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Afghanistan's ready supply of opium means 1.5 million Russians are addicted to heroin.
The FSKN’s Viktor Ivanov is kept busy by Russia’s Afghan heroin addiction. In May, he visited the Spaso Preobrazhenski Rehabilitation Center while we were there.
It was a whirlwind event. He swept in with his entourage in a shiny black Land Rover and was greeted by the local patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. During his 45-minute visit he was whisked around the grounds by Novopashin, performing a sped-up version of the stations of the cross.
Former addicts stood waiting at the positions Novopashin had assigned them: in the wood working shop, near the rabbit pens, beside a chirping clutch of ducklings. Yuri Frolov stood beside a saddled horse. When Ivanov passed by, Novopashin told Frolov to get up and ride. There were oohs and ahhs from the crowd. Novopashin had turned an urban heroin addict into a Russian version of John Wayne.
After Ivanov's visit, Novopashin's center received government "certification.” That means it will receive about 10,000 rubles ($350) each month per recovering addict. It also means the Russian government can say they are doing something to fund rehabilitation.
But according to Pavel Aksenov, executive director of the Russian Harm Reduction Network (ESVERO) in Moscow, the government’s strategy to bolster drug rehab is putting the cart before the horse.
“A certification program isn’t going to solve the problem,” he said on a recent morning in his office in downtown Moscow. “First you have to focus on creating an effective system of social rehabilitation.”
According to Aksenov, such a system does not yet exist in Russia. For the most part, state-sponsored rehabilitation is a quick affair. It involves cleaning an addict’s blood and putting him back on the street again. Rehabilitation requires time. Add to that the fact that methadone treatment, used to reduce opium dependency, is illegal in Russia.
Moreover, there is no system of quality control in Russia to determine the effectiveness of the nearly 400 private drug rehabilitation centers that exist here.
Aksenov says that in United States, and closer to home in Belarus and Ukraine, rehabilitation centers use what is known as an Addiction Severity Index to determine the effectiveness of an addict’s rehabilitation.
Recovering addicts are judged on whether they are taking medication for diseases like HIV (remember 33-year-old Alexei Vanchikov), or whether they have gone back to school or have managed to hold down a job.
At Novopashin’s center, recovery is a matter of faith. And there are no formal means for determining how effective his methods are. At least six addicts we met there had left, relapsed and returned.
According to Human Rights Watch, state-run rehabilitation centers exist in only 26 of Russia’s 85 regions. CCIR could only identify four free state-run rehabilitation centers in the country.
In June, Yuri Frolov returned home to Kostroma for his mother's birthday.
Vadim Hachaturov, a former heroin addict who manages the rehab center near Stravropol, warned Yuri that it was too soon to go home. The risk of falling into old habits was too great, Hachaturov said.
But Frolov left anyway.
We met up with Frolov in Moscow on his way to Kostroma in June. We walked along the Moscow River on a sunny afternoon. Frolov was happy to be going home, to see his mom, to spread his wings after spending almost half a year in rehab. He also spoke openly about his fear of using again. He said he might travel with his mother to a nearby lake for a vacation, away from the temptations of his friends and former acquaintances who are still using.
We said goodbye in front of the metro station, and as we turned to walk away, my wife told me she had a bad feeling that Frolov was going to start using again.
In the weeks that followed our brief visit, we tried to call, but were unable to reach Frolov. Finally, we called Hachaturov in Stravropol. He told us that Frolov had started shooting up again. His mother had called the center in tears, asking him what she should do. Hachaturov was furious, thinking that Frolov had gone and proved him right.
For more on this story, visit the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting.