When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 so did its social services. The result across Russia and Eastern Europe was devastating; by the late 1990s there were an estimated 160,000 homeless children living on the streets of Ukraine, leaving them increasingly vulnerable to sex work, drug addiction, and HIV.
It was around this time that ex-Soviet soldier Gennadiy Mokhenko (nicknamed "Crocodile Gennadiy") started his work, which still continues today. When I first heard about his methods, they struck me as a little unorthodox. He abducts homeless kids off the streets of Ukraine, bundles them into his van, and locks them in his rehab center, Pilgrim, where they are forced to detox from whatever drugs they're addicted to.
While he clearly has good intentions, there's one question that's kind of inescapable: should he really be taking children against their will? For the past three years filmmaker Steve Hoover has been in Ukraine following Crocodile Gennadiy for a documentary named after the man himself, which premiered Thursday night at the Tribeca Film Festival. I had a chat with Steve about his time with Gennadiy.
VICE: Hi, Steve. Can you tell me a bit about the work that Gennadiy does?
Steve Hoover: Something I've realized is that it's always changing. It's very ill-defined. When I first got involved in the story I thought he just worked with children on the streets of Ukraine, but I came to find out that there's a lot more than that. I feel like he works from a moral compass. As you see in the film, police call him and bring children to him. He takes on a social services role; he's a pastor.
Why is drug use among children in Ukraine so prevalent?
When Gennadiy first started his work in 1999, the problems had existed for quite a few years prior to that, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. But I don't think there's a specific reason for it. There's social apathy; kids who were on the street would use drugs to medicate their problems or keep warm; kids come from broken families where their parents have gone to jail or died, and the problem reproduces itself. Gennadiy always felt that social services were inept. They didn't act fast enough—kids that needed help would be stuck in situations that they shouldn't be stuck in. He came across situations that he needed to act on.
Do you think there's a danger in taking the law into your own hands, though? With something like social services, I'd assume you'd need to be trained to a certain degree in order to deal with a situation appropriately.
My perspective on Gennadiy's work is that it's a very complicated situation. I don't want my opinion to influence people before they watch the film. In some situations I thought I knew what was happening, and that maybe it's OK, but in other situations I wasn't so sure. The times that we filmed him only represented a handful of people and situations, so it's hard to say.
Related: Watch our documentary about Ukraine's Euromaidan protests
One thing that sprung to my mind was the danger of taking people off drugs so quickly, and the health dangers that come with that.
We didn't document anyone that was detoxing over a long period of time. He did mention that the work they do is on very rural farms and he said that they don't use methadone. He didn't give me any other specifics.
What were the children's attitudes toward Gennadiy?
The children were very drawn to Gennadiy. I found that surprising because he's a big guy and he's imposing, with a strong, deep voice. But the kids feel that they can approach him and they were never afraid of him. It was interesting how much respect the people around him seemed to have toward him.
A lot of children must have gone through Pilgrim over the years. Do you know if the majority of these were success stories? Do his methods work?
When I was looking through archival footage there were some kids that I recognized who had been there for ten years and were now healthy adults. According to Gennadiy, there's been around 3,000 children go through Pilgrim, but it's kind of a case by case scenario; some of them have gone on to be reunited with their families, some of the kids died, some of them ran away and would go back on drugs. But some kids had grown up to become great members of Ukrainian society. One girl who was disabled because of the drug use went on to get married and have a baby.
As each kid comes through, they become an investigation for him. He tries to figure out whether they had any identity at all.
Why does he take photos of their track marks when they first come in?
For him, it was documentation to show people. Sometimes if a kid gets better he'd show them the before and after, and the kids would be proud of the photo as they've moved on. I have a book of some of these photos and it is shocking.
You got attacked in Ukraine filming this documentary. What happened?
We decided to go to a pro-Russia rally to film some footage, and we'd been told to be careful, but it was mid-afternoon, so the rally had died down. But people heard us speaking English and they were uncomfortable with that, so we realized it was time to go, but they started throwing stones and it escalated really quickly and a fight broke out—people were spraying tear gas. It was before war had broken out. There was a lot of speculation that there were people at these rallies who caused problems, politically. I can't work out exactly why they took such issue with us. We tried to explain that we weren't making a political film about the conflict.
As the film goes on it takes a more political tone as the situation in Ukraine escalates. Was this an organic progression?
It was something that definitely developed over the course of 2012 to late 2014. But the socioeconomic status of Ukraine has a lot to do with why Gennadiy has been doing what he does. There's an undercurrent of displacement in Ukraine, and how that has directly affected Gennadiy. As [Euromaidan] all developed into a full-grown conflict it changed everybody's life in Ukraine. It was part of his story and everybody else's story.
Gennadiy has received some criticism for chasing fame, or for wishing to be perceived as a hero. Do you think he's vying for attention, and do you think this even matters?
Again, this is something that I'd rather leave for audiences to decide. I hope that the film starts a dialogue about this.
How do you personally think the drug problems among children could be sorted out in Ukraine?
Better regulations. The challenge is that there's so much corruption. Pharmacies were able to sell drugs without prescriptions, and this would remain unchecked. There are laws in place, but these aren't enforced for whatever reason. Sometimes the workers would say that they'd been forced to do it by their bosses. I don't think it necessarily started with the pharmacies early on; it was a street market that completely remained unchecked, but the pharmacies enabled it to continue as they became the dealers.
Have you kept in contact with Crocodile Gennadiy?
It's hard for us to talk because we need a translator—his English is limited, so our conversations can be broken. I've shown him the documentary and he had a very visceral reaction, in a positive way. He washed his face afterwards. There are moments in the film where he goes through intense situations, and he washes his face or his hands in order to clean his soul.
Crocodile Gennadiy is playing in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival through next week. Get tickets here.
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