Russian refugees abandoned by their own people Escape from Baku leads only to squalor

July 22, 1991|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

LYSKOVO, U.S.S.R. -- The lane to the broken-down summer camp is unmarked, the weeds are waist-high and the dorms are dark and damp. Here live 14 desperate families who exemplify the breakdown of normal life in the Soviet Union.

They are Russians, refugees from the bloody upheaval in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, who left their belongings and their lives behind 17 months ago and fled on military planes, just trying to get away from the violence.

Today, they are by turns forgotten, ignored or vilified. They live without electricity, without stoves, without jobs and without hope.

"Write this down, please: We want Russia to be a mother to the Russian people," said Valeria Shvetsova, whose feeling of betrayal grows with every visit she makes to Moscow, 26 miles away. There, she trudges from ministry to ministry, looking for someone who can help.

But in this nation, which once controlled the destinies of millions, where seemingly so much was in order, she finds no help.

The government is unable to provide for her and the other families at what once was called the Peace Summer Camp.

"We worked for this state all our lives and are deprived of everything," said Lera Bezmenova, 55, who left her job as planner for the Baku subway system when enraged Azerbaijanis began attacking Armenians and Russians in January 1990.

"Here, no one understands us and no one wants to understand," said Tamara Shkoda, who lives in the camp with her daughter.

The families live in long, low wooden buildings that may once have had a summery air but now are scarred by peeling paint, mildew and rot. The rooms inside, painted in a faded light green with a sort of pinkish-brown trim, are so dank that the sagging mattresses are permanently damp.

Originally, there were 160 refugees here. Some moved in with relatives; some moved to other camps. But for the 14 families who remain, life has only grown worse.

In January, the camp was taken over by the Red Proletariat Machine Tool Factory. The plant's administrators want to tear down all the buildings -- unsuitable as they are for occupancy -- and build a new summer colony for their workers.

The refugees are in the way.

Throughout the spring, the water was cut off from time to time. A television set was taken away. Newspaper subscriptions were halted. The phone was taken out. Finally, on July 4, the electricity was cut off.

Yuri P. Kirydlin, the camp director, said inspectors had discovered that the wiring in the camp violated the fire code, although, as it happens, that's the case only in the buildings where the refugees live.

He said the refugees should be able to find places to live if they would only consider moving away from Moscow.

The refugees said they would consider moving anywhere -- even overseas -- if only someone would point them in the right direction.

But no one does, and for now, they have no light, no refrigerators and no way to cook. They live on bread and sausages.

"They permanently humiliated us," said Mrs. Bezmenova, a large woman with green eyes brimming with tears, henna-rinsed hair and a badly bruised and swollen left arm that she hurt when she fell in the dark. "To get so old and be deprived of everything!"

To get food, the families must walk 40 minutes to the nearest store. As often as not, its shelves are empty. Then they must walk farther to a train station for the half-hour ride into Moscow.

Mrs. Bezmenova lives on her pension of 185 rubles a month, which is worth a little more than $6 but is enough to scrape by. Mrs. Shkoda, formerly a railroad administrator, has managed to find work as a sweeper. But for most of the refugees, working is impossible because they are still officially registered as living in Baku and therefore don't have the residence permits they need to get jobs in Russia.

So the younger refugees such as Mrs. Shvetsova spend their days in dusty, decrepit Moscow, looking for someone in some formerly imperial building who will listen to their appeals.

One hot day after another, they make the rounds. They go to the Supreme Soviet, or parliament. They go to the Russian parliament. They go to the Congress of People's Deputies. They deliver letters to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, to Boris N. Yeltsin, the Russian president, to Gavriil K. Popov, the mayor of Moscow. They get a sympathetic ear from the Soviet Commission on Refugees and Human Rights, but they are told nothing can be done. They get only abuse from the authorities in Lyskovo.

"There is no place for Russians in Russia," a weary Mrs. Shvetsova said one evening in Moscow's Pushkin Square.

In a way, she is right. The refugees would like a place to live, but other families in Moscow have been waiting 10 years for an apartment. When food is scarce in Lyskovo, the townsfolk are not pleased to see refugees joining the lines for sausage. That's why the local authorities are hostile. That's why the school bus won't stop for the refugees' children, even though the school is nearly an hour's walk from the camp.

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