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Krokodil Tears

They don't call it being "sent to Siberia" for nothing.

They don’t call it being “sent to Siberia” for nothing. We learned this on the first day of our trip to Novokuznetsk, in the western part of this 5.1-million-square-mile region of Russia. In summer, the cold gives way to an overcast, balmy season and the air becomes filled with mosquitoes the size of your little finger. A sense of Soviet-era poverty pervades every facet of life in the city: the mouldering grey housing blocks, the wake-up call of barking wild dogs, the 6 AM hotel breakfasts of Spam and hard-fried eggs speckled with dill. But complaining about minor inconveniences here would be as self-entitled as a visitor to Syria complaining about the noise when the army shoots protestors in the streets. We weren’t here for fun. No one has much fun here. We were filming a documentary about how and why the youth of Novokuznetsk were in the grip of a heroin epidemic, a story squarely at odds with Vladimir Putin’s rebranding of Russian youth as prosperous superhumans living in a shining world of money, success and freedom. In reality, Russia now consumes 21 percent of the world’s heroin. Dope in Novokuznetsk is creamy white in colour, the purest you can buy anywhere. It comes from Afghanistan and, local legend has it, is guided through the border of Kazakhstan by the Taliban as revenge for the 1979 Russian invasion. But Russia’s newest drug problem is entirely self-inflicted. Before we set off on our trip, we heard whispers of a new drug called krokodil—a homemade synthetic opiate stronger than heroin made from petrol and codeine—that gets its reptilian name because it turns addicts’ skin scaly, while eating them from the inside, rotting the brain and limbs before invariably killing
its users. When we got there we found that the krokodil whispers were becoming louder and more insistent, verging on mild yelling, like the sound you make when bolting upright in your bed from a wide-awake nightmare.


WATCH: Siberia: Krokodil Tears. This is Gorkovskaya Street in the industrial district of Zavodskoy, near Novokuznetsk. It’s a row of derelict tower blocks, populated by young people, many of whom are heroin and krokodil addicts. Here a young man vomits after having injected heroin in a mosquito-infested filth pit. It made The Wire’s Hamsterdam look like a quaint garden party. VICE: Hi, Alison. You presented and coproduced this documentary. What did you learn about krokodil?
Alison Severs: The stories we’d heard about krokodil sounded like urban myths, but when we got to Siberia it was a lot more real than we expected. We met krokodil users who had lost the ability to walk or speak properly. And we went to a funeral parlour where they were staple-gunning velvet and gluing crosses on cheap plywood coffins all day to keep up with demand. The undertakers told me that two or three heroin addicts from each community die per week. Why has drug use become so prevalent?
In the 80s, after the invasion of Afghanistan, people started using opium. In the 90s, it was heroin. And now heroin and krokodil. There are various theories about why this happened, depending on who you talk to. One is the so-called narco-terrorism theory—that this is revenge for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Another is simply that it’s impossible to police a border the size of Russia’s. Our security guy, Oleg, told me, “If you really wanted to, you could smuggle an elephant through the border.” We went to the “food market”, the hub of the drug trafficking in the area.
I expected some old ladies sitting on the floor selling gherkins and watermelons with maybe one suspicious-looking truck. But when we arrived, there were 35 trucks from Kazakhstan, and the drivers were openly negotiating with Gypsies. One or two people spotted our cameras and started beeping their horns to warn the Gypsies and drivers. That’s when we knew we had to go. Gangs of men started running at the car.
Maybe they were just saying, “Hi!” but I doubt it. So the market was a bit stressful. How about the rest of the city?
It was very depressing. The inner-city areas are made up of huge housing complexes, which were designed to be close to one another and flats for the factory workers. There is no real city centre. All the imagery surrounding the factories is propaganda: strong men working hard, survival of the fittest, extracting metal for the good of Mother Russia, etc. But young people don’t really want to work in factories anymore. Is it that they don’t want to work, or that there aren’t any jobs?
Before I got there I had assumed that a bad economy and a lack of work was fuelling drug use, but that wasn’t the case. There were jobs, and a lot of heroin addicts were actually functional enough to be employed. But it seems not everyone wants to work. I have no idea what I would do if I grew up here. And now a drug subculture has developed that Russian society isn’t really prepared for.
I don’t think it’s a subculture at all. That implies that only a tiny portion of society is taking heroin, when it’s actually much larger than that. It’s not confined to one area or population like a subculture. There are some areas that are better, some worse, but every neighbourhood has heroin addicts.
But there are people trying to help.
We met a guy called Sasha, whose organisation, Pererozhdenie Rossii (“Regeneration of Russia”), is one of the only rehab organisations that isn’t devoutly religious, although I spotted iconography in their centres. A lot of the churches are Protestant, and the people who run the rehab facilities are often pastors. Some in the Russian Orthodox Church consider these Christian clinics “servants of the Antichrist” because they work actively with heroin users. I’m not an expert on the Bible, but that doesn’t seem very Christian to me. WATCH: Siberia: Krokodil Tears. The ubiquitous turquoise tower blocks from a “nicer” part of town reflected in a puddle. They seemed like good people to me.
They were. Sasha took us to a few of his clinics, including one where people had been clean long enough to talk openly and honestly about their pasts. In Russia, most rehab clinics are independent of the government and don’t provide methadone or other opiates to addicts suffering from withdrawal. It seemed crazy, but they said the cold-turkey method is the best way to get off heroin. And that was where we met your new friend.
She was a 21-year-old girl called Olesya. I really got on with her; maybe we were telepathic—we were communicating without a translator and talking about her garden. What was her story?
When she was 13, her boyfriend got her addicted to hard drugs. She said that she took various drugs, but she also said she did “undesirable” things to obtain money. Heroin was her favourite drug. She was the first person we talked to about krokodil. She said it rotted people’s insides, but that there wasn’t that much difference between krokodil and heroin in terms of the rush. She had relatives who had died from krokodil and heroin. Then we both cried. And then we went for a walk around the Gypsy area.
Sasha took us to a place called Forshtadt to see how common heroin use was among young people. Kids were going about their daily business just totally smacked out. The houses were made of corrugated iron and wood. There were huge barking dogs everywhere, chained up, but they’d still try to jump over the fences to kill you. The floors were covered in needles. Prostitutes were walking up and down the road, taking men into the bushes, and then running off to score a bag of heroin or krokodil. It wasn’t a great place. But then we went somewhere worse.
Zavodskoy. It’s an abandoned estate that has been stripped of everything that could be sold, including pretty much all the metal. As we walked inside one of the buildings, we saw used needles everywhere and someone had spray-painted skulls and crossbones with “AIDS” written above them. We wouldn’t have been able to go there without our friend Alexey, an ex-addict Christian pastor who does rehab and evangelical work with young people. What do you remember about our walk up the staircase into the estate?
I think that was the second time I’ve stepped in human faeces. There were no handrails on the stairs, and they were only loosely supported. It felt like it could fall down at any moment. I remember walking on what felt like two months of rubbish. And that was in somebody’s apartment.
There were mosquitoes everywhere too, huge things with tiger stripes on them. In the apartment we met some kids: Pasha, Seryoga, Dima and Sergey. There was no running water where they lived. WATCH: Siberia: Krokodil Tears. Going to work in a steel factory for low pay every day is fine—because you’re doing it all for these guys. The kids looked about 15 to 17 but were apparently in their late teens and early 20s. And Dima’s face and hands were just open weeping sores.
You asked him why he didn’t go to a doctor, and he said, “Why would I need to see a doctor? There’s nothing wrong with me.” I think taking heroin in Novokuznetsk is seen as a moral choice and the doctors are not necessarily going to help anyone who’s fucked themselves over. Public services are stretched pretty thin as it is. I remember Dima said, “I don’t care if you film me, I’m going to die next week.” He owed money to drug dealers. And then after that we had the scariest bit of the trip.
Through Alexey’s church, we arranged a meeting with some people who had been using krokodil and living in one of their mothers’ flats. They were completely incapacitated after using for a year, and the mother had become their caretaker. They were heroin addicts for a while, then they started to withdraw from heroin—we’ve got footage of them clean, and they looked happy enough. For some reason, they then decided they wanted to learn how to cook krokodil and spent a month and a half looking at recipes on the internet. And while they were cooking the krokodil in the kitchen, they’d yell at her and try to throw her out of her own home.
I guess they finally worked out the formula because when we got to them, post-krokodil, neither could communicate too well. They were like krokodil zombies. There was nothing behind their eyes. And that night we ended up at Alexey’s house for a prayer meeting with some ex-heroin and -krokodil users.
Some people blame the “godless” Soviet years, when religion was considered the “opium of the masses”, for the decline in society and people behaving in an immoral, hedonistic fashion. Now a lot of ex-addicts are becoming students of God, replacing their addictions with religion. Alexey said Soviet Russia gave Satan free rein to kill in the late 80s and early 90s, hence people becoming addicted to heroin. He told me that heroin is a war on souls. And so he wakes up every morning and prepares himself to go to war against the devil. Watch Alison tour the world of krokodil and heroin in Novokuznetsk coming soon. WATCH: Siberia: Krokodil Tears. Our host/coproducer Alison Severs shares a joke with the crew after a day hanging out with teenage krokodil addicts. WATCH: Siberia: Krokodil Tears. Huge German shepherds are chained up everywhere, jumping out at you over fences and causing heart attacks. WATCH: Siberia: Krokodil Tears. A resident at the Forshtadt rehab centre shows off his jailhouse tattoos. WATCH: Siberia: Krokodil Tears. Olesya poses in her bedroom in the Pererozhdenie Rossii rehab centre in Ilyinka. WATCH: Siberia: Krokodil Tears. A teenage patient of a women’s rehab centre—her mother forced her into prostitution at age 15. WATCH: Siberia: Krokodil Tears. Alexey holds a prayer meeting at his apartment. WATCH: Siberia: Krokodil Tears. A scrap-metal collector injects three bags of Afghan heroin into an open wound. WATCH: Siberia: Krokodil Tears. Alison stands in the doorway of a venue used by heroin and krokodil addicts when they’re in the mood to party. WATCH: Siberia: Krokodil Tears. God weeps on the world: a painting at a rehab centre for teenage girls coming off heroin. WATCH: Siberia: Krokodil Tears. Dima and Pasha after injecting a mixture of heroin, eyedrops and pills. WATCH: Siberia: Krokodil Tears. Plywood coffins, held together by staples, piled on top of each other at one of Novokuznetsk’s many funeral parlours. WATCH: Siberia: Krokodil Tears. Two ex-krokodil addicts at their mother’s home. We have never seen anybody with glassier eyes.

WATCH: Siberia: Krokodil Tears.