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Trendswatcher: When Looking ‘Normal’ is a Matter of Life and Death

© RIA NovostiNatalia Antonova
Natalia Antonova  - Sputnik International
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The bitter cold that has gripped the European part of Russia these last few weeks is certainly a case for concern as people come out for political rallies but there is another group of people who don’t get as much press, yet their lives literally hang in the balance when the weather gets extreme.

The bitter cold that has gripped the European part of Russia these last few weeks is certainly a case for concern as people come out for political rallies but there is another group of people who don’t get as much press, yet their lives literally hang in the balance when the weather gets extreme.

I know you’re expecting me to talk about the homeless, and yes, the homeless make up the overwhelming majority of the group that I want to talk about. There’s no one way to refer to the group in question, so I will just call them “people who appear as though they ‘deserve’ to be out on the streets”.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean; this week, news of the death of young actor Anatoly Otradnov shocked Moscow, Otradnov died in the suburb of Mytischi. Apparently, Otradnov collapsed on the street and quickly froze to death. He left a pregnant young wife behind.
Although the exact details of what happened to Otradnov remain murky, there’s something suspicious about the fact that his passport and mobile phone were not recovered at the scene, but were delivered to a police station later. His case made me think about how people who are found lying in the street are generally treated: people step around them, assuming them to be drunken bums, most likely riddled with disease and furthermore deserving of their fate.

There is no question as to whether or not anyone, homeless or not, “deserves” to freeze to death on the street, smack in the middle of so-called civilization. Even entertaining the possibility that people “earn” such deaths is beyond the pale.

Yet, the prevalence of alcoholism, drug abuse, and public intoxication in some areas has made people unusually callous toward one another. That’s why many Muscovites take care as to “not appear homeless” nowadays. They know that once someone assumes them to be of an extremely marginalized status, all bets are off. And they know that they are more likely to receive assistance in the street if their appearance confirms to passersby that they are “normal people.”

It’s harder for men than it is for women, elderly women especially. If a babushka in a nice wool shawl collapses within your field of vision, you’re probably more likely to help out. There are less homeless older women out there, for one thing. Babushkas also tend to drink less. Plus, babushkas are ultimately perceived as rather harmless, whereas a young man, say, could be faking it in order to attack you and steal your wallet!

This is how people tend to think and with crime rates being what they are, I don’t know if such thinking will change any time soon.

But what does looking “normal enough to deserve help” mean in this context? You hear about it all the time but are there any rules? I conducted an informal poll among some acquaintances of mine and it seems as though they were pessimistic overall about the possibility of achieving this vaunted “normal” state.

“In the winter, it gets dark early, people wear darker clothes, everyone tends to look more homogeneous,” one guy, a policeman, told me. “Meanwhile, people on the street are hurrying home to watch dumb TV shows in the safety and warmth of their own apartments. Do you really think any of them care what the guy lying in the snowdrift is dressed like and whether or not he is dying?”

I pressed him for more thoughts on the issue desperate for words of comfort of any kind.

“Well,” he scratched his head, “wear light colors? At the very least, they’ll make you stand out more. And the people who gather to drink in underpasses aren’t too fond of them either. So there.”

It wasn’t quite the reassurance I was seeking but it was better than nothing. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.

Natalia Antonova is the deputy editor of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.

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