Many Factors in Russia Hypothermia

Thursday January 3 2:21 PM ET
Many Factors in Russia Hypothermia
By SARAH KARUSH, Associated Press Writer

MOSCOW (AP) – “Don’t sleep, you’ll freeze,” Russians often say in a metaphoric admonishment against complacency. For people living on the street during the long, icy winter, the warning should be taken literally. Every winter in major Russian cities, the cold lulls hundreds of people into a slumber from which they never awake. Though killed by the sheer force of nature, few would succumb were it not for two human factors: affinity for alcohol and indifference.

The majority of Russia’s hypothermia victims are drunk, doctors say. The alcohol provides a deceptive warmth, making a pile of snow seem like a down quilt or an unheated attic a cozy spot for a nap. Then there’s the apathy of passers-by, most of whom walk by bodies on the street without calling an ambulance.

In a sign of official indifference toward the problem, the Health Ministry says it has no national statistics on cold deaths, despite alarming numbers reported by individual cities.

The Moscow Ambulance Service picked up the corpses of 190 hypothermia victims from Jan. 9 to Dec. 23, 2001. Some 1,895 people, including two children, were hospitalized with hypothermia.

In Yekaterinburg, an industrial city in the foothills of the Ural Mountains, 269 people had died of hypothermia as of Dec. 21, according to the city morgue.

Possible factors in the varying cold deaths: Yekaterinburg’s generally tougher winters and comparatively poorer social services for its 1.3 million residents. Moscow’s population is 8.7 million.

“Dealing with hypothermia victims is left to the ambulance service and the police,” said Leon Akopov, chief of Moscow’s central ambulance station. “But this is a social problem.”

The root of the problem is the government’s unwillingness to confront homelessness, critics say. Though not all those who freeze to death are homeless, most people assume they are.

Anybody lying on the ground – whether drunk or otherwise incapacitated – is likely to fall victim to society’s prejudice toward bomzhi – the Soviet acronym for people “without a definite residence.”

One October night, a reporter for the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets lay down on a piece of cardboard in front of his apartment building. The temperature was 28 degrees – mild by Moscow standards but cold enough to cause hypothermia. Over the next 90 minutes, many people walked by but no one stopped to see if he needed help, the newspaper reported.

Homelessness is no longer a punishable offense as it was in Soviet times, but in many ways, the official approach has changed little.

“We don’t have homelessness,” said homeless advocate Alexei Nikiforov, mocking the official attitude. “We have ‘vagrancy and begging.'”

Homeless people are sometimes rounded up by police and sent to holding centers on the edge of the city. They are held for 10 days in dark, foul-smelling cells while police determine whether they are wanted for any crimes. If not, they are sent back to the streets.

Voluntary shelters exist only for people who can prove that they had a legitimate address in Moscow. The city runs eight homeless shelters with room for 1,500 people. But only 15 percent of the estimated 100,000 homeless seen across the city are from the Moscow area, said Nikiforov. Many of the “former Muscovites” stay with friends and relatives, meaning shelters are often half-empty, while out-of-towners are turned away, he said.

Nikiforov is coordinator of homeless programs in Moscow run by the Belgian branch of Medecins Sans Frontieres. At the group’s outpatient clinic for the homeless, frostbite and burns caused by dubious sources of heat are among the main complaints.

Nikolai Ivanov, a patient, said that since he was evicted from his rented room, he has been spending nights huddling next to municipal heating pipes. If police catch him, they use their nightsticks to kick him out, he said. In an underground pedestrian tunnel, Yuri, a 66-year-old homeless man with thick glasses and a bushy gray beard, has only a few old coats, some cardboard and a puppy to keep him warm.

“I’m not afraid of freezing. I’m dressed warmly,” he said on a recent evening as the temperature hovered around 5 degrees. “I’m more afraid of the drug addicts and hooligans.”

A few months ago, Yuri contracted pneumonia and was hospitalized. He was lucky: Moscow hospitals rarely comply with a city government decree to treat the homeless.

“I once saw a bomzh kneel before a guard at a hospital in the middle of winter and say, ‘I beg you in the name of Christ, let me in,'” recalled Akopov of the ambulance service. “And he said, ‘The doctor said you’re healthy, so get lost.”’

Friday January 04 09:05 AM EST

Good, Bad Dreams May Mean Something

Everyone experiences dreams, but many people have trouble remembering what they are.

Dreams take people to places and situations that may seem real.

Some people dream of their house catching on fire, falling off a cliff or being chased by a faceless person. So, what do the dreams mean?

Dr. Richard Evans, director of social psychology at the University of Houston, said that people often dream to relieve tension and stress.

Evans said that no one can tell a person what all his or her dreams mean, but there are themes in dreams that can give someone a clue as to their meaning. For example, a dream about falling often indicates a fear of losing control, Evans said.

Having the same dream over and over may mean that you’re trying to solve a problem.

“Just like in life itself, you’re trying to solve a problem,” Evans said. “And the dream becomes a cognitive problem solver, trying to resolve it until the problem is solved. They may never solve it.”

Many people even dream they’re walking around nude.

“That’s one of the many types of insecurity that people have and dreams reflect things like having no clothes on, being lost in the shuffle, being embarrassed,” Evans said. “People are acting out their basic insecurities.”

Another common dream is teeth falling out.

Evans said that could mean a person is afraid of some type of injury or bodily harm.

The good news about dreams is that it means a person is sleeping well, Evans said.