“Who’s going to believe us? We’re not people, we’re animals”
This interview was recorded by Anya Sarang on the eve of the International Day against Drugs (June 26, 2012).
Just days before the International Day against Drugs, I did an interview with two women who use drugs and sell sex in Yekaterinburg.
In this town people who use drugs have nowhere to turn. The only “treatment” available here consists of beatings and abuse in a private “drug treatment” center with prison-like conditions –“City without Drugs”. And then there is our hypocritical drug treatment system with its registry of drug users that destroys any hope of finding a job and preserving one’s rights. It offers nothing in return—no real treatment, no social support. This city is no different from the rest of Russia—just a bit harsher. Drug dependency is an expensive condition to have. If you have no way of accessing treatment, you have to think of ways to live with it. This is an interview with two young women, whose drug dependency led them to do sex work. They talk about a vicious cycle that is impossible to break. And the most violent offenders are the police—those, who are supposed to be looking out for our safety in the first place.
The war on drugs has been going on for the last 50 years. And yet, there is just as much drugs in the world and just as many drug users. The war on drugs hasn’t made treatment and care any more accessible. Its only achievement is that it’s profited the ones in power at the expense of other people’s misfortunes, while filling the lives of the sick and impoverished drug users with even more humiliation and suffering
One of the outcomes of the war is that drug users are treated as outcasts who are denied their basic rights. They have nowhere to turn for help. And those who are supposed to be protecting them–our so-called “law enforcement” officers–rape, abuse and kill them. The most vulnerable, powerless, and disparaged victims of this war are women.
A: Say a few words about yourselves.
Lena: My name is Lena. I started injecting drugs in 1997. I was using heroin. First, I started drinking. Then I tried snorting heroin, after that—injecting it. I soon lost my job. Then I had no money for drugs. I wanted to keep getting high. I was dependent. And a few female friends said to me: “Come with us. You’ll make money.” They suggested I try working as a prostitute. So I went with them; we stood near the bus station here, in Yekaterinburg. During the day and at night.
Oksana: Then I got into it, as well. I needed money for drugs. I was dating a guy back then—we started out using together—he didn’t want to go out looking for money. He didn’t want to steal. Now I see how stupid I was, how young.
Lena: Well, but you loved him.
Oksana: I did. And he’d throw me out on the street: “Go make us some money for dope.” It doesn’t matter how. So I worked on the street. At first this was my spot, over here, at the bus station. The others still work here. The police would come around all the time then.
Lena: My friends still work there, on Belinsky st. They’re still making money that way. We’ve stopped. Yes, it did happen to us, I’m not going to hide it. Because when you have no money, and you’re in pain, you can’t quit—that’s what you had to do. I’m really ashamed of it, of course.
Oksana: It’s really dirty.
Lena: It’s a dirty job. Some say: “There’s nothing to it.” But we are not seen as people, we are treated as objects. The police, of course, treat us horribly. Sometimes our clients were better to us than the cops.
Can you explain?
Lena: Yes, of course. The first time I ran into…at first, we worked with a pimp. But he was getting more than 70% of what we were making and we started working without him. When we went off on our own the cops got really out of control. They would drive up and round us up for a “subbotnik.” Do you know what that is?
Lena: A “Subbotnik” is when the cops drive up, push the girls into a car, there is nowhere to run. They pick out the girls and then order: “Get the fuck in the car.” They load us up into a van, like cattle. 10 people in one car. Then they either take us to a “dacha” [cottage] or to a bath house. There can be 10 or 15 of them. And they’ll keep you there for one-two days. All along you’re subjected to constant beatings and humiliation.
They do this for their own staff?
Lena: Yes, for themselves. We are required to service the cops. They also take our money. All the time. We service them for free.
Once a week?
Lena: Not necessarily. Whenever they please. They treat us like cattle, like pigs. Drive up, load us into a van, ten of us, and take us somewhere. There are no windows, you can’t see anything. They take you somewhere, they wave their guns. It’s scary. And what can you do? They’ll kill you and then bury you.
Oksana: They’ll put a gun in your mouth and that’s the end of it.
Lena: Torture and abuse.
And is it useless to fight back?
Lena: I tried to fight back once. Yes, the first time I said no. The other girls were telling me: “What are you, nuts?” And I said: “I’m not going to do this. I have my clients, they pay me, whereas this I have to do for free. What’s that about?” They were like: “You’re an idiot, just be quiet.” And I said to the cops: “No, I’m not going to go anywhere, what are you, crazy?” So they took me to the police precinct. I’m not going to say which one. I sat there in a holding cell for two days. I got beat up so badly, it was something…Usually, you spend a day in the holding cell, and then they take you to a jail. But here I had to wash the floors, they made me wash the toilets. Usually, when you’re there, there is a mop and a rag, you put the rag in the toilet and flush and then wash the floors. You don’t have to wring it out by hand. But they made me wash the toilets by hand. No gloves, no nothing, it’s all covered in shit…Then I had to wash the floors. In short, once I spent two days there, I started going to these “subbotniks.”
Didn’t want to do it again?
Lena: Didn’t want to do it again.
When they detained you—did they have a reason or just because?
Lena: Just because. No one’s going to question it. If anyone asks, they’ll say: “We detained a prostitute. We’re going to write her up for an administrative offense and let her go.” And that’s it. It’s a nightmare. They beat you constantly. They beat you so as not to leave any bruises on your face. They punch you in the back, in your kidneys, wrap their batons with rags. They you lie there, and die, and piss blood.
These “subbotniks” are also a nightmare. Blowjobs, everything else, sometimes, it’s several people at once. I mean, it’s horrible, now that I’m thinking about it again.
Are they mentally ill?
Lena: They’re all using “speed,” from what I hear. Some drink. Then, when they’re pissed-drunk, when they can’t get it up, can’t fuck, they start beating and humiliating you. They point their guns at you and shoot them. You stand there against the wall, like a dummy: “Are they going to hit the target or not?” They take us to these “dachas” and say to us: “We’re going to drown you here and no one’s going to find you.” And we don’t know where we are, we have no idea where they’ve taken us. All you know is that there is some cottage, a forest and that’s it.
Oksana: They, of course, give you dope to help with withdrawal. To those who are obedient. Some have “their” girls, which they know.
You mean when you’ve been there for several days?
Lena: They know that that all these prostitutes on the street are drug users. The ones who work out of hotels, the cops aren’t going to harass. Just those who don’t have protection, who are powerless, who you can just kill and get rid of. You know, anything can happen. How many girls—maybe, two—have disappeared? They took them away and we haven’t seen them since. That’s it. Their parents, like everyone else’s here, are troubled and disadvantaged. No one’s going to look for them.
Oksana: Everyone knows you’re a drug user. You’ll probably die somewhere of an overdose. That’s why they treat us the way they do. No one’s going to remember your name. That’s what they say to us: “We’re going to kill you here and that’s it. No one’s going to look for you. No one fucking needs you. You’re not women, you’re not even people. You’re only good for wiping feet on.
Lena: And they did! What didn’t they do! They put their cigarettes out on us.
I can’t wrap my brain around it.
Oksana: It’s crazy, I know. You should’ve seen it. We had a girl with us. One of the cops cut her cheek with a knife. Or here is another one—when the cops decided that they needed a table. They were just sitting around, these boars, some –in their underwear, some—without. So this girl stood in front of them on her knees for two hours, on all fours. As a table top. They put hot cups on her body. She’d flinch and they’d beat her.
You say they’d wrap their batons in a towel. Was this because someone tried to file a complaint against them at some point?
Lena: No, no one filed a complaint, are you crazy? Who would believe us? We are not people, we’re animals.
Oksana: You’re crazy, no one’s even going to try to file a complaint in that precinct. No, no, no. Once you do, maybe you’ll walk out of there alive but then no one’s going to find you again. They’ll come and get you. Psychologically, they’ll pressure you
Lena: You’re not going to get out alive. You want to live, so you just take it. And try to smile at them, and do whatever they want. Because you know that if they beat you, you’re not going to be able to walk for a week. They’ll make you a cripple. If you’re lucky. If you’re really lucky, they’ll take you all the way to Schors st. and toss you out of the car there. But what if they ditch you in the forest, all beaten and bruised? You’ll die there…
Oksana: It’s really cruel…
So any attempt to complain…There were no attempts..
Lena: No…no one’s even tried because it’s useless. They’re all in cahoots there. Oksana had this one district police officer.
Oksana: Yes, I had this cop, I was really young then. We had this district police officer, when I was 19. I fixing then occasionally. And he really liked me. He would always stop me in my neighborhood. He’d stop me but wouldn’t find anything. He can’t search me, only a female cop can. So he takes me to his precinct. There’s another cop there and a couch. The other cop goes: “I’m going to go for a walk.”
Lena: He also brought me there with her. He gave me these notices and said: “You go put these in the mailboxes and leave her here.” And I said: “I’m not going to go without her.” And he said: “Which part didn’t you understand? Scatter! I’m going to have a talk with her and then she’ll leave.” So I leave the room. Turn the corner, throw these notices into the trash and wait. I’m all shaking. What is he going to do to her…
Oksana: He creeps up on me: “So, what are we going to do?” And he is so…fat.
Lena: And she was so pretty and young. She just started using.
Oksana: So he creeps up on me. And then the back of the couch falls off. And he’s like: “Get the fuck out of my face!” I run out of there and from then on, whenever I’d see him, I’d run. But then, they stopped me near a café. They pull over, start going through my bag. And this same guy pulls out a small bag of something–he planted something on me. I break into tears: “That wasn’t there before, what are you doing?” He planted heroin on me. And he’s like: “No, you’re coming with me. You didn’t want to be nice then, now you’re going to go away for six years. See, how easy it is?” I remember it all. I said: “Are you crazy? It’s not mine! Here’s my ID, here is my medical certificate, I’m applying for a job. Take me for a drug test, there are no drugs in my body. Fingerprint the bag!” And he says: “We will. You’ll get everything– a drug test, fingerprints, everything .” That was it. Then he said: “If I ever see you again, I’m definitely going to fuck you.”
What happened to that bag of heroin?
Oksana: Nothing, they took it and drove away. First, they put us both in the car, drove us around so that everybody could see that we’re with the cops. So that no one would ever approach us again, because we’re…with cops. And that’s it. They plant drugs like it’s nobody’s business. I was stunned. Like I’d carry that stuff on me. It’s ridiculous.
Lena: They all plant drugs, not just the police. Even the guys from the Fund [ City without Drugs.] How is that possible—yes, they break in, yes, there is “crocodile” being prepared there, but you can hear them breaking in and so, you pour it all out. And yet, they still find stuff. You would either inject it real quick or pour it out. But they plant it all. And the cops, they’re all on heroin. They snort it.
Oksana: The cops don’t treat prostitutes like human beings.
This pimp you were talking about earlier. You said you decided to go off without him. Did he protect you?
Oksana: Yes, he did. He bought off the police. We would give him his 70% and keep our 30%. I mean, it’s ridiculous, it’s, like, chump change. And I don’t know how, but he protected us. He probably gave them money. But the kind of money we’d be left with, it’s just wasn’t worth servicing 20 clients. On your own, you’d get one customer and make as much money as you would if you serviced 20 customers for a month with a pimp. On the other hand, the cops weren’t as bad to us then.
So his primary function was to pay off the police?
Oksana: And still, if the police said: “I want her,” he’d say: “Go with them.” It’s not a 100% guarantee. And off you go for free. And if they say: “You’re going to stay with us for 10 days,” then you stay with them for 10 days.
Lena: Yeah, I don’t know. I knew some girls who actually liked it. They’d say: “Why not? At least they’ll feed you and hook you up with dope. What’s the difference?” That’s what they’d say.
Oksana: Yes, there are some like that.
Maybe they’ve developed a relationship with the cops, so they don’t get beat up or humiliated?
Oksana: I don’t know. Everyone I knew was getting the same treatment.
Lena: it’s not even that. It’s not so much about the raping as it is about the torture and the humiliation. They treat you like animals. Like slaves, I don’t know. They do whatever they want—punch you right here, in the bones, kick you in the legs.
Has anything changed since?
Oksana: No, I don’t think so.
Do you still talk to the other girls?
Lena: Yes, we talk to them.
So the law on police didn’t help?
Lena: No, they’re not scared of anything. Sometimes, when it was totally unbearable, you’d go to the cops. I used to come to the precinct when I was in bad withdrawal. I was trying to quit, just didn’t have the energy to work anymore. So I’d come to their office, there was a cop I knew there. He’d take you into his office, close the door, open the drawer, take out some heroin. “Here, just make sure you keep giving me information.” They give you dope and you have to turn people in. I’d tell them things, but I’d never turn in any dealers. You tell them a street that supposedly you live on, just to get your dope. They would give it to me right there in the precinct—they’d always have new syringes, heroin, the works. You can fix right there if you like. Just have to give them some leads. They don’t want to work. So they use others, whatever the others tell them.
It seems like there is no one to rein them in…
Lena: No, you agree to everything. Who’s going to rein them in, who are you going to turn to? To the same cops. You’re going to go cops to tell on cops. Man, when I remember it all… I still walk and keep turning my head to look behind me. Whenever I see their mugs in those cars, as they drive by. They know that I’m no longer working. But still, they try here and there.
I’m really interested in what you think: Is it possible to change all this?
Lena: No, I don’t think so. Because girls will always be working on the streets. They’ve done it for hundreds of years. What’s the oldest profession?
Oksana: For a fix, for food. You name it. And there are always the men who want it for free. It’s always going to be like that. This situation isn’t going to change. Unless you work in a brothel, then it’s more or less…But they’re not going to hire those who are fixing. It doesn’t look good for them.
Lena: There are tons of brothels in our city. I don’t get it, why would these guys opt for the dirty drug users.
Oksana: Because you can do whatever you want to them. In terms of time, you can have her for an hour, or two. I remember standing there, they drive up, roll down the window, one of the girls takes the money, gives it to another, then she gets into the car and there are four people in there. And they take her somewhere, you don’t know where. Man, oh, man, it’s so scary…
And you can’t say no, if there are 4 people…
Lena: No…man, it’s just crazy. Being in fear, all the time. You’re afraid of everything. I don’t know how I had the guts to do all that. That must be how dependent I was, that’s how much I needed the dope. You keep thinking: “Eh, it’s going to be ok. This time everything’s going to be ok.” And I’m telling you, the clients treat you better than the cops. Those do whatever they want. They go all out. They do whatever they want to you, however they want and wherever they want. These “dachas”…The girls do yard work there pulling weeds. Like slaves, I don’t know. They’d wash the dishes. They’re treated like slaves.
Oksana: You wash the dishes and then he’s like: “Let’s go fuck, my friends are coming”
So you can wash more dishes.
Oksana: And not just the dishes. When they give you the dope, you can kind of tolerate it. But some people, when they’re drunk, they get totally insane. Very aggressive, that’s the scariest part. I’ve encountered those.
It just seems like all of these people, they’re mentally ill.
Lena: Yes, but how do they all end up working for the police? How do they pick them like that? I would think, when you apply…I don’t understand.
Oksana: Or they just really despise prostitutes…Whenever they see them, they just go nuts.
Lena: There are a lot of sadistic people in uniform out there. The ones who really like to torture. And for some reason, in my experience, most of them work as cops. It’s like they’re people in uniform, but they’re worse than a rapist off the street. There is few rapists out there. But I think they all work for the police.
Lena: They would come by every day. Not just for the “subboniks.” They’d take our money all the time. Almost every day. You just hand over the money. I don’t remember how much. I think around 500. Just for being able to stand there.
You said that you were working the streets because you were dependent on drugs. Have you ever tried to go for drug treatment?
Lena: What drug treatment? My parents couldn’t even give me an education. Nothing. I am drug user. In order to get treatment, you need money. No one is going to treat you for free. Roizman does, but it’s not really treatment. The parents are willing to pay.
Oksana: They trust them more than their own children. Who are these children? Some junkies. But Roizman, he collects religious icons, makes speeches in Moscow, does good deeds. He’s really done well for himself, of course.
But you’ve never gone through the official drug treatment system? For detox, something else?
Lena: First of all, it’s not that easy. They’re going to brand you for life, that you’re a drug user. You’re not even going to be able to get a driver’s license afterwards. Or go work at some store. They register you as a drug user and that’s it. And they’re not going to help you. Just brand you for life. Just like with my criminal record. I got a suspended sentence, but no one wants to hire me. I can’t get a job at a normal store. The security services are everywhere. They check in the database. I’ve told them: “That was a hundred years ago. It was a suspended sentence.” But I’m in their database. Everywhere I go, they kick me out: “Get out of here.” Now I can’t work. My CD4 count is low. I’m barely alive. So, no, we haven’t been to any good drug treatment centers where they actually help you. I don’t know, we probably don’t even have them here. Beatings and water is all you get. Roizman’s center is a nightmare. You get there, and you sit there in a cell by yourself for a month, while you go through withdrawal. They beat you and don’t really give you any food.
Oksana: No, they do give you something. A piece of bread, some onions, garlic and water.