USD) over the span of 10 years.

In March of 2008, Vladimir Putin initiated the launch of the Foundation to Support of Children in Difficult Life Situations, which was established by the Ministry of Health. During its three years of work, it has co-sponsored over 100 projects, spending a total of 2.3 billion of rubles (73.3 million USD). The priority areas of the Foundation’s work include working with economically disadvantaged families and neglected children, providing social support for families with disabled children, and socially rehabilitating delinquents, including implementing measures related to the prevention of homelessness and neglect. Last year, the foundation became entangled in a public scandal when the Prosecutor General’s Office accused its administration of failing to directly help children and unlawfully diverting its funds. Some members of the Public Chamber raised their voices in support of the foundation, saying that these accusations were false. In the end, the scandal was hushed up.

In practice, true aid for homeless children most often comes from local volunteer and faith-based organizations. One such example is the Russian Orthodox-based project called The Homeless Children of Kursk Train Station. Launched in 2006, the project is carried out by a group of 50 social workers and volunteers. Last year, Forbes Russia named this organization among the 8 charitable foundations people can trust. The organization works closely with the St. Daniel Monastery, The Mercy Foundation, and the If You Have No Home… program. Six times a week, volunteers visit three of the major train stations in Moscow in order to feed homeless children (and not only the children), offer them medical care, and help them apply for replacements for lost documents. They also guide homeless children to orphanages, state-run boarding schools, hospitals and rehabilitation centers, and often come and visit the children there.


In 2009, the Perspektiva research organization conducted a study on homeless and neglected children in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District.  The study showed that among people who encounter children begging in the street, on public transportation, and in stores, 26.2% respondents "buy off" homeless children with small donations,  while others simply pass them by (17%), or attempt to avoid them (9.5%). Furthermore, the majority of respondents (71.6%) believe that the children's problems should be solved within the framework of the dysfunctional family where they originated. Alternately, 46.3% of the district's residents believe that the children should be supported by the state. When it comes to society at large, it rarely figures into the perceived solution of the problem: between 2 and 4% believe that the aid should come from non-profit, charitable and faith-based organizations; 10% believe that the children should primarily be taken care of by their relatives, adult acquaintances, and neighbors.


The problem of the child homelessness is deeply rooted in the state of the social sphere and the economy. It is not quite visible in the bustle of everyday life, not like a hike in the milk prices or increased utility bills. In today’s Russia, this problem serves as the reminder of the crisis in values in the state as a whole, as both the government and the public cynically ignore the outward signs of this serious issue.

Resolving this problem requires a systematic, holistic approach and long-term, diligent efforts. Judging by the irresponsible actions of Russian authorities so far, as well as the scarce media coverage of homeless children, it is clear that this problem is not a priority for the current regime. Russian politicians should consider the fact that youth homelessness is a time bomb: if it is not neutralized, sooner or later, it will explode, and no one dare predict the consequences of the social catastrophe that will follow.


Peter Polonitsky contributed to the article