The Soviet-Russian production of homelessness
Propiska, housing, privatisation

Tova Höjdestrand

Department of Social Anthropology, University of Stockholm

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The propiska: Keeping 'matter out of place' out of places that matter
The propiska and housing
Crime, punishment, and homelessness: ex-cons
Protecting the centre from the periphery: limitchiki and others
Post-Soviet legal changes, or the dialectics of the bureaucratic present
The decreasing supply of housing: privatisation, market exploitation
How to find a place to live
The scramble for square metres: manipulation, fraud, extortion
Families, or the lack of them



Homelessness as a social phenomenon takes different forms depending on economic, political and legislative factors in the given social system. These factors determine the ways in which each system produces, maintains, or prevents people from becoming homeless, just as they constrain or facilitate options for actors (homeless or not) to affect their own situation. This paper discusses 'the production of homelessness' in the Soviet Union and in contemporary Russia. I will first pay attention to a phenomenon that is central to both these issues: the propiska, the notorious residence permit that the Soviet state used together with the system of allocated housing to exercise demographic control and to reward or punish its subjects. Homelessness in the Soviet period was largely a result of this system, although it was concealed and in practice criminalized. During the 1990's, the number of homeless people increased dramatically due to legal changes, the disintegration of the Soviet state, and the introduction of market economy. In the middle of the 1990s about four million Russians were estimated not to have propiska.(1) However, the homeless themselves tend to refer their situation to absence of supportive families, regardless of how obvious the political or economical factors are that in fact deprived them of their homes. The paper suggests that this is a realistic and adequate interpretation, since intimate social networks constitute the only existing social security in contemporary Russia.

The paper primarily concerns homeless adults. Fieldwork was conducted on railway stations, charities, and other 'hangouts' for homeless people in St. Petersburg throughout the year 1999 and during numerous subsequent visits.

The propiska: Keeping 'matter out of place' out of places that matter

The Soviet propiska system was established by a decree by Stalin of 27th December 1932 (Matthews 1993), as an instrument for the state to restrict the mass immigration to the large cities that was caused by expanding urban industrialisation and rural mass famine (c.f. Lewin 1985:220-222, Kotkin 1995, Matthews ibid). It reminded of the Tsarist passport system that was abolished after the Revolution,(2) but criteria were added that would improve the revolutionary quality of urban populations. To live and work in the most strategic cities and regions(3), citizens had to obtain a new ID-document. To receive this 'domestic passport' one needed a registration at a permanent address, the propiska. Criminals, political suspects, and a number of other undesired elements were denied propiska and passport and had to leave these cities (c.f. Popov, 1995a, 1995b, for a bulky record of such categories). The system was introduced gradually, starting with metropolitan centres and strategically important regions, and these people were successively pushed towards the peripheries of the state and were included in the system only when it engulfed the country in its entirety in the 1950s.

The propiska became (and to a large extent remains) the precondition for most civil rights and social benefits such as formal employment; access to housing; medical insurance; education; unemployment benefits; ration cards; the right to vote; even access to public libraries. Only in 2002, pensions were granted citizens without a propiska.(4) The propiska applies only locally, and citizens thus receive these benefits only on the condition that they stay where they are. Each oblast (territorial unit comparable to a county) or region is basically responsible for the welfare of its own inhabitants and have few duties against others. 'Crossing borders' without officially confirming the movement with a temporary propiska or a guest propiska thus mean a deprivation of civil rights. Moreover, large cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg are administratively separate from their own oblasty, and a propiska in Vyborg north of St. Petersburg is thus of no use within St. Petersburg even though it is valid in the town Luga south of St. Petersburg.

The registration was created as a residence permit. Not to have a propiska, i.e. to be BOMZH (Bez Opredelennogo Mesta Zhitelstva, 'without fixed abode(5)), was a criminal offence, just like 'violating the passport laws', i.e. leaving one's city or region of registration for more than three days without registering with the authorities. The offences could result in a couple of years of incarceration, which was about the same penalty as for 'vagrancy'. Homelessness was also criminalized indirectly in the sense that tuneiadstvo ('parasitism', i.e. long term unemployment) was outlawed, and the legal precondition for regular employment was a propiska.

'Trespassers of the passport laws' were first taken to a special police department where their identities were confirmed before they were dispatched further. In spite of a relaxed legislation, the so-called spetspriem raspredelitel' (literally 'detention resettlement centre'(6)) remains, but now as a department responsible for making domestic passports for BOMZHs. (Other people turn to their local police station.) Curiously enough, applicants are still incarcerated for a maximum of ten days while documents proving their identity are requested from other administrative instances. Due to bureaucratic inertia and slow postal services, they usually leave without a passport, and receive the documents only later. People whose last place of abode was in the now independent former Soviet republics, 'the near abroad', often face considerable problems since they need documents from their states of departure - where the administration not always is overtly cooperative to Russians.

The propiska and housing

The propiska is also paramount in the system of allocated state housing. It regulates access to zhilploshad', 'living space' according to the so-called 'sanitary norm', a scientifically calculated standard for the amount of space needed by one person. This system was introduced in the 1920's when the general lack of housing was ameliorated by confiscation of large upper-class apartments that were transformed into communal dwellings, kommunalki. During most of the Soviet era the norm was nine square metres per adult person, with additions for certain privileged categories. Theoretically, the regulation of living space works according to the same logic of just allocation in the municipal housing sector today: the sanitary norm has increased somewhat, but living space in kommunalki as well as in one-family flats is to be distributed by multiplying the norm by the number of registered people in the household. A household with less space per person than the norm is entitled to a larger flat or room, and if it has excess space it should theoretically be assigned a smaller place to live.(7) If the household wants to split, its members should receive their respective square metres in separate places. A household may register additional people only if these are very close relatives. If anybody but spouses, children, or elderly parents is to have a propiska, there must be enough spare square metres available for the person in question. This is rarely the case due to a chronic shortage of housing - far from all Soviet citizens ever received even their stipulated nine square metres. Registering with friends or acquaintances has thus never bee a viable solution for a BOMZH.

Once a person has registered somewhere, his or her right to this space is quite secure. Not even failure to pay rent leads to eviction: by law, the municipality can only evict if the tenants are offered a cheaper place to live. I lack sufficient information about to what extent this happened in the Soviet time, but nowadays the housing administration does not have enough alternative housing solutions at its disposal to execute the law in practice.(8) The most common reason for eviction from municipal housing is instead absence: according to Article 60 of the Housing Code, a tenant who is proved not to have resided at his or her place of living for more than six months may by a court decision be deprived of his/her place of residence and of the propiska, and the flat or room will be given to somebody who presumably is in more need of it.

Crime, punishment, and homelessness: ex-cons

Until 1995, Article 60 also concerned non-voluntary absences caused by hospitalisation (mental patients were especially affected) and, most important, by criminal convictions. A person sentenced to more than six months of incarceration was automatically BOMZH after the sentence was served, and if (s)he had a place of his/her own before the conviction (s)he was deprived of it. Convicts who lived with their families had their propiski cancelled, and it was up to the family to decide whether or not to re-register the released convict once the sentence was served. Released convicts were supposed to be supported in finding jobs (that in the Soviet time often included housing) by certain observation commissions sorting under the local administrations (Zykov 1999) and according to Bodungen (1994:4) the soviets were obliged to help in certain cases.(9) However, these systems did not work out very well, and potential employers were, moreover, usually unwilling to take on and house ex-convicts (Matthews 1993). Thus, the most realistic solution was to register with close family members. Those who had no families risked ending up in the labour camps again, often due to 'violation of the passport laws', vagrancy, parasitism, or other offences more or less related to the homelessness itself.

Some ex-convicts who are or were homeless were subject to what basically was a continuation of the deportations of the social and political 'misfits' of the 1930's. Certain categories of released convicts were prohibited to come closer than 100 km to a number of major cities and strategic regions. The rule was basically targeted at political dissidents and offenders of serious crimes of violence, but at times it was applied on people only on the grounds of 'parasitism'. Work and housing was supposed to be provided by the authorities at the appointed place of exile, but this worked far from always, and it happened that people were directed to settlements far out in the oblast only to find themselves to be BOMZH, homeless, and unemployed there too.

Protecting the centre from the periphery: limitchiki and others

Throughout the Soviet period the state was particularly attentive to the strategic cities and regions where the propiska system first was introduced. They were to be protected against too many people and against the wrong kind of people. The abovementioned '100 km rule' was a way to ban undesired natives from these places, while the propiska regulated the inflow of migrants. The huge differences in standard of living between centre and periphery in Russia were never erased by communism, and according to Zaslavsky (1982), the Soviet society was characterised by 'territorial stratification' more than by social divisions based on capital or profession. Social mobility thus often implied a geographical movement from periphery to centre. The demographic pressure on the most attractive cities was held at bay by the well-known Catch 22 that in Russian goes: propiski net - raboty net, raboty net - propiski net ('no propiska, no job - no job, no propiska'), meaning that the one always was the prerequisite for the other. The chronic shortage of industrial labour nevertheless required an input of qualified workers. Managers often solved this problem on their own and tacitly overlooked the absence of a propiska, but there was also an official way, the so-called limit system. A planned quota, limit, of 'guest workers' was allowed to work on time-limited contracts with temporary propiski, often housed in obshezhitie, a form of enterprise housing provided by most large workplaces. Crammed, uncomfortable, and despised, it was nevertheless a relatively easy accessible form of housing. Limitchiki, as the 'guest workers' were called, literally lived in a liminal state betwixt and between homelessness and official residence. Excluded from the ordinary housing queues they were totally dependent on their jobs to be able to stay on. After ten years, they were entitled to a permanent propiska by law, but the trial could also be ended by a 'proper' flat or kommunalka room (and thus a permanent propiska) from the workplace. Workplaces often had a quota in the regular housing queue, unless they even constructed houses on their own, and places to live were thus distributed as bonuses to meritorious workers or through queue systems tied to the workplaces. These flats or rooms stayed with the employee even if he or she changed job. Bogus marriages and other crooked dealings were other ways to make one's way(10), whereas many people consciously 'violated the passport laws' and moved in illegally. Besides homeless ex-convicts, such migrants and former limichiki or students with expired temporary propiski constituted most of the 'hidden homelessness' of the Soviet period.(11)

Post-Soviet legal changes, or the dialectics of the bureaucratic present

In 1993 the propiska was formally abolished and replaced by registratsia na mesto zhitelstva, 'registration at a place of permanent living', but most people (including bureaucrats) still use the old name because no practical changes have been made to it. A disjunction between law and administrative practice permits the old system to linger on, even though the Constitution of 1993 affirms a number of civil rights that in effect makes it illegal. Citizens have successfully turned to the Constitutional Court to be able to register with acquaintances, arguing that the limitations set by the sanitary norm contradict the constitutionally granted freedom of movement (cf. Kommersant Oct. 11th 1995, March 12th 1998, Feb. 20th 1999). Nevertheless, the relevant administrative instances as well as low- and middle-level courts persistently ignore these precedents. The same constitutional right to freedom of movement ostensibly grants the right to free settlement to people who abandon the new CIS-states on grounds of persecution. Throughout the 1990's, Moscow and St. Petersburg nevertheless demanded a propiska from applicants in order to give them the status as 'forced migrant' (a term applied on Russian citizens) or refugee in these cities and thus the permission to live there (Pilkington 1998:40-42, Zajontjkovskaja 1998). The prerequisite for a residence permit was thus - a residence permit. The Constitutional Court has forced these cities to change their policy (Kompas bezjentsa) although I am not sure about how this has been implemented in practice.

In the same way, the propiska is no longer a formal precondition for employment. However, an employer cannot pay taxes for employees who lack propiska since the tax is paid to the local tax authorities at the place of registration, and in order to be hired, an applicant must also display a number of other documents that are provided only at the place of registration (such as insurance certificates, or military registration documents)(12). Moreover, most employers still demand the propiska because without other effective registration systems, an official address is the only available means of control that the employer has over the employee.(13)

Certain cities have introduced modifications of the propiska system on their own accord. Since 1998 St. Petersburg thus gives pensions and medical insurance to BOMZHs whose last propiska was in the city. Hospitals and polyclinics rarely accept this insurance, however, and the patients have to satisfy themselves with the single clinic that the city provides for the homeless. A number of shelters, or rather half-way houses with the aim to 'rehabilitate' homeless people have also been built, but hitherto few people live there. The shelters are run by the local districts, the raiony, and are targeted only at people who formerly lived in the respective local district. Not all raiony have shelters; not all homeless people are from St. Petersburg; and the homeless person may have difficulties to document where (s)he lived earlier. Moreover, the money to run and maintain these shelters is limited, and like the medical insurance the reform is little more than an official recognition that homelessness exists that in practice has little significance.

The most important changes in the law during the 1990s concern the former connection between criminality and homelessness. The homeless were no longer per definition criminal when the paragraphs about parasitism and vagrancy (209) disappeared from the criminal codex in December 1991 (Stephenson 2000:17). 'Trespassing the passport laws' (198) remains, but only as an administrative offence penalised by fines. (In St. Petersburg the police uses it to harass people - usually the homeless or persons of Caucasian origin - but the situation is nevertheless relatively relaxed in comparison to Moscow, where this paragraph is the legal legitimacy for systematic purges of undesired people from the city).

In 1995, the Constitutional Court confirmed that depriving convicts of their places of residence was illegal even according to Soviet law.(14) Now the flat (or room) of a convicted person is sealed until he or she is released, and a special commission in each district of a city, The Commission for Prevention of Homelessness, is supposed to find compensation for those who are homeless due to the abolished practice. This implies a lengthy bureaucratic process, often without tangible results: approved applicants are granted precedence in the queue for municipal housing, but due to the escalating shortage of housing this does not always result in a place to live. The Commission is based in each local district, raion, of a city and is supposed to find housing in the same raion as the one in which the ex-con used to live. In for instance central St. Petersburg, this proves to be a difficult task. If an ex-con is allocated a place to live, this is usually a room in a kommunalka, where the other inhabitants often find themselves eligible to the room due to shortage of living space for their own part.

Moreover, people who lived with their families at the time of conviction are not eligible to apply, and this is probably a majority of everybody who was affected by the abolished practice. Formally, they are not homeless due to Article 60 of the Housing Code, but because their relatives died; lost their flats on their own accord; or rejected them.

Given the substantial terms of conviction that are common in Russia, there are still plenty of prisoners waiting to enter homelessness due to the old practice. During my fieldwork in 1999, more than 40% of my informants had such a background.(15) Some of them were sentenced for crimes of violence, but the majority have served time (most of them some 10-15 years or more altogether) for petty thefts, 'parasitism', 'vagrancy', etc.

The decreasing supply of housing: privatisation, market exploitation

During the 1990's there has been a rapid decrease of all former types of relatively accessible and cheap housing. The privatisation of the municipal housing stock began in 1991. The basic idea was that the state only would keep a certain amount as 'social flats' for the less privileged, comparable to British council flats.(16) Privatisation is free and entitles the proprietors to sell at a market price, but is also implies responsibility for a certain amount of maintenance and it gives no financial advantages with regards to running expenses.(17) Given the dishevelled state of most Russian apartment houses, privatisation is not attractive to everybody and the process slowed down significantly already in 1994 (Ambrose et al 1998:79). The proportions between the privatised housing stock and the remaining municipal one remains about fifty - fifty both in Russia and in St. Petersburg. For a few years there have been discussions about dramatic increases of municipal rents and a legislation that permits evictions for non-payment, but hitherto no concrete measures have been taken to realise these plans.

The present law and the subsidised housing costs enable many people to have more than one place of living at their disposal, while others have none. Once a flat is privatised it is not necessary to be registered there in order to keep the space. Instead, people try to register wherever the propiska entitles them to more space, for instance with old relatives in order to acquire their space when they die. Individuals or families may thus be in control of two or more flats or rooms at the same time. One or more of them may be sublet, but the relatively small costs for housing often allow the proprietors to leave them empty while waiting for a suitable moment to sell. In particular the kommunalki are thus becoming more and more empty, in spite of the enormous amount of people who are queuing for rooms.(18) In addition, the privatisation (and/or decline) of the state enterprises has more or less eliminated the system of obshezhitie, formerly the most accessible form of housing. A certain amount has been taken over by the municipality, but generally they are neglected until the tenants happily accept other and better forms of housing, after which the houses or the land are commercially exploited (cf. Delovoi Peterburg June 5 2000).

The reduction of the municipal housing stock means that the general queue for housing is brought to a standstill. Most disfavoured are social categories that by law are entitled to state housing, for instance ex-convicts assisted by the Commission for Prevention of Homelessness. Another such category is young people who have grown up in state care. Judging from some of my own informants, such children had difficulties to obtain places to live after leaving school in the Soviet days too, but the situation is worse now (also because of the disappearance of the former 'emergency solution' obshchezhitie).

The limit system disappeared along with the industrial enterprises that it was supposed to supply with labour, and thus another important loophole for hopeful migrants was gone. In spite of new social divisions "territorial stratification" is still a factor of inequality that should not be ignored, and even if the economic problems in the country have resulted in surprisingly modest demographic changes (cf. Collier 2001) there are still enough migrants to constitute a separate category among my own informants. About one fifth of them arrived in St. Petersburg from poor Russian peripheries or from 'the near abroad' (as the former Soviet republics are referred to), hoping to establish themselves anew in spite of the bleak prospects.(19) A few left the army or monasteries without anywhere to go, and a handful was merely stuck in the city due to thefts of their money and ID-documents. Most migrants arrive expecting support from relatives who live in St. Petersburg, but discover too late that these are gone, or unwilling or unable to help. Most of them disappear from my fieldsites relatively soon, however, which indicates a small possibility that they finally manage to find support after all (unless they leave the city when the situation becomes too hopeless). The ones who 'integrate' themselves in this field are usually rather old, ill, and devoid of any social contacts.

How to find a place to live

There is a difference between being homeless and just being BOMZH. In the Soviet period BOMZHs had to conceal their status, and 'hidden homelessness' therefore seems a relatively appropriate term even though most of them probably stayed somewhere relatively permanently. Today a BOMZH can live a relatively normal life - that is, if (s)he has supportive social contacts and/or the right professional qualifications. A propiska can often be negotiated by personal contacts, at least by small-scale employers. BOMZH friends of mine work successfully within media or in NGO's, and many able-bodied informants find more or less lasting jobs (usually in the bulging construction sector where day-labour is common and papers routinely overlooked). With an income, the housing dilemma can be solved at least temporarily.

Renting a place to live is easy for those who can pay: in 1999 the cheapest rooms cost about 300 roubles (12 USD) per month, the same as the official rent for a large two-room municipal flat. Registering is usually impossible. The propiska entitles to living space that the landlord most probably wants to keep under his/her control, and in addition a registration may reveal to the tax authorities that the landlord makes money by subletting and thus is liable to taxation (which he or she almost certainly resents). Most BOMZHs rent rooms in this way, just as the better-off of my informants periodically do. There is also an emerging illegal market for fictive propiski. (In 2002 they cost about 150 USD, but nobody I knew had investigated this chance since they were wary of fraud and assumed that these shady firms only will steal their money.) Privatised housing is not regulated by the sanitary norm, and owners may thus register anybody and any number of people(20) - an indignant employee at the registration office told me about a case where 46 persons were registered in a 12 m2 room, a phenomenon that she said is becoming more and more common.

The scramble for square metres: manipulation, fraud, extortion

The possibility to sell and buy estate property and, not least, the privatisation of brokerage that accompanied the housing reform, created a number of novel routes to homelessness. A popular story about the homeless is they are alcoholics who sell their flats and consume the money on the spot. A couple of my informants claim that this was what they did, but it is more frequent that people sell with the intention to buy something else but lose the money due to unforeseen (and non-alcoholic) circumstances. Money may disappear in personal disasters: a burglary can cause much harm when the mattress works as a safe deposit. Money may also disappear in national disasters - the Russian banks of the 1990s were not much safer as deposits than mattresses are, and numerous dreams about future housing were certainly destroyed in August 1998.

Another effect was a wave of criminality related to estate transactions. There are some 20 or 30 permanent 'themes' of fraud with a number of variations of each one, according to the police (cf. Trud, April 28 2000). I mainly see two variants. Firstly, criminals may give suspiciously generous loans to naïve or defenceless people only to demand living space in return when the debtor turns out to lack liquid assets. The other variant may be called 'duping the victim to sign an authorisation'. The perpetuator pretends to 'assist' with an exchange of flats, or with sale and purchase of estate property. Until 1999, the de-registration from the old address and the re-registration at the new address took place in the local registering offices of the respective addresses, and there was thus a short interim when the exchanger (or seller-buyer) had no formal rights to any of the flats (or rooms). The perpetuator of the fraud somehow receives authorizations and other documents from the would-be victim to go through with the registering and de-registering (and, if privatised property, on sale and purchase) on his/her behalf. (S)he goes through with only half of the deal (de-registering and sale) and disappears before the victim has realized what happened.

Professional brokers were notorious for this kind of operations, but since 1997 a certain self-organisation of the business and new licensing rules have 'cleaned' the market (Ambrose et al 1998). Criminal gangs used the same methods, often worming themselves into the favour and trust of selected victims as new 'friends'. Judging from the stories I have heard, it seems as if professional swindlers consciously aimed for recently bereaved people in order to take advantage of their grief and loneliness. Private persons - strangers as well as neighbours(21) and relatives - used similar methods to acquire more living space, and in 1999 the authorities tried to restrain frauds of the kind by demanding that, when places of living are exchanged, the de-registration and the subsequent registration take place at the same occasion. Evidently this has worked out relatively well, and today's frauds are subtler. They usually involve corrupt administrators who turn a blind eye to forged documents or signatures, refrain from taking up police investigations, affect the result of court decisions, and so forth. Crimes are more often committed against the municipality than against private persons, such as when a person without relatives dies and, with the help of a bureaucrat and a forged propiska, somebody else is able to appropriate the place of living of the deceased.(22)

Families, or the lack of them

About one fifth of my informants claim to be homeless due to unsuccessful estate transactions, more often some sort of fraud than just sale and subsequent loss of money.(23) However, two thirds of these were deceived by close relatives or by spouses using authorisations, forged papers, or bribed officials to secure the official right to the living space of their victims. The proportion of homeless people suffering from family conflicts is in fact even larger: another fifth of my informants claim to be homeless exclusively because of relatives or spouses, without mentioning any other, complementary, factors. Most of them are divorcees (usually wives) who left home without caring about any formalities, or elders who escaped the violence of younger members of their household.(24) Deficient housing is partly an explanation in these cases. Most Russians prefer to live in nuclear families, but in practice segments of families are forced to live together, and their respective interests do not always match. The general difficulties to find a place to live (or just some sort of shelter) leave no alternatives but the streets.

However, 'dysfunctional' families and, in particular, non-existent families, is a consistent theme throughout the stories of virtually everybody else too: ex-cons, migrants, as well as 'estate market victims' deceived by other people than relatives. Ex-cons usually find it superfluous to mention that the state made them BOMZH or even homeless, and instead they talk about bereavements, divorces, and rejections that left them alone once they were free. Migrants curse the relatives from whom they expected support upon arrival, and fraud victims emphasise that they were selected by criminals because they were lonely, and that the same loneliness confines them and (other homeless people) to the streets now. In almost every story, kin (or the lack of it) is pictured as the real reason why one ended up in the street in the first place, regardless of other circumstances.

Family probably dominates interpretations of past events also because relatives are gatekeepers to a non-homeless future. Hope tends to be negotiated in terms of social relations, where relatives are central - if they are all gone, there is no hope and vice versa. 'Hope' and 'kin' sometimes merge in talk about non-homeless potential spouses who will save 'ego' from the streets. (These lovers seem to be imaginary in most cases, but I know a couple of persons who actually managed to leave the streets by getting married.)

The prevalence of kin (existing or non-existing) in talk about past experiences and present hopes (or desperation) is an adequate reflection of objective conditions. Firstly, the system itself makes it more or less impossible for BOMZHs to 'legalize themselves' independently. The only way for a poor person to acquire a propiska in a large city like St. Petersburg is still is to register with close kin or to marry. The only exception is a successful application to the mentioned Commission, the only state instance capable of finding housing. The meagre state support and charities that are targeted at the homeless can only ameliorate the situation, not cure it.

Secondly, as the former welfare structures wither, there any few if any 'safety nets' left besides intimate social networks (where the family is the nexus) for people who for different reasons are at risk to become homeless - not even a corner in a crammed and unhealthy obshchezhitie. Informal social relations were indeed vital for one's quality of life in the Soviet period too, and the family was the core unit in the network-based domain of consumption of the time. The state guaranteed the survival of its obedient subjects, however, and only those who fell from grace - criminals, or 'trespassers of the passport rules' - tangibly had to experience that their lives depended exclusively on other private persons. Today the state provision of social security is less than ever, at the same time as it has become increasingly difficult for most private persons to help each other. 'Social capital' is not constituted by people as such but by their ability and readiness to act, at least if it is defined according to Bourdieu (1990): "[...] social capital, understood as effective possession of a network of kinship (or other) relations capable of being mobilized or at least manifested" (ibid:35, my italics). But neither ability nor readiness can be taken for granted now. There is less to share, and today's only valid 'currencies' are basically cash and living space - people no longer need introductions to new blaty or help to queue, so giving back is not as easy as it was. In addition, new economic inequalities cut across former close ties of kinship and friendship, and at least when it comes to living space there are even options to profit at the expense of those one basically should share with.

The homeless are fully aware of this paradox and seem quite ambivalent about the duties of kin. Besides dead and deceitful kin, many of them mention 'good' relatives, people that do not reject them but nevertheless are too poor themselves to help. The tendency to invoke 'family' or 'no family' as the first explanation to one's situation is thus accompanied by an acknowledgement that there are distinct limitations on what relatives are expected to do.


In January 2003, informants as well as NGO activists told me that the general situation in fact seems better now than only a few years earlier. There are no reliable statistics, but they said that the number of homeless people seems less than only a couple of years earlier. Thanks to legal improvements, the proportions of particularly ex-cons and victims of disastrous estate transactions are diminishing. Nobody could comment on the wish of the state to introduce market rents. In order to work, such a reform must be accompanied by a legislation permitting eviction, and if it is realised, homelessness risks to become a mass phenomenon. So far it seems as if the authorities understand the serious implications, but for how long they do so is obviously impossible to foresee. Among the 'newcomers' to the streets migrants continue to appear as usual, I was told, and so do people with some sort of problematic family situation. In particular, this concerns street urchins and homeless young drug addicts, categories that presently do not mix with adult street people. Children grow up as the older street generation dies off, however, and I believe that only in a few years the general image of the street population will change from 'old winos' to 'young drug addicts', a shift similar to the one that occurred in many Western countries in the 1980's. A similar change is also impending with regards to mentally ill people. In 1999 these were virtually non-existent among the St. Petersburg homeless, but the mental hospitals are now said to be increasingly unwilling to accept BOMZHs who - like everybody else - only have the streets as an alternative if no supportive family is willing to take care of them.


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1. This paper concerns St. Petersburg, where in 1994 the organisations Médecine Sans Frontiers and Nochlezhka estimated the number of people lacking propiska to between 50 000 and 150 000. Out of these about 8000 or 9000 are thought to be literally 'roofless'.

2. The Tsarist system of registration and, more important, of travel restrictions, basically goes back to Peter the Great, but population registers were also constitutive of serfdom, which was enshrined already in Tsar Aleksis' 1649 Code of Laws (Matthews 1993).

3. All republic capitals were subject to special restrictions, just like cities with a population of 500 000 or more and certain regions of strategic significance (Zaslavsky 1982).

4. Pensioners without a 'place of permanent residence', that is BOMZHs, are supposed to have their pension paid at their mesto prebyvania, literally 'the place where they occupy themselves'. However, there is no exact definition of what such a place is, and if the applicant cannot refer to a flat but only to a park bench or a railway station (s)he is easily turned down because (s)he has no proper place of 'occupancy' in the eyes of the administrator.

5. The original term is BOMZHiZ, Bez Opredelennogo Mesto Zhitelstvo i Zanyatie, 'without fixed abode and occupation'. When long-term unemployment ceased to be a legal offence, the last words were dropped. Source: Russian Federation: Homeless people and the ICESCR. Alternative report of Russian non-governmental organisations for the review of the Fourth Periodic Report of the Russian Federation by the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in November 2003. Information issued by Nochlezhka; Christian Interchurch Diaconal Council of St. Petersburg; and Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l'Homme.

6. Tsedlina, 1994, translates the world literally. Bodungen, 1994, calls it 'filtering station' since the duty of these police departments literally was to redistribute, or 'filter', displaced human beings to places where they presumably belonged: orphans to orphanages, Muscowites to Moscow, BOMZHs to the arrests, etc.

7. According to certain sources the administration could even allow strangers to move into former one-family households if these had too much space. A friend of mine claims that it happened to her family when her grandparents died very soon after each other in the early 1970's. The housing administration allocated one room in their flat to other people, and the flat was thus turned into a kommunalka. According to a member of staff at the office responsible for the propiska, however, such a practice never existed.

8. Nikolai Kornev, sociologist specialised in housing issues, private conversation September 2000. See also Kornev (2000) for information about the proportions of rent evasion in St. Petersburg.

9. I have repeatedly tried to discover the name of these commissions and the organs under which they were supposed to sort, but nobody seems to be able to remember - which says something about the practical insignificance of these commissions. Those of my informants who ought to have been supported by it have never heard about it, and not even experienced criminologists can recall what exactly these commissions were, but for the fact that they did nothing worth remembering. If the reader has an answer, I am most grateful for information.

10. Matthews (1993) argues that the number of fictive marriages in attractive cities can be indicated by the proportions of divorces. In 1988, the rate of divorce per thousand of the population in Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev was 1.7 times higher than the national average, while one-third fewer children were born than in other towns.

11. Certain jobs were open for BOMZHs too, however. I know a number of homeless 'veterans' who were BOMZH already in the 1970's but managed to survive far away from the major cities thanks to seasonal assignments at geological expeditions, in the forest industry, and other branches where the propiska for some reason was not necessary or routinely overlooked.

12. Source: Russian Federation: Homeless people and the ICESCR. Alternative report of Russian non-governmental organisations for the review of the Fourth Periodic Report of the Russian Federation by the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in November 2003. Information issued by Nochlezhka; Christian Interchurch Diaconal Council of St. Petersburg; and Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l'Homme.

13. The Legal Codex About Work, based on the Constitution of 1993, inhibits any limitation of an individual's right to employment that is not purely tied to professional qualities. Until 2001, a remaining Soviet law simultaneously prohibited employment of people without a propiska and imposed fines on employers who trespassed the rule (181 of the Codex About Legal Transgressions).

14. Deprivation of flat/room and propiska should have been confirmed in a separate court case, and this was never the case for criminals. Statement from the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation N:o 8-11, June 23rd 1995, according to printed informtation to released prisoners distributed by the organisation Nochlezhka, St. Petersburg.

15. 42% in all (35% of the women and 49% of the men) of the about 140 persons that told me about their background. However, the NGO Nochlezhka in St. Petersburg has for many years kept a register of BOMZHs where, among other details, 'cause of homelessness' is stated. The given categories are 'prison', 'sale or exchange-fraud', and 'family circumstances'. Given that obscure cases usually end up under 'family circumstances'; that Nochlezhka does not count migrants as a separate category; and that 'prison' easily is applied to ex-cons who are homeless for other reasons than convictions, these numbers do not differ extremely from my own observations. According to the Nochlezhka archives, 50% of the clients that registered in 1998 (60% of the men and 16% of the women) stated 'imprisonment' as the formal reason for being BOMZH.

16. The need of such 'social flats' would be very urgent considering the difficulties for tenants to pay their rents. In Ocober 2000, 20,6 of the households in St. Petersburg owed rent for two months or more, whereas about 10% had not payed rent for six months or more (Kornev 2000).

17. Municipal rents are strongly subsided while owners of private flats pay a property tax. However, most of the monthly housing cost for both categories covers electricity, water, lifts, cleaning of the stairway etc. (c.f. Ambrose et al 1998:79)

18. In 1994 about 24% of all people in St. Petersburg lived in kommunalki (Nikolai Kornev, sociologist, lecture at Institute of Sociology in St. Petersburg, spring 1999). I have no statistics of more recent date at hand, but the kommunalka is clearly a vanishing phenomenon since the large and central apartments that they often occupy are the most attractive ones on the estate market. This will take time, however. 'External' would-be purchasers need to buy each room one by one, or find alternative (and better) housing solutions for the inhabitants. There are also many kommunalka tenants who are waiting for their neighbours to die or to move so that they can claim the living space for themselves (unless they actively try to resettle them and buy their rooms) and, finally, turn the kommunalka into a single-household apartment.

19. Nochlezhka does not count 'migration' as a category of its own when causes are registered. In the files for 1998, 39% of the new clients have a non-local last propiska, but this does not necessarily mean that they are homeless because they left poor or dangerous places somewhere else. Those who are usually end up under 'sale and exchange/fraud' or under 'family circumstances'.

20. The owner of a privatised flat cannot sell it without the consent of other people being permanently registered there, nor can he or she evict them. I therefore guess that the market primarily concerns temporary propiski, probably for one year at the time, which regularly gives the owner of the flat an opportunity to reconsider his or her plans for the property.

21. Judging from endless stories, kommunalka neighbours seem capable of doing anything in order to enlarge their own living space in the apartment. Frauds as described above occur, but it also seems common that inconvenient residents simply are deprived of the key and thrown out. The police have never been keen on involving itself in the frequent conflicts that occur in these communal apartments, and mistreated tenants have small chances of affirming their rights. Even if they do, their future domestic life is bleak since they continue to live together with their enemies.

22. According to members of the organisation Komitet zasjtjiti prav potrebitelej na rynke nedvizjimosti (The Committee for the Defence of the Rights of Consumers Rights at the Estate Market), personal conversation, September 2000. Also c.f. Trud April 28 2000, Izvestiya February 28 2000.

23. Nochlezhka's number for clients registered in 1998 is 28% (19% of the male clients, 35% of the female).

24. Among Nochlezhka's clients registered in 1998, 28% stated 'family causes' (19% of the men, 43% of the women). The high proportion of women suggests that domestic violence is involved, but I only know one woman who admits to have been beaten. Very few others have stories that seem to be euphemisms for wife battery. (C.f. Beigulenko, 1999, for a discussion about 'concealed homelessness' among battered Russian women.)