MOSCOW - They flutter through the Kursky railway station like flocks of dirt-smudged pigeons, sniffing glue fumes out of plastic bags, begging for money from strangers and scattering as police approach waving nightsticks.
These are Russia's lost children, part of an army of millions of homeless boys and girls who have fled unhappy homes or escaped from the harsh discipline in state orphanages. Mobs of them, some as young as 5, haunt the capital's subway stations, highway underpasses and railroad terminals.
The Kursky railway station, just east of central Moscow, is home to about 150 children who have drifted here from all over the former Soviet empire. By day, they roam the city, begging in subways and stealing what they can from shops. At night, they return to the station.
It is a filthy, disease-ridden and violent home. Some of the boys and girls work as prostitutes. Some have contracted hepatitis or HIV. After a day of begging, some wander holding bags containing glue over their mouths to get high. Others discreetly inhale the fumes under their coats, hiking their collars.
Station police occasionally administer what seem to be random beatings. Early Friday, two uniformed officers cornered a boy of about 16 in a station entrance. One slammed the boy with a truncheon as more than a dozen bystanders watched. Then the police led the youth away.
The children's begging and stealing create problems for passengers, said another policeman, who would not give his name. "They say that we beat them and take money from them," he said, "but we don't."
Why do the children stay? "The police beat them here," said Pavel Novikov, an evangelical Christian who feeds homeless children at the railway station. "But they don't get beaten as often as in the shelter."
Sasha Vasiliyev, 17, said he came to the railway station in 1991, at age 6, after his parents died. When he was 10, authorities sent him to an orphanage in his hometown outside Moscow. He stayed about 18 months. The routine was boring and the discipline harsh: As punishment, the director sometimes forced children to stand shirtless in the winter cold.
Vasiliyev returned to the station. The police periodically try to evict him. "They push me out into the street, even if it is minus-30 outside, and they say, 'Never come back here!'" he said. But he returns.
Jan Korin, 8, arrived a few months ago from Belarus. He keeps his 50-cent tubes of plastic cement in a plush yellow bag that hangs on a string around his neck. The glue has made his gaze wander and his movements jerky. He cockily claimed he was happy sleeping in his nook, a space on the concrete floor next to the gates to the subway.
Where is his mother? "I miss her," he said, tears making his brown eyes seem larger. "Though my mother sometimes hit me, I still love her."
Jan's older sister, Tatiana, loitered in the station's underground shopping arcade, her face bathed in the light of a video game. She claims to be 16; her brother said her 13th birthday was coming up soon. Asked about her mother, she didn't look up from the video game.
"I don't know where she is," she said. "She doesn't care about us, so why should I care about her? I have a little brother to feed and clothe."
Their prospects are growing worse because of the gentrification of the neighborhood. In November, merchants and city officials ordered the Salvation Army to stop feeding homeless adults out of the back of a truck. In December, police swept through Kursky and other railway stations, rounding up homeless children and detaining them overnight.
"It appeared we were being blamed for the crime rate," said Gordon Lewis, the Salvation Army's coordinator for social services in Moscow.
Now there are rumors that another sweep is imminent, inspired by President Vladimir V. Putin's declaration last week that Russia's efforts to solve the problem of "the neglected" have failed. Putin said in a letter to his prime minister, "Homeless children and the criminalization of teen-agers has reached threatening proportions."
His aides have promised a series of reforms to be introduced in coming weeks.
Advocates for the homeless say that at least 10,000 children live on the capital's streets and that at least 90 percent are from outside Moscow. Only three shelters, with a total capacity of several hundred, are willing to accept them. One of the shelters is reserved for minors charged with committing serious crimes; the others are officially limited to use by legal residents of Moscow.
Dzera Oxana, a lawyer who works with homeless children, says a police lieutenant tried to find places for some of the children rounded up in the sweep last month. "She took the list of orphanages and called all of them," Oxana said. "All of them told her to go to hell."
Lawmakers have passed many measures to protect homeless and runaway children, but critics say that responsibility for the children is divided among agencies lacking the expertise, money and desire to act.
"I worked in a district administrative office whose task it was to deal with homeless children," said Lelit Karagyan, who now runs a group home. "Speaking honestly, the only thing they do is to fill in a lot of forms."
Moscow officials have promised to open seven new orphanages within two years. But activists caution that the orphanages will be little help without better rehabilitation programs and more trained social workers. And authorities, they say, should change their regulations to make it easier to open group homes and place children in foster care.
"Why do they run away from orphanages? Because of the way they are treated," Novikov said. "There are very few orphanages where they express love for the children."
Twice a week, Novikov loads chicken soup, bread and tea into the back of an old Land Rover and drives to the station parking lot. Authorities do not welcome him there. Police have twice detained him and told him to stop feeding the children. Novikov, who receives financial support from a network of Christian churches, has refused. He can't forget the shock of his first night at the station last fall.
He had come determined to preach. He quickly realized that more than words were needed. "The children were intoxicated, and they were hungry," he said. "And after that moment, I decided that I had to feed them, to give them a place to stay and to eat. Just to express God's care for them."
At 2:30 a.m. Friday, the Land Rover rolled into the parking lot. Children raced out of the station. Novikov and two friends prayed in the front seat, then climbed out and served food to the growing crowd.
Novikov noticed that one of the regulars - Ivan Chernov, 16 - was missing. Friends said he had been so badly beaten by police that he couldn't get up out of bed.
Novikov carried a bag of food through the rail yards, across a garbage dump and over a concrete wall to Chernov's home - a hut built of cardboard and old bedsheets in the roofless ruins of a building. The teen-ager lay under a pile of filthy blankets; the temperature was 26 degrees.
Inside the railway station, none of the children seems to think much about what might happen tomorrow. That would be too painful. "They are not killing us outright," said Vasiliyev, the longtime station resident. "They are killing us gradually."
Yelena Ilingina of The Sun's Moscow bureau contributed to this article.