By Marc Bennets for Newsweek. Updated | “I may be small, but I am strong,” says Anya Alimova, a 29-year-old with green hair, as she picks up a heavy backpack bulging with syringes, condoms, HIV tests and other related items. It’s a snowy winter’s evening in east Moscow, and Alimova and her co-worker, Lena Plotnikova, will spend the next few hours distributing these potentially lifesaving supplies to some of the Russian capital’s tens of thousands of drug users.
Both women work at the Andrei Rylkov Foundation for Health and Social Justice, a small, nongovernmental outreach organization that has around a dozen staff members. Russia is in the grip of an HIV epidemic, with new infections soaring among intravenous drug users, but this tiny organization is the sole source of free, clean needles in Moscow. Although the Kremlin has recently awarded generous grants to organizations such as the Night Wolves, an ultranationalist motorcycle gang, the Andrei Rylkov Foundation has not received a single kopek in state funding. “Sometimes we get yelled at by members of so-called patriotic movements, who believe we are undermining Russia’s spiritual values or something,” says Plotnikova, a slight, bespectacled 20-year-old.