On my first trip to St. Petersburg, Russia in the early 1990s I broke the rule of impartiality journalists try to maintain. I gave US$100 to Andrei, one of thousands of feral children living in the tunnels under the city train stations. Andrei slept in a tree, stole food and sometimes even barked like a dog. He was 11. He’d called the station home for seven years.
There are countless feral children in the world. They haunt us in fairy tales and in crime statistics. Popular culture has a fascination with such kids in stories like Jungle Book, Tarzan and Peter Pan. But the modern versions aren’t nearly as romantic as the Disney kind. They are either pint-sized peons with guns – child soldiers – or children like Andrei, forgotten in train stations, cell-like orphanages or sent to beg on the street by modern-day Fagans.
Many of us feel a fleeting urge to do something about those so far removed from civilized norms. But it’s not easy for would-be do-gooders. Andrei spent my money on fast food, candy and exceptionally violent comic books. If he has survived he will be in his early-30s now but he probably didn’t live out the decade. My guilt money only bought him a few days of pleasure.