Homelessness became a conspicuous facet of Russian cityscapes
only in the 1990s, when the Soviet criminalization of vagrancy and
similar offenses was abolished. In spite of the host of social and
economic problems confronting Russia in the demise of Soviet power,
the social dislocation endured by increasing numbers of people went
largely unrecognized by the state.
Being homeless carries a special burden in Russia, where a
permanent address is the precondition for all civil rights and
social benefits and where homelessness is often regarded as a
result of laziness and drinking, rather than external factors. In
Needed by Nobody, the anthropologist Tova Höjdestrand
offers a nuanced portrait of homelessness in St. Petersburg. Based
on ethnographic work at railway stations, soup kitchens, and other
places where the homeless gather, Höjdestrand describes the
material and mental world of this marginalized population.
They are, she observes, "not needed" in two senses. The state
considers them, in effect, as noncitizens. At the same time they
stand outside the traditionally intimate social networks that are
the real safety net of life in postsocialist Russia. As a result,
they are deprived of the prerequisites for dealing with others in
ways that they themselves value as "decent" and "human."
Höjdestrand investigates processes of social exclusion as well as
the remaining "world of waste": things, tasks, and places that are
wanted by nobody else and on which "human leftovers" are forced to
In this bleak context, Höjdestrand takes up the intimate worlds
of the homeless-their social relationships, dirt and cleanliness,
and physical appearance. Her interviews with homeless people show
that the indigent have a very good idea of what others think of
them and that they are liable to reproduce the stigma that is
attached to them even as they attempt to negotiate it. This unique
and often moving portrait of life on the margins of society in the
new Russia ultimately reveals how human dignity may be retained in
the absence of its very preconditions.
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