Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Babooshkas and the "beggars' mafia"

I received a comment to my short post about the old women I see begging ('Babooshkas') . I was going to write a comment in response, but my reply was getting rather lengthy, so I thought another post might be warranted. 

The writer noted that much of the money collected by the old women goes to a beggars' mafia. 

I’m going to have a closer look at this notion of a beggars' mafia, as frankly I think it’s something of an urban myth. I have heard this same story in almost every country I have visited where there are beggars, from India and Morocco, to Peru and Namibia. Whenever I have pressed people for more information I am told its common knowledge, ie hearsay. I’ve googled the subject (for what it’s worth) and it’s the same story,  people saying  ‘I’ve heard that…’, but rarely is any real evidence presented.

When we arrived in Moscow we were briefed about potential hazards to our safety. We were advised that there is organised crime operating in Moscow (mafia if you like) but that expats like us, and tourists, are such small fry that we won’t be bothered. 

If we aren’t of interest to organised crime, I find it hard to imagine that an old woman getting a few of my cast off kopeks is going to be a serious source of income for crime bosses. Even if an old woman managed to rake in 100 roubles an hour (which from my observation is highly unlikely) and sat there for 10 hours, she’d still only make the equivalent of about $30 for the day. I couldn’t see Al Capone getting too excited. 

I will accept that old women collecting money may be subject to petty thuggery and intimidation. I also expect that a beggar who has a bit of turf would become possessive of it – that’s human nature.

I am also aware of the social issues attached to giving to beggars - I won't give to children or people who look like they could work.  But I am talking about elderly women here.

Now let’s have a quick look at the cost of living and social welfare. The average old age pension was 7,377 roubles a month (about $250 Aus) in 2011. Moscow is not a cheap place to live. On Mercer’s  2011 ranking it was rated the fourth most expensive city in the world. Also around 60% of the men smoke – there is a high mortality rate among males. Put all this together and you have a lot of old women living alone and in serious poverty.

I have no doubt that the women I see are cold and poor. Of all ways to generate an income, begging is the most humiliating. No one would do it without good reason. And yes, they may well be ‘professional beggars’, as the writer of the comment observed. But it may be that there's no other way for them to make any money. 

So I will continue to give the odd bit of change to these poor souls, beggars' mafia or no.

Finally, what I really think is that these beggars' mafia stories are used by people to justify to themselves their own lack of generosity and charity.


  1. Colin, I believe your last statement summed it up perfectly. By the way, I am the 'other' C.K.
    Thoroughly enjoying your blog!

  2. Man, these stories are true. And they earn loads plus its a huge criminal net and not just one "babushka" controlled by russian version of Al Capone. Its a structure that involves MILLIONS beggars across ALL RUSSIAN CITIES so they actually get a lot of money. They mostly use illegal immigrants who desperately need job and trust me those beggars earn enough. Plus if you still have any doubts google "why beggars children always asleep"