Moscow's Homeless Turn to Mother Valeria
By J. Quinn Martin
Special to The Moscow Times
It would be easy to mistake Mother Valeria for Mother Theresa. Like Theresa in life, Mother Valeria has a hunched frame that is always wrapped in dark monastic cloth. In photographs, years of hardship are etched on their wrinkled faces. And like the late Mother Theresa, Mother Valeria leads a life of selfless giving, reaping the suffering and joy inherent in such an existence.
An ailing 74-year-old Orthodox nun, Mother Valeria Makeyeva runs a homeless shelter out of her one-room apartment in northeastern Moscow. Since 1989, more than 500 people have come through her home. She feeds them, clothes them, coddles them, buys them medicine and then sends them back out into the world.
The apartment is chaos. People are constantly coming and going. Someone always has an urgent need. Almost everyone is ill. The room is packed from floor to ceiling with mattresses and clothing and those in need. Bugs crawl across the peeling walls. It is a scene of staggering sacrifice and suffering. "People freeze to death when they're out on the street -- I've seen it on television," said Mother Valeria. "There's nowhere to go."
During a recent week, there were 19 people cramped into her 19-square-meter room and adjacent kitchen. Everyone sleeps on small mattresses, except Mother Valeria, who sleeps on the floor. She says she prefers it.
Mother Valeria only takes in the neediest cases: invalids, Chechen refugees, alcoholics, orphaned children, the sick, the dying -- almost all of Mother Valeria's guests have at least one serious health problem. Most aren't legally registered.
To pay for train tickets home and long-distance phone calls and food, Mother Valeria begs outside churches and graveyards in warm weather. When it gets too cold to go out, she spends her pension and a small sum she receives as a recipient of the Sakharov Prize.
One day in 1998, while begging for the shelter at St. Kliment's Cathedral, near metro Tretyakovskaya, Mother Valeria met a devout Orthodox woman named Irina Zaikanova. Soon after, Zaikanova began working at a Moscow charity, the International Fund for Christian Education, which now regularly supplies Mother Valeria's shelter with food and medicine. Last year, the fund helped Mother Valeria print 400 copies of her autobiography, "Remembrances."
Valeria Makeyeva was born into a noble Moscow family (her grandmother was a Vyazemsky) in 1929. Her relatives were Orthodox believers and anti-communists.
At age 8, Valeria began drafting poetry, and in 1942, when she was 13, she was interrogated and imprisoned at the Lubyanka, the infamous KGB headquarters, for her political poems.
Upon release she fled to Odessa, where she entered the Mikhailovsky Women's Monastery. She became a nun at age 15. She outlived Stalin but landed in Lubyanka again in 1978, while Brezhnev was in power, this time for publishing Orthodox prayers. She was locked up until 1982.
During Mother Valeria's imprisonment, the Soviets bulldozed her family's two-story dacha and gardens in Moscow's Sviblovo region to make way for a power plant. In place of the house, the government gave Mother Valeria a one-room apartment near Medvedkovo metro, which today serves as the shelter.
Metropolitan Pimen, who would later become Valeria's patriarch, greeted her upon her release, saying, "You have a roof over your head. Never forget those who don't."
Having been in serious need herself, Mother Valeria knows better than anyone else that need is great in Moscow today.
"There are no happy stories here," said one of her guests, who identified himself only by his first name and patronymic, Yevgeny Borisovich.
He said he was released after 15 years in a Siberian prison in 1999 and found his way to Moscow. He lived at Kursky Station and in underpasses for two years before he came to Mother Valeria for help.
When the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, Viktor Mirchenko found himself in a new country he didn't consider home. He left Kyrgyzstan in 1992 and worked in eastern Siberia and later Abkhazia for a number of years. But when his health deteriorated, he came to Moscow in search of kidney treatment. He had no money and no passport, and he was turned away everywhere he went for help. Except at Mother Valeria's.
Four years ago, a paralytic landed on Mother Valeria's doorstep. Sixty-year-old Viktor Skutov said he had always been healthy and didn't know what had happened to his legs. Mother Valeria decided she had to get Viktor to a hospital -- but no one would take him because he wasn't registered. And Viktor couldn't get his pension or the federal allowance for invalids either.
So at the age of 70, Mother Valeria broke a monastic vow. "Paralyzed Viktor over there is my husband," she said, pointing to a frail old man stretched out on a mattress in the corner of the room, a lit cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth. She calls it her "fictitious marriage."
"I don't regret it," she said. "I'd do it 10 times if they let me."
With the arrival of fixtures like Viktor, the shelter has been growing increasingly crowded. One night last year there were 27 people in the apartment. Sometimes people have to sleep in the bathroom. The growth of the shelter has not been the only hurdle Mother Valeria has had to overcome.
A few years ago, Mother Valeria began having troubles with the police. Officers stopped by regularly and threatened to throw her guests onto the street. None of them were registered in the apartment, except her husband Viktor. Mother Valeria delayed the authorities for a while. But then angry residents of a neighboring apartment blockaded the hallway door, barring entrance to Mother Valeria's home. For weeks, she and her guests had to enter and exit the apartment through the window.
Mother Valeria decided to fight back, appealing to friends in the church, who informed government leaders of her plight.
The whole affair culminated in a fiery letter written by well-known human rights expert and Duma Deputy Sergei Kovalyov to the prosecutor of Mother Valeria's region. The letter blasted the police and cited the Constitution and federal laws on charity work to conclude that Mother Valeria had every right to operate a shelter out of her apartment. The press latched onto the story and in a matter of days Mother Valeria was written up in Izvestia and interviewed on the television program Vremya.
"Mother Valeria, this little old woman, had all of Moscow in a furor," Zaikanova said. The police have since left her alone.
It is just another chapter in a life of struggle and suffering. In 1996, Mother Valeria was "rehabilitated" and declared a victim of political repression. Today she keeps her rehabilitation documents in a pouch around her neck and proudly shows them to visitors.
Mikhail Gorbachev is her favorite politician. She recites her original poems praising his bold moves to bring freedom to the people. But Mother Valeria remains deeply disturbed by the plight of her guests and the state of Russian society.
"I have great love for Gorbachev, and he gave us freedom," Mother Valeria said.
"But he didn't turn our country into a state of the European type. He left it one-quarter totalitarian. I fought against Soviet power my whole life. But what they're doing now ... ." Her voice trailed off in frustration.
Mother Valeria says that when the weather gets warmer she'll go out begging in Moscow's cemeteries and churches again this year. She already has her sign ready. It reads: "Kind People: The homeless, the sick, the hungry come to me. Please help."
Life is just one disappointment after another.