SOCHI, Russia — As far as the city of the Winter Olympics is concerned, Anna Yermakova and her family don’t exist, even though her kids go to school here, her husband works for a security firm and she is employed by the Russian post office.
Theirs is a family that through a combination of bad luck and poor decisions, amplified by the economic and physical dislocations that came with the construction of a winter sports metropolis right next door, lost their place in the bureaucratic web that is supposed to sustain all Russians. And now they find that they can’t get back in.
They aren’t registered anywhere. In Russia, that’s a disaster.
A system that dates to the Soviet era requires every Russian to have a “propiska,” or residence registration. It’s the state’s way of maintaining a level of control over its people. Every interaction with a government employee — from a police officer on up — can involve a glance at the propiska. If a Russian lives in one city but has a propiska for somewhere else, it’s an invitation to recurring headaches.
But if a Russian has no propiska at all, the bottom drops out.
For Yermakova and her family, it means they aren’t officially allowed to live anywhere — and haven’t been for the past five years. So the five of them occupy two teeny rooms, with a total of one window, in an illegal garage apartment. It sits on a back lane just up the hill from the former marshland that now houses the gleaming gray streamlined venues of the 2014 Winter Games. They have no lease and no rights and the constant threat of eviction. Rent and utilities are $450 a month, or all of Yermakova’s post office salary.
They got themselves into this fix. But they’re hardly the first family to make self-destructive choices, and Russia is by no means the only country where that happens. The catch is that the system here makes it next to impossible to recover.
“And you know, we’re not unique,” Yermakova said.
Boris Altshuler, a children’s advocate in Moscow, says 4 million Russians, out of a population of 140 million, have lost their residence registrations. He calls them an “army of Russian citizens who are socially excluded.” Their existence, he says, is a symbol of a “modern, super-corrupt and non-democratic Russia where vitally needed interests of the population mean nothing to the authorities.”
The catch comes down to this: Yermakova and her husband, Sergei Braiko, effectively can’t get a legal apartment without registration, and they can’t get registered without a legal apartment.
If their paperwork were in order, there are offices in the city administration that could help them out. But those offices are restricted to assistance for the residents of Sochi — the registered ones, that is — and not the extraneous people who just happen to live here. Braiko is an illegal, even though he was born here and has lived in Sochi all his 49 years.
Yermakova, who is 38, moved here 17 years ago from a Russian region called Mordovia. She could probably get a propiska if she moved back to her native village. But there’s nothing there for her anymore — certainly no jobs.
In 2008, the family was living legally in two rooms of a communal apartment, where they had to share the bath and kitchen with another family. They needed money badly. Yermakova said it was for medical treatment for Braiko’s back. They sold their share in the apartment. Thinking back, she said it may have been for as a little as $5,000.
The sale was quick and informal. They neglected to file the paperwork that would have enabled them to keep their registration. They had two sons at the time — a daughter came later — and because they weren’t legally married, they failed to register the boys when they were born.
They had no idea what the consequences would be.
Braiko’s health recovered, and he bought a 10-year-old Russian-built car to drive as an unlicensed cab. For a stiff fee, the family managed to obtain temporary registration, which is supposed to be for transient workers, and moved into an apartment.
But Braiko wrecked the cab and had to pay ruinous damages. They couldn’t renew the registration and lost the apartment. Unable to afford anything else, they landed in the rooms above the garage, illuminated by a light bulb hanging from the ceiling.
There is a long tradition in Russia of the state providing for its citizens — who are expected to be grateful for what they get. President Vladimir Putin has been trying to move Russians away from that outlook, but old ways of thought are deeply ingrained.
Yermakova wants the state to help settle her family in a real apartment. She has written letters to the governor of the Krasnodar region, to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, to Putin himself — all without result. Altshuler has similarly written on her behalf. He argues that if the Olympics hadn’t driven up the cost of housing to relatively astronomical heights in Sochi, the family would be able to make a go of things. Given the state’s attention to the $50 billion Olympic project, he says, the least it can do is help out those who are suffering in its shadow.
Sochi does maintain a waiting list for public apartments, in theory. Those at the top of the list entered their names on it when this city was still a Soviet resort — before 1991.
A year ago, Yermakova went to Moscow and began a hunger strike. As far as she could tell, no one noticed. “It was absolutely useless,” she said. “My husband told me to come home.”
Today she moonlights as a monitor of security cameras. “But salaries are low, and rent is huge,” she said. “We need a decent apartment that’s affordable. Or, not even a decent one.”