This could be the start of a sci fi thriller, or some heavy-handed reference to journalist Masha Gessen’s book about Vladimir Putin (Gessen was fired the other day from her post at the venerable Vokrug Sveta magazine to much fanfare - for refusing to cover the now-famous trip that Putin took with a bunch of endangered cranes), but it’s the truth, actually. The entire time that Viktor and I spoke, he kept his face hidden behind a cheap Halloween mask.
This man without a face could very well be the face of a diverse and imperiled group: the vast horde of Moscow’s homeless, who, as the weather turns cold again, will once again be making headlines for freezing to death out in the streets.
Viktor decided to speak with me because I know his mother. When I approached her about putting me in touch with Viktor, explaining that I write a column about trends, she laughed.
“What do you want to speak to Viktor for? He’s not trendy.”
I explained that I was interested in all sorts of trends - sociological, political, spiritual - not just style trends.
She shrugged and told me where he was hanging out. The place turned out to be a basement store that looked pretty much abandoned. After spotting Viktor outside and getting him to agree to talk to me (“Your mother thinks it’s a good idea! She said you should talk to somebody, at the very least!”) I waited while he went into the store and came back wearing his ridiculous tiger mask. When I asked him why he put it on, he said that it wasn’t as though he was strictly ashamed of his situation. He just wanted some kind of buffer between us.
Social workers will tell you that a lot of Moscow’s homeless are vulnerable people who were abandoned by their families - and on the streets due to illegal real estate schemes that saw them forced out of their homes. More confusing is the status of people who do, technically, have a place to go home to. A lot of them are automatically assumed to be useless addicts, people who don’t want to be part of society.
There is that “he said, she said” aspect to Viktor’s story. His mother swears that he can come home at any time - and that he frequently does. Viktor insists that his stepfather, the older guy his mother married, has made him fear for his life on more than one occasion. Viktor’s is a family that social workers and law enforcement would deem “disadvantaged” - or would have in the past. Viktor’s mother admits that she and his late father used to drink quite a bit, “but all of that is over now.” She insists that her new husband simply doesn’t want to tolerate the fact that Viktor has his own addictions he’s in no hurry to kick - and there is also the fact that Viktor is a legal adult who probably ought to get a job.
“I’ve had plenty of jobs, I just can’t stick with them,” Viktor told me from behind his tiger mask. “Something always happens. I always wind up having an argument with someone. People are crazy - and unreliable.”
I can relate to that last sentiment of his. Of course, I also know that like many people living on Moscow’s streets, Viktor not only has addictions - he has psychological issues that most likely started long before he left home. I could give you a long spiel about how “Russians think that going to a therapist or psychiatrist is taboo – so people like Viktor wind up on the streets.” Except a lot of Russians definitely no longer think that (especially because social workers are so gung ho about psychological help) - and there is also the fact that even in countries where treatment of mental illness is less stigmatized, a lot of mentally ill people still end up on the streets.
Viktor doesn’t think of himself as homeless. He thinks of himself as free. I don’t believe that he does this because he romanticizes his situation - he is making the best of it. He doesn’t think he will live to be middle-aged - and says he no longer cares about that. He doesn’t tell me what he will do when the weather gets really cold - and whether or not he stays at the abandoned store often with his friends - but that he “always makes do.” I think he will come back to see his mother, the woman who, as she puts it, “[thanks] God that Viktor is, at the very least, not an only child.”
Like many mothers of problem children in Moscow, Viktor’s mother has adopted the attitude that “you win some, you lose some.” She’s very proud of her daughter, who works as a sales clerk and has two children. Sometimes, she worries that Viktor’s “problem genes” will show up in her grandkids - but she tries to think about that as little as possible.
There are too many complicating factors in each individual life - to the point that the nature vs. nurture argument becomes a false dichotomy. None of us will ever know why Viktor is exactly the way he is - except for Viktor himself, maybe.
But he’s keeping his face hidden behind his tiger mask - and not telling.
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.