The home-made drug that Oleg and Sasha inject is known as krokodil, or “crocodile”. It is desomorphine, a synthetic opiate many times more powerful than heroin that is created from a complex chain of mixing and chemical reactions, which the addicts perform from memory several times a day. While heroin costs from £20 to £60 per dose, desomorphine can be “cooked” from codeine-based headache pills that cost £2 per pack, and other household ingredients available cheaply from the markets.
It is a drug for the poor, and its effects are horrific. It was given its reptilian name because its poisonous ingredients quickly turn the skin scaly. Worse follows. Oleg and Sasha have not been using for long, but Oleg has rotting sores on the back of his neck.
“If you miss the vein, that’s an abscess straight away,” says Sasha. Essentially, they are injecting poison directly into their flesh. One of their friends, in a neighbouring apartment block, is further down the line.
“She won’t go to hospital, she just keeps injecting. Her flesh is falling off and she can hardly move anymore,” says Sasha. Photographs of late-stage krokodil addicts are disturbing in the extreme. Flesh goes grey and peels away to leave bones exposed. People literally rot to death.
Unlike heroin, where the hit can last for several hours, a krokodil high only lasts between 90 minutes and two hours, says Zhenya. Given that the “cooking” process takes at least half an hour, being a krokodil addict is basically a full-time job.
“I remember one day, we cooked for three days straight,” says one of Zhenya’s friends. “You don’t sleep much when you’re on krokodil, as you need to wake up every couple of hours for another hit. At the time we were cooking it at our place, and loads of people came round and pitched in. For three days we just kept on making it. By the end, we all staggered out yellow, exhausted and stinking of iodine.”
In Tver, most krokodil users inject the drug only when they run out of money for heroin. As soon as they earn or steal enough, they go back to heroin. In other more isolated regions of Russia, where heroin is more expensive and people are poorer, the problem is worse. People become full-time krokodil addicts, giving them a life expectancy of less than a year.
Zhenya says every single addict he knows in his town has moved from heroin to krokodil, because it’s cheaper and easier to get hold of. “You can feel how disgusting it is when you’re doing it,” he recalls. “You’re dreaming of heroin, of something that feels clean and not like poison. But you can’t afford it, so you keep doing the krokodil. Until you die.”
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