For the past nine years, 23 year old Katia Popova had not directly seen sunlight and had not been out of the apartment she shared with her mother. Nine years ago, Katia’s mother decided the outside world was too harsh and cruel, and so forced her daughter to stay in the apartment filled with cats and rats and garbage. It wasn’t until utility workers accidentally discovered Katia that she was finally released.
“To save her from heroin addicts, lesbians, and rape,” her mother, a street sweeper whom the neighbors called Mad Anna, nailed iron sheets and metal bars over the windows and locked her daughter inside their apartment, on the ground floor of a nine-story building in Avtozavod, an industrial district of Nizhny Novgorod, a city with a population of almost 1.5 million. Katia was 13 when that happened. Her school didn’t care that a seventh grader had suddenly gone missing, nor did Popova’s neighbors seem too interested in whether Mad Anna’s daughter was alive.
As I was visiting Katia and Anna’s dark apartment, where fear and despair lurked, a door next to the Popovas’ opened and a young, good-looking woman came out into the hallway for a smoke. The biggest complaint this neighbor, Anna Avramenko, a single mother working at the local car factory, had was about “the armies of cockroaches deployed” to her apartment from Popova’s. “All I do when I come to smoke here is squash their fat roach beasts. Once I saw Mad Anna bring her daughter a rat in a cage—they both lost their roofs!” Avramenko said, using a Russian expression for insanity. Corrupt Moscow politicians, this month’s parliamentary elections, or even a young girl locked on the other side of the wall were “a much less important issue” in her life than the roaches. “I just wish I could grab my own daughter and escape from this rotting hell,” Avramenko said.
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