You read a lot of stories lately about how things are getting better in Russia, and various ivory-tower publications like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have trotted out neat little bundles of macroeconomic statistics in the last year showing how sunny the outlook is now under the Putin regime. And maybe the bottom line looks better for a few oil companies now, and maybe there have been some improvements in the area of corporate governance... and there's no denying that the capital is absolutely goddamn full of sushi restaurants. But if you want to ask the basic question of how easy it is to grow up in this country... well, just look at these kids, look at what they went through the last two years.
A few days before this issue went to print, Ella vanished.
Ella's problems started a few months after graduation. For some reason that has never been adequately explained, not even to Kira, she was forced to leave home. Even two years ago she told stories about how her alcoholic stepfather had tried to molest her, how her mother was constantly running her down, how she was reminded over and over again how in the way she was.
The mythology of Ella's family is that Ella's mother had gotten pregnant and been given an ultimatum by the father, that he would marry her if she had an abortion, but would leave her if she kept the baby. Ella's mother decided to keep the baby, and true to his word, the father left. "She tells me all the time how I spoiled her chance for true love," Ella told me about a year ago. "She doesn't want me in the house. When I ran away, she wouldn't even take my phone calls. I tried to make up with her, but she just didn't want me around."
When she called me a year ago, Ella had already been living for three months in a room in the vicious Marino district. She was working night shifts as a salesgirl at the only kiosk in her neighborhood that sold vodka round the clock. Her boss, an exacting Georgian, would leave her alone overnight with an elderly drunken security guard who would keep her awake all night by reading off entries from encyclopedias and trivia books. "I called him the professor," she said. "Every night I had a new lesson."
On one of her first nights on the job, she turned her head for a moment when a group of kids came in the store, and had the register drawer stolen on her watch. She spent the next month working off the debt to the Georgian. Early one morning after a night on the job she called me one night in a panic. A group of guys who'd hit on her in the store waited for her shift to end and tried to push her into their car when she left work. She ran away and hid in the bushes for an hour before sneaking back into her doorway.
She ended up quitting that job and for a while lived out of a bag, crashing at friends' houses for a few days at a time before moving again. On several occasions she slept on the street, once spending two days on a bench at the Manezhnaya ploschad. At some point last year she got a job as a stripper at the Bega night club (an eXile advertiser at the time), but she lost that job and before long was back at Marino, waiting tables at a Georgian chicken grille restaurant. She borrowed money from friends (me included) and got another, better room across the street from her job.
That was last summer. Around that time she started seeing her first serious boyfriend, a Chechnya vet named Lyosha who bragged that he'd killed 20 people in his tour and was now working as a cook (also at a restaurant that advertises in the eXile, one which I'll leave unnamed), shooting heroin, and squatting in an apartment with five other junkies. He convinced her to move out of her room and move in with him, but it proved too much for her to take, so she seized upon the opportunity afforded by a certain gynecological disorder to check herself into a hospital in her old neighborhood, where she was still registered.
"I was sleeping on the floor in that apartment," she said. "The place was disgusting... as soon as Lyosha would leave, the other guys would be all over me. I had to get out of there. Plus Lyosha was beating me, it was a bad situation."