Not La Dolce Vita: Chocolate Shoplifting Case Highlights Plight Of Russian Orphans

SAMARA, Russia -- Two parliamentary deputies, the rapper Ptakha, and thousands of ordinary Russians have come to the defense of Igor Shamin. The 20-year-old faces nearly 3 years in prison for stealing a 1,600-ruble ($25) box of chocolates.

Even the prosecutors in the case have asked the judge to reconsider his sentence.

In addition, federal Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin announced on October 15 that he was sending a team of investigators out to this Volga River city 850 kilometers southeast of Moscow to look into Shamin's claims that he was beaten by police during his interrogation.

The case has put a spotlight on the unenviable fates of thousands of young Russians released from orphanages each year, usually without housing, jobs, or even basic survival skills. Only 10 percent of the country's orphans live to reach the age of 40, according to an estimate by the nongovernmental aid organization Arifmetika Dobra.

Shamin is not a saint, his defenders say, and he probably has some punishment coming to him.

"Shamin was convicted under Article 161, part 1, which is not considered a major crime," State Duma deputy Aleksandr Khinshtein, one of Shamin's advocates, told RFE/RL, referring to the statute for theft, which carries a maximum sentence of 4 years in prison. "The judge had -- and still has -- the option of giving him a punishment that does not involve the loss of liberty."

Shamin has been held in jail since his arrest in March and remains there awaiting his appeal. The authorities have not allowed him to speak with journalists.

"[Russian channel] REN-TV requested an interview with him," said Anton Rubin, who heads the local volunteer organization Home of Childhood -- which provides assistance to youths released from state-run orphanages when they grow up -- and is helping Shamin. "He was taken to the administration and gently instructed to sign a refusal. They promised to transfer him to a better cell."

Rubin argues that society and the state are as much to blame for Shamin's predicament as he is himself.

Missing Mother

Shamin's rather normal life was interrupted when he was 7 years old and he, his mother, and his stepfather moved to Samara, where his grandmother lived, from the Far Eastern region of Sakha-Yakutia. Soon thereafter, the stepfather abandoned the family, and Shamin's mother took to drinking. His grandmother took him in, and he saw his mother about once a week. But one day, she didn't show up for the meeting. She has been a missing person ever since.

When his grandmother's health began to fail, the state put the now 10-year-old child in an orphanage. At the age of 14, Rubin says, Shamin realized he had no home and would never be returned to his grandmother. He ran away from the orphanage and showed up at Home of Childhood.

"All the orphans know about us," Rubin said. "Of course, the people from the orphanage found him and took him back."

Rubin said that Shamin told him how, after he was returned to the orphanage, the other, older children beat him for running away because the orphanage administration punished them collectively when one child seriously misbehaved. In addition to the beatings, the older children got Shamin addicted to drugs.

"They made him get started," Rubin said. "At first he took up smoking and then all the rest."

That's when Shamin's life really began to come apart. He began stealing, from local stores and from the younger children at the orphanage.

When he was released from the orphanage in 2016, he had a drug habit and nowhere to live. Within months, he received his first drug conviction and was given a one-year suspended sentence and two years of probation.

Shamin told Rubin that one morning around this time he woke up in a strange apartment with the corpses of two of his drug-using friends. He knew then that he had to change his life.

"In 2017, Igor started hanging out here constantly," Rubin said. "He was already getting off the hard drugs…. He said that he didn't want to live that way anymore -- use, sleep, use again. He was pulling himself out."

Shamin was able to enroll in the Samara Vocational College, where about 70 percent of all released orphanage youths end up. Still without anywhere to live, he was placed in a dormitory with some of the same people who had introduced him to drugs in the first place.

"Like most of the orphanage youths, Igor had no choice about what to study. At the college, they just assign you to a dormitory that has a free bed and that's what you study," said Tatyana Push, a volunteer at House of Childhood, explaining that the dormitories are organized by course of study. "I don't even remember what Igor was supposed to be studying, but I know that he had absolutely no interest in it, no enthusiasm for it."

Shamin approached Push about participating in her vocational program. He wanted to become a chef.

Push helped him enroll in cooking classes at a local culinary institute, alongside his college courses, and it turned out he had a real gift for baking.

High Marks

He finished the course with a mark of "excellent" and, with Push's help, applied to the culinary institute's full-time program.

But the institute does not take orphans.

"They have no dormitories," Push explained. "And he would have had nowhere to live…. And he couldn't quit the college because he would have had nowhere to live and would have lost his stipend."

As a result, Shamin stayed at the vocational college, studying for a profession that he did not choose and living with the people who had introduced him to hard drugs.

And then his grandmother was diagnosed with late-stage cancer. It is common for such developments to serve as a serious setback for the socialization of orphans, Push said.

"In Igor's case, his grandmother's illness really knocked him for a loop," she told RFE/RL. "In fact, he stole the chocolates for her."

It happened on the morning of March 26, when Shamin passed a store on his way to visit his grandmother. On a whim, he told Rubin, he stopped and stuffed a box of chocolates worth 1,600 rubles under his jacket. He was stopped by a security guard on the way out of the store, and the police were called.

Although he was quickly released and no charges were filed, Shamin found himself in trouble again a few days later. He and a friend were wandering through the city on an aimless, drunken stroll. They allegedly attempted to steal a car and, when that failed, tried to steal a bicycle. The owner of the bike caught them in the act. He later told police that one of the would-be thieves threw a rock at him.

Shamin was arrested and taken to a police precinct. According to Rubin, Shamin said police beat him to get him to confess to throwing the stone. He signed the confession.

That's when prosecutors learned about the incident with the chocolate and opened a case, even though police had determined there was "insufficient evidence of a crime." Before he was transferred to pretrial detention, Shamin signed a paper -- he says under duress -- claiming he had no complaints about his treatment.

However, when he was admitted to pretrial jail, officials noted "bodily injuries" on his admission form.

The trial dragged on for months, despite the fact that Shamin admitted his guilt and that no representatives of the store ever appeared. The judge found Shamin guilty and -- taking into consideration his other brushes with the law -- sentenced him to 2 years and 7 months in prison.

The case immediately attracted attention. More than 86,000 people have signed an online petition calling for a lighter sentence. Duma deputies Sergei Shargunov and Khinshtein joined the chorus of support. The rapper Ptakha hired a lawyer, Alima Bishenova, to join Shamin's defense team.

'Prison, Alcoholism, Suicide, Prostitution'

The judge has not yet set a date to hear Shamin's appeal.

Shamin also faces additional charges in connection with the alleged attempted car and bicycle thefts.

Aid volunteer Push says there are no reliable statistics on the numbers of people released from orphanages who end up facing criminal charges.

"They are being tried constantly," she told RFE/RL. "It is generally said that only 10 percent of them survive in society until the age of 30. For the rest -- prison, alcoholism, suicide, prostitution.”

“Igor's is an atypical story,” Push said. “Children who remember that they were once loved are more traumatized and vulnerable. But you can work with them because they have the experience of love."

Written by RFE/RL Senior Correspondent Robert Coalson and based on reporting by Fyodor Slyusarev, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service