Photo Essay: The People Who Thought Their Lives Couldn’t Get Any Worse—Until Russia Invaded

Igor, 49, of, Simferopol, has spent 19 years in prisons and even longer doing drugs. Image by Misha Friedman. Crimea, 2014.

Ira 38, and Yuri, 47 (in the bed), have been a couple since 2000 and drug users about equally long. They spent two years on substitution therapy in Simferopol, the Crimean capital, before the program closed with the Russian annexation. Since May, they have been in Kyiv. An NGO pays their rent and a daily subsistence allowance, but it’s not clear how long that will continue. Ira had worked for five years at the post office in Simferopol, and was up for a promotion. In Kyiv, she is looking for similar work, but has to travel across town every day to pick up a prescription, making it impossible to hold a steady job. Image by Misha Friedman. Crimea, 2014.

Igor, 49, pictured at the top of this piece, is a small-time criminal: “I’ve never lifted anything heavier than a wallet,” he told Friedman. He stayed in Crimea after the annexation, saying that he was going to try to turn his life around and stop using drugs. Friedman noticed a tattoo on his left thumb: “I thought at first it said LOVE. He didn’t know what I was talking about. In Russian, it reads ЗЛО (“zlo”)—evil.” Image by Misha Friedman. Crimea, 2014.

Among the roughly 2 million people living in Crimea when Russia annexed it earlier this year were several hundred intravenous drug users. Under Ukraine’s rule, they had been getting substitution therapy—typically, methadone or buprenorphine in place of opiates such as heroin—which is a widely accepted way of treating addiction in much of the world. But it’s illegal in Russia, where even needle-exchange programs to prevent the spread of disease are viewed with suspicion. As a result, drug users in Russia are at very high risk for HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis (TB), and get dumped in hospital TB wards in appalling conditions.

“Intravenous drug users are among the most vulnerable groups in Crimea now,” says photojournalist Misha Friedman. “But international NGOs are wary of taking on the problem because drug users aren’t like ordinary refugees. They’re complicated—very ill adults who’ve often spent decades in prison. Some money reaches them, but nobody knows what to do with them. And they don’t stay in one place like some other refugee groups, but are dispersed.”

Since the annexation, some of these people have stayed in Crimea and tried to wean themselves off drugs. Others have moved to parts of Ukraine still under Kyiev’s control, where they can get substitution therapy. But it’s become much harder for them to obtain their prescriptions and find work. Friedman, who visited Crimea in the summer, returned to Kyiv for Quartz last month and captured the plight of the people who, among all the losers from Russia’s annexation, find themselves at the very bottom of the pile.Quartz Editor Gideon Lichfield

Click here to view the full photo essay in Quartz.