Twenty-three-year-old Katia Popova squinted at the bright light in the doorway. Her eyes were more used to the candlelight in her dim, four-square-meter kitchen, where she has spent most of the past nine years. That was where municipal workers discovered her—the Russian equivalent of Kaspar Hauser—a few weeks ago. The discovery was made “accidentally,” Katia said later with a shy smile. Cursing loudly as they made their way between mountains of garbage cluttering the tiny apartment from floor to ceiling, the district plumbers noticed, popping out from behind the dirty fridge, a young, untidy woman with oily hair. Cats, rats, books, and a radio had been Katia Popova’s only friends since the day her mother, Anna Popova, decided the outside world was too threatening for Katia to visit, and had locked her up.
“To save her from heroin addicts, lesbians, and rape,” her mother, a street sweeper whom the neighbors called Mad Anna, nailed iron sheets and metal bars over the windows and locked her daughter inside their apartment, on the ground floor of a nine-story building in Avtozavod, an industrial district of Nizhny Novgorod, a city with a population of almost 1.5 million. Katia was 13 when that happened. Her school didn’t care that a seventh grader had suddenly gone missing, nor did Popova’s neighbors seem too interested in whether Mad Anna’s daughter was alive.
As I was visiting Katia and Anna’s dark apartment, where fear and despair lurked, a door next to the Popovas’ opened and a young, good-looking woman came out into the hallway for a smoke. The biggest complaint this neighbor, Anna Avramenko, a single mother working at the local car factory, had was about “the armies of cockroaches deployed” to her apartment from Popova’s. “All I do when I come to smoke here is squash their fat roach beasts. Once I saw Mad Anna bring her daughter a rat in a cage—they both lost their roofs!” Avramenko said, using a Russian expression for insanity. Corrupt Moscow politicians, this month’s parliamentary elections, or even a young girl locked on the other side of the wall were “a much less important issue” in her life than the roaches. “I just wish I could grab my own daughter and escape from this rotting hell,” Avramenko said.
I left my hometown, Nizhny Novgorod, as a teenager in the midst of perestroika. I remember the walls in our concrete panel building were as thick as an average volume of Russian prose, but apparently neighbors knew all the details of each other’s personal lives. The oldest of them were keen on sitting on the bench by the entrance, passionately discussing the latest news downstairs; we kids called these people the “special service” for their thorough knowledge of the neighborhood’s life. Whenever one of us needed a carrot for borscht or a hand to move a drunk out of the elevator, the help arrived at once.
Something must have seriously gone wrong in the past two decades. Russians have turned inward. Their attention hardly extends to their neighbors’ lives, much less politics. Political scientists even have a name for this social phenomenon in Russia. They call it a “divorce” between the government and the people. Turnout in last weekend’s elections was 62 percent, the lowest in years. When last September my school friend was killed by her drunken husband, I found out that her neighbors paid no attention to her screams, and as for the state, it did not offer a single shelter for domestic-violence victims to call or run to. And just last month I was struck by the ice-cold indifference of the neighbors who lived next door to a scientist fond of turning the remains of dead girls into dolls.
The most painful is the news that Katia Popova’s case is not unique for the city of Nizhny Novgorod. It was the third case of relatives isolating family members in just this neighborhood of my hometown. In March 2010, authorities discovered a 13-year-old boy, Zhenia Barsukov, who could not speak human language, ate oranges without peeling them, and walked around his apartment naked.
Last March, Viacheslav Kazistov, from the building next to Popova’s, heard somebody screaming: “Save me! Save me!” in the apartment next door. When police arrived and they broke down the door, Kazistov said, they discovered “a paralyzed skeleton” on the floor. All the man had in the room to eat was half a loaf of dry bread and two bottles of water. Yuri Baushev’s own brother kept him locked inside the apartment for almost a year, in hopes of becoming the apartment’s only owner if his brother starved. “I could never imagine that somebody was dying of hunger on the other side of my wall,” Kazistov, a 30-year-old economist, told me. “People became indifferent to each other’s fates even more after the GAZ automotive factory fired more than 3,000 people in our district; everybody is busy with their own survival,” Kazistov said. After saving his neighbor’s life, Kazistov volunteered to help the Popovas; he is one of a few friends Katia has recently made.
Before him, a few social-service workers tried to see how the Popovas were doing. But Katia’s mother called them bad names from behind the locked door, and they quit their efforts to help the Popovas. Last year the city turned their electricity off because of unpaid bills. Every morning at 5, before leaving to sweep or shovel snow off the street, Anna secured the three locks on the first door and three locks on the second iron door, leaving Katia in the dark one-room apartment. “It was useless to ask her to leave the door open—no matter what I said, she would still do her dirty business,” Katia says.
The girl passed her childhood years reading the magazines and books that her mother found in trash containers or bought for her. Katia’s job was to sort through the garbage that her mother brought home in large volumes. “Most of my day I sit in the kitchen tearing up pieces of cardboard for my mother to sell at 1.5 rubs [4 cents] per kilogram or washing bottles, so Mother could sell them for 20 kopecks [$0.006] each,” Katia tells me about her daily routine in the dim kitchen. The radio spoke to her about Russian politics; Katia says she “closely followed” the war in Georgia in 2008. Of books, she most of all liked Carl Jung. “I developed a strong interest in people’s neuroses and psychological disorders. From books on psychology I learned how to identify whether somebody tells a lie, or how people make friends. To Katia’s deep regret, her pet rat recently died—the dead body is still lying in the kitchen’s dark corner.
Later, when her mother had gone to work, I spoke to Katia on the phone, and she shared a long story of her world shrinking bit by bit. “The windows were gone in 2003. Some boys threw stones in the glass, so my mother decided it would be better not to have windows.” Katia’s voice grows quieter, and she almost whispers to me: “If nobody abused us, everything would have been different.” Boys at school verbally humiliated her so badly that even now, almost a decade later, the tall, stout woman blushes and drops her head every time somebody asks her about that hostile period. To stop going to school was her own decision, she says. It was not that she did not like her life, Katia says, trying to comfort me.
Now Katia says she sees a little more freedom in her life. Volunteers paid the electricity bill, and authorities promised to put in windows in her apartment. And her new friends have taken Katia out shopping, and they have visited a monastery. “Though every time I step out, I still feel as if that is not me outside this apartment. The real me feels safe and comfortable only inside these walls,” she says. When I ask her what to bring next time I visit, she asks for a poster of the band the Cure: “Their music in my player made my dark days a bit brighter,” she says.