CHELYABINSK, Russia — Young men with sores on their arms shuffled up the stairs of a dark, underground shopping arcade and into the daylight to plop dingy wads of rubles into the drug dealers' hands. The dealers casually reached into their pockets or plastic shopping bags and handed over tablets of synthetic morphine, a type also used as a horse tranquilizer, and paper packets that appeared to contain heroin.
Across the street in this gray, post-Soviet industrial town, two Russian policemen sat in a faded wooden booth, and a couple more sat in a police truck outside. They didn't seem the least bit interested.
A police officer walked by but didn't interrupt the transaction. Asked whether he was worried, one of the dealers, a young man with a white driving cap tipped down over his eyes, leaned back against a railing and giggled.
In Miass, a small town west of Chelyabinsk near the foothills of the Ural Mountains, Elena Shapkovskaya wasn't laughing. She works at the No. 40 pharmacy and often has to call the police when heroin addicts crowd the shop and begin shooting up in plain view.
"Sometimes instead of calling the police, we call an ambulance, because they're lying on the floor," Shapkovskaya said, looking down at the tile floor beneath her feet.
Drugs have become yet another scourge of post-communist Russia, with millions addicted to heroin and an annual death toll reportedly in the tens of thousands from overdoses and other drug-related causes.
- Russian authorities seized 2.4 metric tons of heroin in 2006, about three times the seizures in 2002, according to United Nations figures. That's a small fraction of the estimated 60 metric tons that are thought to arrive in Russia from Afghanistan each year.
- In 2008, Russian officials said that the country had more than 5 million frequent drug users, up from 3 million in 2002. U.N. estimates are lower — drug usage is notoriously hard to calculate — but they indicate that the percentage of Russians who use opiates is the highest in the world for countries with populations larger than 100 million. Opiate usage in the United States, which receives very little Afghan opium or heroin, is about one-third of Russia's.
- Russia had some 940,000 HIV-positive adults and children in 2007, up from 390,000 in 2001, according to the U.N., and an estimated 80 percent of Russians currently living with HIV were infected by dirty needles. AIDS killed about 40,000 Russians in 2007, but the U.N. says the toll could be as high as 71,000. It was 1,900 in 2001.
"It is difficult to be anything other than pessimistic when it comes to forecasting what the future holds for Russia vis-a-vis heroin abuse and trafficking," said a report last year by the U.N. office on drugs and crime.
Russian officials publicly blame America for the plague because almost all the heroin comes from U.S.-dominated Afghanistan, but they won't discuss in detail how drugs move through their country. They've yet to devise a comprehensive plan to address the issue. Trials of high-level traffickers are conducted in secret. Even midlevel police officials usually don't talk, and when they do, it's privately and away from their workplaces.
'THE AMERICANS HAVE DONE NOTHING'
Chelyabinsk, a city of more than 1 million in southwest Russia, once was known as Tankograd — "tank city" — for its World War II production of T-34 tanks. It later gained notoriety as the center of a region swamped by radioactive waste from a nearby nuclear-weapons facility.