The New Russian Roulette – Drugs and HIV

REPORTER: Kim Traill

It`s 5am, rush hour for some of Moscow`s junkies.

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After a hard night scoring drugs, Natasha, Roman and Kolya are ready for oblivion.

ROMAN (Translation): I have almost no veins left.

REPORTER: Why?

ROMAN: Because, they`re finished. None left. I`ve used them all up.

Roman was once a dancer and choreographer before drugs took over his life. Kolya was a swimmer, training with Roman at the Russian Academy of Physical Culture. His girlfriend, Natasha, was a classical violinist.

NATASHA (Translation): Look what I`ve got. (Holding syringe) My happiness. Ours, mine and his.

Natasha began experimenting with drugs after she was bashed by police. The beating left her unable to walk for four months.

NATASHA: Everything began to fall apart in my world and I needed to find…I needed to find something else. And I found it. I began to use cocaine and LSD. So then, out of interest, I tried everything. I`ve tried every drug I`ve ever heard of.

Mother Russia has a new habit, and it`s killing her children.

NATASHA: My eyes are already crazy. Cool!

The scale of Russia`s drug problem is graphically illustrated in this police video. The United Nations estimates as many as 2.5 million Russians are now intravenous drug users. Last year, more than 100,000 died from overdoses or other drug-related problems. The epidemic has also led to the world`s steepest rise in HIV infection. And the state has all but ignored it.

VADIM POKROVSKY, FEDERAL AIDS CENTRE (Translation): During the previous year, 2001, the number of HIV-positive people grew from 85,000 to 172,000. So the growth is 100%, or double the number of those infected. This is the highest growth rate of the epidemic in the world. Unfortunately we don`t have any evidence that the government sees this problem as a priority.

Just 15 years ago, the Soviet Union was almost free of drugs. The Communists ruled from Moscow through intimidation and force, denying the country both the good and bad of the West. Lubyanka was the headquarters of the feared KGB. Today, the adjoining underpass is one of the best places in Moscow to buy drugs. Slava Russakov knows he can always find junkies here. He is an ex-addict working for a Dutch-funded outreach group called Harm Reduction.

SLAVA RUSSAKOV (Translation): When perestroika and democracy came, drugs such as cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and LSD appeared. So the use of intravenous drugs, I mean like heroin, all began only after the Iron Curtain was lifted.

Slava and the other outreach workers distribute information to users about diseases, effects of drugs and the law. They hand out condoms, but not syringes.

SLAVA RUSSAKOV: there is no exchange – why not? Every city has one, but Moscow`s mayor won`t allow it. He thinks there`s no such problem as drug addiction, although it`s everywhere. These days, HIV doesn`t surprise anyone.

This is one of the few rehabilitation clinics in Moscow. Simon is one of those who benefited from the fall of communism. He`s a successful businessman with his own factory. The profits support his five-gram-a-day heroin habit.

DOCTOR IN CLINIC (Translation): How many admissions is this?

SIMON (Translation): The third.

DOCTOR: When was your last time?

SIMON: Six months ago.

DOCTOR: Since then, have you had a drug-free period?

SIMON: No.

DOCTOR: You went straight back to it?

SIMON: Yes.

DOCTOR: Have you been to any rehabilitation programs?

SIMON: No.

DOCTOR: Why not? Have you heard of them?

SIMON: I`ve heard of them, but I didn`t go.

DOCTOR: You didn`t take any notice?

SIMON: No.

At 27, Simon is married with a 5-year-old daughter. He already has Hepatitis C from sharing needles, but so far hasn`t tested positive to HIV.

SIMON (Translation): I had good, fancy cars. BMW, Mercedes, but I would shoot up and go to the casino where I`d lose everything. That`s how it is. Lots of money goes on this. Before, with 600 roubles I could shoot up once and that was nothing for me. With 600 roubles a day, you shoot up and become an idiot. Then you see things differently and then you start throwing money here, there and everywhere.

Russia in the 1990s was a perfect breeding ground for a drug epidemic. Suddenly people had money to spend, and everything was for sale. A huge underground nightclub craze began to sweep the country.

NASTYA (Translation): It was really fashionable, underground. It was very hard to get into. Any drugs including tablets, acid, LSD, even basic phenamin, they were all fashionable and cool. No one would just go to a disco “straight”. Why would you go there just normal? Why? You needed to be high. So, that`s how it all started.

24-year-old Nastya once trained to be an Olympic gymnast, but the Moscow disco scene with its abundance of drugs has brought her here.

NASTYA: Imagine there was cocaine, cocaine, lots of cocaine… a mountain of cocaine, one gram for each person. So you can imagine the state you were in next morning. What can get you out of that state? Only heroin, nothing else. Otherwise you can`t sleep etcetera. Quite simply, I`ve been to a lot of discos in my time. I think that was the root of the problem. I think it`s the Tajiks who are to blame.

NATASHA: Not necessarily. Chechens too.. they`re everywhere.

NASTYA: Ethnic minorities..

NATASHA: My sister is at school. She`s 14 and there is a Chechen girl in her class who sells heroin. She`s 14, that`s Year 7. And this is in a respectable private school. This is not an ordinary school. The kids are all from well-off families.

Nastya`s friend Natasha has already been using heroin for six years.

NATASHA (Translation): With my boyfriend we use one needle only. And of course there are close friends who we could share needles with. And sometimes you go somewhere where wild drug-taking is going on. Sure, I wouldn`t share a needle if I know the person has AIDS. Otherwise…Hepatitis C is like a common cold these days. If someone wants to take my syringe, they will ask “Do you have Hep C?” You say “Yes”. They will say “Give it here.” It`s normal.

Most of Natasha`s friends have already tested positive for HIV. It may only be a matter of time before she is also infected. On an average day, doctors at this blood-testing centre in Moscow diagnose 10 new cases of HIV. In 1995, there were only 200 cases diagnosed in the entire country. There are now almost 200,000. But the real figure could be many times higher.

VADIM POKROVSKY, HEAD OF THE FEDERAL AIDS CENTRE (Translation): The actual number could be as high as one million people. The disease can remain hidden for a long time, for ten or more years. That`s why the real number of those infected with HIV could be up to 10 times higher.

Most people come here to get HIV-free certificates for work or travel. The high-risk group, drug users, rarely bother. 23-year-old Lena was an exception. She and her husband, Sergei, had been using drugs since they were teenagers. After their baby Nikita was born three years ago, they began to feel unwell.

LENA (Translation): So out of interest we went to a clinic to have blood tests. When we came back for results, we were prepared for something. So we went in and were told “Yes, guys, you have HIV..” We laughed. Yes, we just laughed. Probably because we didn`t want to show anything in front of each other. But after that came hysterics for about a month. We drank heavily. Then we went back to lots of drugs again. But we told all our friends straightaway that they shouldn`t use our needles as we had HIV. We told everyone openly.

Nikita is not infected. But his parents wonder how long they`ll be able to provide for him. Lena says most of her neighbours at the housing estate are HIV positive too.

LENA: Here, in this region, practically everyone who uses drugs is HIV positive. Not just HIC, but also another infection. I mean HIV with Hepatitis C. And many have Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B on top of this. As you can see, it`s terribly serious. But back then no one thought about it.

Intravenous drug use is the source of 93% of HIV cases, but the authorities are doing little to warn of the dangers or help those infected. The entire federal budget for AIDS is less than $US6 million.

VADIM POKROVSKY: This is a paltry sum for such a huge country as Russia. Considering that modern medical treatment is very expensive, the whole budget will be enough for the treatment of only from 500-600 infected people and this when we have about 200,000 HIV positive people.

PRIEST AT CHURCH SERVICE (Translation): Let us pray to God asking Him to lend you assistance to overcome serious illnesses such as drug addiction, alcoholism and tobacco smoking.

Charities and religious groups are doing their best to fill the gap. Father Anatoly Berestov blames addiction on the moral void left by the end of the Soviet Union.

FATHER ANATOLY BERESTOV (Translation): This is a result of the opening of the so-called Iron Curtain, of the arrival of a new, for us, non-traditional Western culture, and a satanic Western way of life. We were unprepared to put in place preventive measures against such a terrible problem as drug addiction. And now drug addiction has swamped the entire country. All of it.

Father Berestov runs a drug counselling centre for the Orthodox Church. He claims an 80% success rate. His prescription is old-fashioned spirituality.

FATHER BERESTOV: I believe that the best immunity against drug addiction is to give children spirituality from a young age. And there is no need to try to talk about safe six. But we need to do the same as the President of the USA, when he encouraged chastity. Unfortunately, chastity, this perfect and beautiful word, has practically disappeared from the Russian vocabulary. It has been replaced by so-called sex and safe sex, etcetera.

Russia has some of the toughest penalties in the world for drug use, possession and dealing.

SLAVA: Here. “The effects of drugs.” Ever seen this? Legal issues. All about what to do if you are arrested.

Outreach workers like Slava know all too well the high price drug users pay for being caught.

SLAVA: Everything is prohibited in our country. With heroin, you can even be prosecuted for having a poorly rinsed syringe. So it needn`t be the powder itself, just a sign of it is enough to get you prosecuted. Moreover, if you offered it to someone you could be charged with dealing.

Slava, too, has spent time in prison. He`s no longer addicted to hard drugs, but still uses marijuana and pills.

SLAVA: You smoke, for example, a joint…pass it to your friend and it`s already dealing, Clause 4, meaning 7 to 15 years in jail.

Even these heavy-handed tactics are having little or no impact on the numbers of drug users.

SLAVA: No matter how much the police try to hide the problem, it`s like a bog where peat is burning. They put it out here and it starts burning there. In any case, using such methods, and with the existing laws, the drug addiction problem is insoluble.

Roman too has been to prison twice.

ROMAN: I had this tattoo done along my veins here so that no one can see my needle marks. When the cops stop you, and they stop you all the time, they check your veins. They look at your arms, and if they see needle marks, they lock you up at once. They can plant heroin or any other drug on you. They can do anything they want. These needle marks are an excuse for them to extort money from us.

FATHER ANATOLY BERESTOV: The police here are very cruel. The police are the main facilitators of the drug mafia. I say this with certainty. Over 3,000 young drug addicts have passed through our centre. And we constantly come across terrible crimes by people in police uniform. I haven`t met one single honest policeman involved in drug-related cases. I haven`t met one yet. This grieves my heart. That`s why I speak so emotionally about this. If we don`t resolve this problem, very soon all our young people will end up in jail. Every year…no, every day, more than 300 of our young people are put on trial as drug dealers. They`re turned into drug dealers by the police.

Police make much of their occasional seizures, and they have had little success in stopping drugs coming into the country. The breakdown of the Soviet Union created a ready supply of heroin from the former Soviet Central Asian states and Afghanistan. Afghan opium is smuggled to Moscow on direct flights from Tajikistan. In the impoverished states bordering Afghanistan, drug rings have little trouble finding couriers. Issa Malakov, a Tajik, was hospitalised when one of the pouches of heroin he had swallowed leaked inside him.

ISSA (Translation): They forced me.

REPORTER: What do you mean?

ISSA: I owed them. I couldn`t pay them back. So he said “Let`s go. I`ll find you something to do.” So I went to them. They locked me up in a basement for two days and forced me to swallow it all at gunpoint. And they beat me. They put a stick in my mouth like this. They held my tongue and poked them in with a stick.

So far 95 pouches of heroin have passed through Issa. There is still one left inside.

After several attempts to quit their habit, Lena and Sergei have managed to stay off drugs for almost a year.

LENA (Translation): Right now, I don`t need anything. I feel great and I don`t need any kind of drugs at all. At the same time, I am so tired of all of this. When I remember what has happened to me, well, it`s not very good.

They have recently begun working for a Canadian-funded AIDS organisation.

LENA: I`m trying to do something for my future and I`m doing a lot for the future of my child. I know that it depends on me. My husband thinks it depends on him so he`s doing all he can and I`m doing all I can. But the majority of people we know…they aren`t doing anything. If they hear there`s heroin around, then they run for it. I don`t know. It`s terrifying to think of the future.