Needed by Nobody

Needed by Nobody: Homelessness and Humanness in Post-Socialist Russia

Tova Höjdestrand
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Needed by Nobody
    Book Description:

    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 survive.

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5879-8
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. A Note on Transliteration and Translation
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-19)

    One cold winter’s evening in 1996, a friend and I went for a long walk through the center of St. Petersburg. We crossed the Field of Mars and approached the Eternal Flame, the memorial to the Unknown Soldier where newlyweds usually go to be photographed. An old man was stooping over the engraving on one of the marble blocks surrounding the memorial. It was a dedication to the victims of the German blockade during the Great Patriotic War (as the Russians call World War II), and he was apparently making a copy of the text by fervently rubbing a crayon...

  6. Chapter 1 “Excrement of the State”: The Soviet-Russian Production of Homelessness
    (pp. 20-46)

    The sociostructural mechanisms that expel “human refuse” from the Russian social organism are largely shaped by the legacy of Soviet social engineering and the attempts of early Socialist planners to position each subject precisely in the gigantic machine of state design. Hence an etiology of Soviet as well as of post-Soviet homelessness presupposes an elucidation of the main instrument to keep people in their proper places, in the most literal sense: the propiska, the obligatory registration at a permanent address. This system is best-known for its explicit restrictions on movement within the country, an aspect that in the Soviet time...

  7. Chapter 2 Refuse Economics: Getting By with the Help of Waste
    (pp. 47-76)

    “You’re writing about bomzhi? But what’s new about that? They just don’t want to work, that’s all there is to it! All they want is to drink!” Most non-homeless people I met had opinions on my “weird” job, and this was the most frequent response that I received, by far. In the same vein as the state investigation discussed in the previous chapter ( Yulikova et al. 1997), people simply took it for granted that bomzhi reject work voluntarily and that this is the cause of their homelessness. If you work, you don’t end up in an attic, it was...

  8. Chapter 3 Perilous Places: The Use and Abuse of Space and Bodies
    (pp. 77-111)

    Homeless people always cause anxiety because they use space in ways that it was not intended. They challenge conventional notions about the boundary between private and public, and their obvious poverty also defies the meanings invested in space by city planners, commercial actors, and the general public ( Wright 1997). Such violations are punished if they cannot be prevented in the first place, but the ways of effecting discipline depend on the political and economic system. In St. Petersburg, the 1990s constituted a liminal period between what I found to be different systems of spatial regulation. As in the case...

  9. Chapter 4 No Close Ones: About (Absent) Families and Friends
    (pp. 112-134)

    When the homeless told me about the events that finally brought them to basements and attics, they frequently omitted all circumstances apart from those relating to family. Details about housing conditions, registrations, migration, and so forth I had to extract retroactively, whenever I happened to meet them again, and in a way this was logical. The first thing that had to be explained was how one became alone in the world. Loneliness is, in turn, an invitation to all sorts of dangers, and the disasters that it later led to were thus merely derivative. Blizkikh net, “no close ones,” was...

  10. Chapter 5 Friend or Foe? The Ambiguity of Homeless Togetherness
    (pp. 135-165)

    Traditionally, bomzhi are depicted as belonging to a subculture in its own right. As criminals are supposed to do (in “the good old days,” anyway), they are assumed to organize their secret world in a fair and egalitarian fashion, and every bomzh is allocated his own dustbin, into which nobody else is permitted to intrude. The idea is so ingrained that even the homeless believe in it—but they argue that it only pertains to bomzhi far away, in the suburbs, where they never go themselves.

    I witnessed nothing of the sort, to my regret; it would have cast a...

  11. Chapter 6 Dirt, Degradation, and Death
    (pp. 166-192)

    One day Raia introduced me to a man of her own age, a good fellow, she said, whom she had known for ages. They resembled each other enough that I spontaneously asked if he was her brother. I knew that Raia had grown up in an orphanage, but some orphans stay in touch with their siblings when they were adults (for instance Zina and her brother). I was wrong, of course, and the two of them were quite amused by my mistake. “Of course we resemble each other,” the man laughed, “all bomzhi look the same!” I told them that...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 193-206)

    A different title for this study could have been “Makeshift Humans in a Provisional Present,” because improvisation and temporariness constituted the essential dilemma of Vova, Irina, and the others, while at the same time this was all they could resort to. For them, being human was being needed by others, but their homeless reality was too permeated with unpredictability and distrust for neededness to appear. Makeshift solutions therefore became the sine qua non of physical survival as well as of human dignity, while it simultaneously prevented their attempts to feel human from becoming more than “instead of the real thing,”...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 207-216)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 217-226)
  15. Index
    (pp. 227-232)