April 19, 2013

Dina from Parallel Russia

Dina from Parallel Russia

It is just so, that in my capacity as a journalist I usually tell unhappy stories about people’s lives that are almost inevitably destroyed by the government. Happy endings and happy people, on the contrary, are usually discovered by chance.

The story I am about to tell you was brought to me by just one such chance, and with help from my friend Mitya Aleshkovsky – an ex-ITAR-TASS photographer who drastically changed his life after the flood in Krymsk and started a charity project “Nuzhna pomosh” (need help).

Mitya called me and told me about a certain woman from Yaroslavl who is fighting “black realtors” for the benefit of orphaned children. The next time Mitya called, he told me that she managed, without being elected into any public office, to pass certain changes in the provincial legislature. These changes expanded the list of children homes’ residents who are eligible to receive governmental housing. I asked if that woman is a member of United Russia party (since in that case she doesn’t need our help). Not a member. Is she a member of Russian People Front? No. Is she a prominent opposition activist? No, she is just a head of a legal firm and is engaged in legal charity work.

Still having my doubts, I agreed to meet her, and so we went to meet Dina Lapteva.

Dina is a small blonde woman, and she doesn’t look a single bit like a legal shark. For a good fifteen minutes I am trying to get her to tell me something good about herself. About her bleeding heart, about how it came to be that she is fighting a criminal enterprise of black realtors for the past ten years, all for the sake of orphans. Dina is not good at talking about herself, and, instead, tells me fact after fact about other people and their stories.

Her work with orphanages started in 2003, when she was first contacted by social workers. They told her about an orphanage graduate who was a victim of a real estate scam, and ended up selling his apartment at a fraction of a real cost. She decided to help out, and has not been able to stop ever since.

"The government never helped us, the first thing we would always hear from the prosecutors was that the cases were unwinnable. Moreover, our government considers property disputes to be civil cases… For example, an orphan had a room in Yaroslavl, priced at 700 thousand roubles [$23,000]. He was offered to exchange it for a one bedroom apartment in the city of Komsomolsk – a 'ghost city,' with no jobs and little infrastructure. These realtors buy up a lot of run-down property in such cities for R25000 a piece, bribe officials to deem the apartments as habitable and execute the deal. The resulting court cases take up years of time, and the children? They become homeless. Some of the cases have dragged on for 7 years."

Dina is juggling numbers and facts, and they are scary – it would be easier to listen about how much she loves her country, than to hear how governmental officials refuse to accept statements about these crimes, just to avoid the hassles. Or to hear about a prosecutor’s office who criticized the orphanage after one of such case was won in court. Prosecutors were dissatisfied with the fact that the orphanage allegedly allowed the building to become uninhabitable.

Dina is not complaining about anything, and speaks about governmental ignorance without any emotions, but lights up at the mention of the people who helped her.

"As a result, we started working directly with the criminal police. Please say that the policemen of the Dzerzhinsky region are great guys. Sometimes a simple warning is enough to stop these crimes. We report them, and almost immediately police officers call the realtors to the station and have a simple conversation with them – cops mention that there is a statute for fraud and that they are going to be charged with it if they don’t stop. Often it is enough, since we live in a small city, and everyone knows each other. It is much harder to track down grown-up orphanage graduates, but we try to collaborate with the social workers. The most important aspect is to seize the moment when the crooks are beginning to work with their mark. Nowadays, after several notorious court cases, we mostly are averting such crimes, but we still have some cases still requiring work."

"Dina, this is a criminal enterprise. Has anyone threatened to kill you?" I ask.

Dina confesses that she has received threats, and there were some rumors being spread around that she is a criminal herself and is connected to a organized crime syndicate that takes away apartments in Komsomolsk from the conmen. However, she is not big on self pity and quickly switches again to the facts, and tells how she, along with the people in her law firm, spent one and a half months developing adjustments to certain state laws.

"When the bureaucrats understood that we are not going anywhere, and that we are winning, they decided that it would be better to work with us. And we managed to pass some changes into the state legislature, expanding the list of categories of orphans that are eligible for governmental housing. Many orphans have some sort of relatives with some property: aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters. But these relatives are like parents who were stripped of their custodial rights, and after their 18th birthday, the child goes back to the same drug-shack he was taken from. We also made the government give the housing to children, whose parents didn’t ask for their children to be returned to them. Unfortunately, in such cases we often have to fight for housing – bureaucrats look for any excuse not to give it out. It often feels like these kids are nobody’s business. It all changed when we started to sue governmental officials for refusing to give the housing to eligible kids. After that it became easier."

Finally, I ask the question that was on my mind for an hour.

"Dina, why aren’t you a member of some governor’s committee? Not a member of United Russia? Not in Russian People Front? Has no one ever invited you there?"

"No, they haven’t," Dina shrugs, and I understand why – she might be a small woman, but she would never follow orders and would never say how great a certain political figure is just for the sake of an illusion of political stability, if the aforementioned politician hasn’t protected a child from an orphanage, and sent him to a “ghost” town with a single signature under the refusal document. And, on top of that, she doesn’t need it, she has no time to protect the state, she has 22 cases of the orphanage kids in the pipeline.

I don’t even ask why she is not a member of any opposition organization. Dina doesn’t have any time for political games. She lives in some sort of a parallel Russia, where there is no place for all the vague political slogans – “For stability”, “For the people”, “For the homeland”, “For democracy”. There is no place for “nationally-oriented elites” and “lets take back our country”, white and Georgian ribbons. Instead, she lives in the world with kids who are bumming around railway stations because they were cheated out of their homes, and kids who are pushing the first hit of heroine up their veins, because some bureaucrat signed a document refusing them separate housing and ordered the kid to return to the aunt who hasn’t inquired into her nephew’s life for 10 years and is running a drug-shack.

Only when we are saying our goodbyes does Dina open up and tell us something personal.

"I understand that I am taking on the government’s role. But what else is there to do if the government doesn’t care?"

We leave and I start to almost yell at the unfortunate Dmitry Aleshkovsky, that I understood what a public figure should look like, and about the fact that there are dozens of organizations who are working out of municipal buildings, and Dina doesn’t even need an office – she makes do with a conference room in her own legal firm. Also I ask him about what kind of government sends its children to live in “ghost” towns, while declaring numerous children and mother aid programs.

However, this story is not about the government, but about people with bleeding hearts. At this moment, Dina and her lawyers provide full legal coverage to children from two Yaroslavl orphanages. That’s 200 kids. And if she can raise money for another lawyer, she would be able to help kids from three more orphanages. That’s another 500 children a year who will not be thrown into the streets. And Aleshkovsky can explain to you in detail how to help Dina raise money for another lawyer, on his website: nuzhnapomosh.ru 

[Nuzhnapomosh is in Russian only, but you can make a donation to this cause through Paypal ([email protected]). Dmitry Aleshkovsky is a widely-respected photojournalist who has long collaborated with Russian Life. He also happens to be the son of Peter Aleshkovsky, whose novels are published by Russian Life books.] 


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