14 April 2011

The Madonna of the Metro

Proof that spring is advancing on Radio Street: View from my classroom window on April 1, and April 8.

A member of Moscow Meeting sent me a link to an article, "A note to those who give alms" (in Russian here among other places). Her cover note said, "Please read this article for a deeper understanding of our life."

Briefly, the writer, who says he is an accredited journalist, describes a scene in a Moscow subway station passageway. For a whole month, every time he goes by this particular place, he sees a woman of indeterminate age sitting and panhandling right there near the stores and kiosks, with a small child in a dirty cap lying asleep in front of her. Many kind-hearted passers-by drop coins into a nearby bag. The writer already suspects that the beggar gets little more than food and drink from these earnings--the rest likely goes to build a palatial abode for whomever employs her for this trade.

But after a while, something else arouses his concern: he notices that the child never seems to be awake, in stark contrast to the normal liveliness of a child that age. When he asks, "Why is the child sleeping"?, he is pointedly ignored by the woman, and eventually pulled away from her by a passer-by who rebukes him for his heartlessness. Another time, a policeman treats him the same way.

I've been reading this booklet at this time every year
for the past 30+ years. A new pdf-format edition
is available through this link.

An acquaintance with underworld connections clues him in: the mother is a participant/victim in a syndicate, the child (who may have been kidnapped for the purpose) is dosed with heroin or vodka. They will get very little for their role; most of the money goes to the bosses. Moreover, according to this acquaintance, different ethnically-based syndicates specialize in different forms of begging--the "madonnas," the injured veterans, and so on.

Children used as bait, drugged to keep them quiet--the very idea is incredibly repulsive. Sometimes, according to the writer's informant, the child even dies while on duty--and the supposed mother is forced to continue to the end of her shift as if nothing happened.

Indeed, toward the end of his story, the writer again visits the woman's station, and stops in shock: there's a different child! What happened to the other one, he asks. Another beggar and nearby venders let him know that he'd better stop asking questions and leave. A policeman asks him for his ID papers, but then agrees to investigate and goes for help. Before he returns, the whole tableau has vanished.

The journalist ends his article with a punch: if everyone stopped giving to beggars, the industry would not survive, but perhaps some children, now condemned to serve as alms-bait, would survive.

I'm properly shocked by the article, but after a few minutes of Internet follow-up, I can't help noticing that the article has been circulating for about four years, with at least 104 Google entries. The name of the article varies; often it is called "Why does the child sleep?" The oldest entry claims that the person posting the text had received it in an unsolicited e-mail that she dismissed as spam at first, but then found it interesting enough to post.

I've no doubt that there are substantial truths in the article--for one thing, it strains credulity that prime Metro begging spots are "first come first served." And beggars' syndicates operate in many parts of the world; why not in Russia? Also, perhaps this article's wide circulation has reduced the number of children used as bait; I can't remember the last time I saw one. (No, that's not quite true--I saw a young boy accompanying a beggar on a local suburban train not long ago, but he was wide awake and looked relatively healthy.) But I wish the article had a few more substantiating details, especially a specific location and date. And I can't help wondering about the reasons for its circulation--a legitimate expose or yet another boost for cynicism at the expense of compassion?

Robin Parry engages with another round of the Augustinian/universalist conversation.

Meanwhile, Jamie asks for your help in defining "grace." Just a few hours until her Friday deadline. (Maybe you should ask her for a grace period.)

More on the Gagarin anniversary: "The Enigmatic Vostok 1" and "Yuri Gagarin's private passions."

"Can books still genuinely change the world?" and "Revolutions and resurrections: How has Russian literature changed?"

Thanks to Tom Engelhardt, here's a fascinating and moving intellectual biography of the late Chalmers Johnson by his wife Sheila Johnson.

"... that's all I know about politics," says Super Chikan, as he sings in support of Bill Luckett for Mississippi state governor. Take a look at his guitar!

Super Chikan sings "Get It Done" for the Bill Luckett for Governor Campaign from Andrew Shipley on Vimeo.


Anonymous said...

begging syndicates???? i have never heard of such a thing. learn something new everyday, i guess.

Johan Maurer said...

There's a Russian saying--"Know less, sleep better." (= "ignorance is bliss"?) But it's hard to regain original innocence....

'Til July!