In Frozen Moscow, City Rescues the Homeless and the Drunk
MOSCOW, Jan. 20 - Igor, a homeless man who lives in Moscow's Paveletsky train station, stumbled out of one of this city's police-run drunk tanks at around 6 p.m. Friday with an indignant complaint.
"I wasn't even drunk," he said, pulling a soiled stocking cap around his ears against an icy wind, which was blowing swirls of snow crystals almost horizontally past him.
Igor, who only offered his first name, had just poured himself a drink this afternoon, he said, when the police detained him. "They said I was drinking, but I hadn't even started," he said.
He was among the lucky ones. Dozens of people, most of them described by the authorities as homeless men or drunks, have frozen to death in Moscow during a week of subzero temperatures. On Friday, the mercury plunged to minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit.
Igor's quick arrest stood as evidence of what city authorities said was a huge effort carried out every night to keep the death toll as low as possible, as Moscow endured the coldest January in decades. It is a struggle of police officers, social workers and doctors against the brutal cold - and a tangled and deep social problem of middle-aged men drinking themselves into oblivion.
The cold killed seven people in Moscow overnight Thursday, the Russian news media reported. It has so strained heating and power supplies that it has caused a drop in energy exports to Europe.
In Moscow, as evening settled in, city authorities said they were stepping up efforts to get everyone off the streets. The city has fielded a fleet of buses to round up the homeless, posted notices in underground walkways and train stations with the addresses of shelters and made available an additional 100 beds.
"Homeless people, primarily children, will be invited to get on a bus, where they will be warmed up, fed, given the necessary medical assistance and provided with warm clothing if necessary," said a deputy mayor, Lyudmila Shvetsova, according to the Interfax news agency.
Although the record cold has highlighted the problem of hypothermia, health authorities say that most freezing deaths come in the early fall, as homeless people living in unheated basements are killed by the first frosts.
Outside the train station, as wind sent swirls of snow scudding along the pavement, a police officer who gave his name only as Semyon said an order came down even before the cold snap hit to increase arrests for public drunkenness.
Now, there are noticeably fewer drunks out than usual. "We picked up as many as we could," he said.
The life-and-death effort to untangle one of Russia's acute social problems, binge drinking among middle-aged men, combined with the long northern winter, has had mixed results in the post-Communist period.
Ms. Shvetsova, the deputy mayor, said Friday that deaths of the homeless had tapered off. The city is well on its way to pulling out of the 1990's economic depression.
Yet deaths from exposure are rare in Russian villages, where a tighter social fabric means fewer people wind up alone and drunk on the streets, health authorities have said.
But a city health official told the newspaper Izvestia: "Death from freezing doesn't depend on the social structure. They froze under Soviet rule and they freeze now."
Indeed, while the sad tally of Moscow's frozen homeless and alcoholics varies from year to year, the trend points toward growth.
In the winter ending in 1999, the city reported 108 such deaths. In 2001, the figure was 359, according to Russian news reports. It dipped slightly after that. But already this winter, 123 people have died of exposure.
Vladimir G. Morgunov, an ambulance driver idling his van outside a Moscow hospital, said he had picked up his share of frostbitten drunks in 16 years on the job. The skin is red and white at first, he said, then turns black as gangrene sets in. He said flatly: "I drink, too. But you shouldn't drink so much that you can't get home."
When asked why he decided to drink during one of Moscow's worst cold snaps on record, Igor, the homeless man, said, "I drink because it's cold."