Russia's children in crisis Poverty and family breakdown hurtin

MOSCOW -- Kristina was 5 when she was found curled on a barroom floor, pockmarked from syphilis and terrified of affection.

Fifteen-year-old Zhenya, who makes his home on a grime-caked heating vent, asked shyly for something to read -- "science fiction, preferably" -- to fill his school-less, aimless, hopeless days.

Nine-year-old Masha urinated behind a trash heap, a moment of escape from a broken family.

For many Russians, these children are cause to despair at the future of their country. Lurching from uncaring homes to underfunded orphanages to alleys haunted by drug dealers and pimps, these neglected children -- estimated to number up to 3 million -- are making up an increasing share of Russia's shrinking population.

Investors and politicians boast that long-suffering Russia is at last prospering. Economic indicators show growing incomes, and Moscow's streets glisten with boutiques.

But these street children embody the hardships Russia has suffered since shedding communist rule a decade ago: mass poverty, loss of social and family security, growth of crime and alcoholism, decline in health care, wars in Chechnya and former Soviet republics.

Long overlooked by the country's leadership, the children's plight recently caught President Vladimir Putin's eye, and he chided his government for allowing their number to reach "threatening proportions."

Soviet authorities had a swift and brutal solution to the problem of street urchins. When orphans flooded the streets after the Bolshevik Revolution and after World War II, they were transported to labor camps and factories.

In later years, the police state routinely made troubled children vanish into orphanages or institutions for the disabled. Post-Soviet freedoms and economic turmoil have let the problem explode into the open.

Since 1999, Russian police have been barred from picking up wayward children unless they commit a crime. Yet bureaucratic confusion has meant the social services expected to take responsibility for at-risk families have accomplished little.

"We can wash them, feed them, dress them, and tell them that they are loved," said Irina Abramova, director of the Children's Crisis Center in the Moscow suburb of Lyubertsy. "That is not enough to heal the illnesses of today's society."

Many Russian children enjoy more adult attention than their Western counterparts. They often live with grandparents as well as parents. Education is paramount even in many poor families.

But that's scant comfort to Yevgeny Gontmasser, head of the Cabinet's social development department. According to him, 150,000-200,000 children in Russia are technically homeless. But more alarming, he said, is that an overwhelming 3 million children have homes so dreadful that they sometimes prefer the streets, and parents too poor, drunk, violent, or mentally or physically unable to raise them.

That means nearly 10 percent of Russia's 32 million children are neglected -- and the proportion is rising.