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RUSSIA'S ABANDONED CHILDREN

Dima is a cop. His beat is the Moscovsky train station, a cavernous hall where the city's growing underclass takes refuge and its young criminal class takes advantage.

Each day Dima lumbers quickly through the huge railway station like a large bear heading for a favorite stream. His eyes sweep the dim hall, lit by stingy lights beneath a cathedral-high ceiling.

A glance to the left, he spots a group of Gypsies. There is laughter and giggling as fathers chase their children.

To the right is a homeless woman in her 30s. She appears 60. Her eyes, glazed from drink, match the brutality evident on her swollen face. She has been beaten recently. Probably a former prison inmate, he says.

To the left are young parents with their 7-year-old daughter, dressed in a bright and pretty white lace dress. A bow in her hair adds to her doll-like appearance.

Ahead are the station's video games, fenced into a cranny off the main hall. There is the familiar sound of a Mario Brothers game.

Here are about 30 ragamuffin children, many dirty and all boisterous. The kids could have come right out of Dickens' Oliver Twist.

These are Dima's kids: Boris, a 13-year-old admitted rapist; Gena, an 8-year-old bandit; Pavel, a 16-year-old robber in a body wasted by alcohol; and 18-year-old Alexandria, a prostitute. Another, an 8-year-old boy, began his street life as a prostitute for men.

Dima doesn't treat these kids the way other cops do; instead he sees himself as a surrogate father to these child criminals. They are a harsh byproduct of the efforts to reform a broken economic system.

Each day their ranks swell. Dima says the primary reason is economic. Some parents can't earn enough money to survive decently. Often both parents have become alcoholics, seeking to escape their reality. The children are literally driven from their homes to the streets.

These kids hope to make the money their parents can't. They live on the street and call this railway station their "winter palace," a cynical reference to the winter palace of Czar Peter the Great that stands not far from the station. Here they sleep and eat, play video games and commit crimes, while avoiding the cold Russian winter. Their only link of kindness with the normal world is Dima.

Dimitri Vladimirovich Panfilov is a round man with a pleasant face. He carries his 200-plus pounds well on his 31-year-old frame. As he roams the station in his ski cap and plain brown coat, he doesn't look like the four-year veteran of a special police division in this northern Russian city. Only his title is formal: Senior Inspector of the Special Police to Railway Stations, St. Petersburg Main.

His official duty is to control the growing number of children that live on the street, especially in this railway station. Because of Russia's economic pressures, more children escape unhappy home lives by seeking money na olitza (on the street).

The children seem to respect Dima, for they know him as a cop who listens to them instead of beating them the way, they say, the uniformed militia do regularly. The children say he is svoi _ one of them.

Some of Dima's militia colleagues don't consider him svoi. Although his name is distinctively Russian, Dima is from one of the oldest cities in the world, Sammarkand, in the Asian Uzbekistan, a former Soviet Republic. There he was a teacher and journalist. Better educated than most of his fellow cops, Dima owns the view that he must do more than enforce the law. He must try to reach into the soul of these kids to save some of them.

Dima uses the boys he has befriended as his agents. They assist him in finding lost children in the station's busy halls, especially babies. He keeps their crime down by supporting them with food and cigarettes and conversation. He says half his meager $78 monthly salary goes to buy the children food, the other half to his family _ his wife and a 7-month-old son.

Dima invites some of the kids to tell their stories. With good-natured reminders from their dossiers and his memory, he assists them in telling a complete story. Most of the kids need no help as they are proud of their survival and are quite willing to recount their lives.

Vitalik

Age 13

Dirty, disheveled and slowed by alcohol, Vitalik still is the eyes and ears for Dima. Sometimes he stays with his grandmother. His parents are both alcoholics and drove him from his home, he says. He has been on the street living at the train station for about a year and a half.

He spent New Year's Eve at a nearby restaurant drinking champagne with friends. When asked where he got money to pay for the evening, he stated, without remorse, "I rob people. I need money for food, drink and video games, so I rob people." Vitalik says he would like to be a taxi driver but is too young. He has stolen from so many cars, he knows a lot about them, Dima adds.

Vitalik recounts a recent burglary of a kiosk. His gang disabled the alarm system and stole money, clothing, cigarettes, alcohol and Snickers candy bars. Vitalik says, "It was a pity we were caught when we went back the second time."

Boris

Age 13

He has lived on the street since he was 9. When Boris' parents moved from the city, he stayed, on the street. He occasionally takes shelter with his grandmother. His conversations are sullen and combative, and he seems different from the other boys. He appears to be one of the most dangerous.

Boris once broke into 17 cars in one night. He usually carries a knife. He adds, calmly, that sometimes his victims must be hurt. He gets angry when one of his compatriots mentions Boris' involvement in rapes.

On the floor of the train station, Boris can be observed at work. He surveys unsuspecting travelers like a buyer eyeing cuts of meat at a market. To Boris, robbing people is business.

Alexandria

Age 18

Sasha, as she prefers to be called, is an aide at a kindergarten during the day. Her pay is minimal, $31 per month. She has a second job at night at the train station. She is a prostitute, for less than the ruble equivalent of $10 per episode, any type. Her monthly income by working every other night is about half a million rubles ($400).

When asked about the open sores on her hands and if she is afraid of catching diseases such as AIDS, she says, "I can't even think about it."

A friend of her brother introduced Sasha to prostitution when she was 16 and now serves as her pimp, protecting her from local organized crime. Most of her customers are Russian men in their 50s. She would like to reach what she sees as a glamorous and lucrative life as a high-class call girl for foreigners, then eventually marry and have a family.

This delusion is not that uncommon today among Russian girls, according to the Russian newspaper Smerna. In a recent poll of high school girls, prostitution was the No. 2 career choice. Becoming an actress was first.

Pavel

Age 16

"The hell with me. Better they kill me, then I wouldn't rob people," says Pavel, when asked what would happen if one of his robbery victims turned on him.

Few would see through the impish grin to realize this boy-man has been on the streets for eight years. Several days before, Pavel robbed an elderly man of 430,000 rubles, about $340, enough to keep him in food, liquor and video games for quite a while _ if he doesn't get robbed himself.

Pavel speaks in the street language of a hardened criminal. "I watch for "goosee' (victim). I know immediately how much money they have." Goosee means geese. "I don't sell my body, like the others," he says in reference to many of his gang who prostitute themselves or are victims of rape.

The "goosee"

The mother and her 15-year-old daughter were potential victims. Dima recognized them as a typical middle-class Russian family trying to pick up a few rubles by reselling goods in the black market line at the entrance to the station. He is stunned by their naivete and cannot convince them that they are goosee, potential victims of robbery or worse.

Dima invites them to his office so that he can talk with them some more. As they sit quietly on a sofa, between Boris and Pavel, Dima suddenly, without warning, slams a brass-knuckled fist into the metal safe door. The resounding ring sounds like a church bell, and the startled mother and daughter jump in their seats.

The brass knuckles, Dima explains to the mother and daughter, are just some of the weapons wielded by the children of the street. He shows them the knuckles. Then a long dagger.

Still not convinced, the mother looks at Boris and Pavel and says, "They are just children. They won't hurt me."

"What about your daughter?" Dima asks.

"Why, I have even told her not to get on our elevator with a stranger," she replies.

Pavel and Boris convince where Dima cannot. "I will have to rob you," Pavel offers with a smirk.

Deadly serious, Boris reveals that he carries a knife and says, "I will rape your daughter."

The mother and daughter leave the train station.

A sign of hope

Outside, Dima points to an old section of the city within walking distance of the railroad station. In the darkened courtyard of an old apartment high-rise, a penlight reveals a sign of hope _ the word, ALMUS, scratched on the brick wall with chalk and an arrow pointing to a stairwell.

Almus, Latin for the Alms House, is a six-story walk-up. The concrete ceiling of the sixth floor landing is sprinkled with the black marks of wooden stick match rockets. Children are not far away.

The unmarked and battered door belies the warmth inside for a few lucky children. Michael Ilijekov, director of this charity shelter, is a person who, like Dima, cares about children.

The entry hall is filled with children's coats of all sizes. Arm in arm, chattering while they bustle about the apartment, are children who match the coats. Missing is the sullen atmosphere of the children of the railway station.

This is home for 18 children who range in age from 4 to 18. The apartment is oversized by joining several apartments together to create dormitories and a long kitchen dining area. The table seats 15.

Since economic reforms began three years ago, Almus and 10 other shelters have been established in the St. Petersburg area to help children. Almus is financed by the St. Petersburg city council and through donations.

The children spend their summers in a village cottage near the forest. They grow and can their winter food, which gives them a sense of worth and helps finance the shelter. The cottage was donated by a Swiss woman.

There are success stories here. Alexander, 17, the night teacher, earns his university admission by watching the younger children at night. His bedstead

is lined with a collection of miniature foreign cars. Lena, 19, a former resident, has become the home's paid cook. Also she is enrolled in a beautician school.

Then there are the twins. Vanya and Sasha, 8, were abandoned in their home by their parents. A neighbor noticed them fending for themselves, probably soon to join the street crowd, and reported their situation to the police.

They have found their way to Almus. They now attend school and have a family again. For them, there is hope.

Steve Small is photo editor of the Times.

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