How much homelessness was there in the Soviet Union?

According to official Soviet statistics, there were at least 150,000 homeless people in the 1980s.I clearly remember Penner at the train stations in Moscow. I also remember the residents of my apartment in Moscow cursing the caretakers: they never seemed to have time to seal the half-window to the huge basement under the building, and penners camped out there in the cozy surroundings of the heating pipes.

Penners in the USSR, however, were much less visible than in Vancouver or San Francisco of our time.The cold Russian climate was not gracious to them. But there were two other reasons for this.

1.Residence permit

We had a system of propska, a mandatory registration with the police of the place of your permanent residence.In Moscow, Leningrad, Sevastopol and other privileged cities you simply could not find a job without permission. The police were tasked with enforcing the system.

If you have been sentenced to prison for more than a few months, you have lost your permission.They could also lose it in an administrative procedure as a troublemaker or a drunkard. The authorities would then “over the 101st kilometres out”. In this case, the police would not allow you to be closer than 65 miles from Moscow.

For this reason, the majority of the penners consisted of people with previous conflicts.They lived on random jobs where they carried suitcases or wiped floors for food and alcohol.

2.Laws against parasitism

Genuine socialism adheres to the principle that “those who do not work must not eat”.In the Soviet Union, this meant having a paper stating that you were employed somewhere. Our Nobel laureate, the poet Joseph Brodsky, was sentenced to five years of forced labor and served 18 months on a farm in the northern provinces for not producing such paper.

Rarely were it the penners who had such a permanent job.Because they did not want to take years of hard work in the provinces, they tried to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible. Train stations were the rare places to watch a collection of penners. There they had an excuse to “just pass by” on their way back to the provinces. Also important was the opportunity to occasionally take something to eat from the floor and settle down in a public toilet.

Below, employees of a Soviet-era grocery store in Moscow unload a shipment of meat.The man on the right who carries chopped meat to the hatch is most likely a bomzh (“Penner” in Russian, an abbreviation for “Unidentified Place of Residence”). The employees of the grocery stores in the USSR considered themselves too privileged at that time to deal with the cleaning of the premises and the carrying of things. Because of the terrible labor shortage, penners working for food were the ideal candidates for these positions.

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