ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Russia's second city mixes ornate magnificence and cruel poverty. Vyacheslav Rasner straddles the extremes — becoming an unexpectedly popular tour guide after surviving a decade of homelessness.
With his full white beard and head of messy hair, the 68-year-old Rasner looks like he could have stepped from one of Dostoevsky's accounts of St. Petersburg's lower depths. But his erudition and affection for the city shine through.
Each day, Rasner takes up his post outside the Admiralteiskaya subway station at 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m., waiting for clients who want him to lead them around part of the city's main avenue, Nevsky Prospekt. Sometimes he gets as many as 30 people for a single tour.
Rasner's excursion mainly covers the detailed histories of about 15 lesser-known buildings next to each other along the avenue. It's a good education for visitors who have already seen the city's more-renowned sights. But many tourists who join Rasner's tours are mainly excited about his personal story.
Alexander Kazhayev, 28, who traveled to St. Petersburg from Penza, about 800 kilometers away, said he came to see the man whose trajectory has become well known to Russians via the internet.
"I am proud of that man, who is already a legend now, because he is not begging with an outstretched hand but instead makes his living while sharing his valuable knowledge with other people. All this tour experience is so unusual and emotional," Kazhayev said.
"Many people work as city guides, but this man really comes from underground. He is special, and it is obvious that he likes what he does," said another visitor, Viktoria Volosnova.
Rasner used to work as a geography and biology teacher, and freelanced on weekends as a city guide. Then, at age 57, he lost his space in a communal apartment due to a real estate scheme. For about 10 years after that, he lived at a deserted construction site in central St. Petersburg, also taking care of stray dogs and cats.
He said the most difficult part of that life was the long, cold winters and chilly springs. He didn't suffer much from hunger, because he says there were always kind people who helped with food.
At some point, Rasner decided to get back to his city-guide work experience, changing his situation both financially and socially.
"My idea is that I should share the knowledge about my city with other people," he told The Associated Press. "When people are in a hard situation, like they lose their home, they should still stay optimistic and they should act. Acting is life. They should invent something to change the situation."
Rasner's popularity as a guide grew after a volunteer at a private charity for the homeless, Nochlezhka (Night Shelter), created a social-media group about him on Vkontakte, Russia's popular analogue to Facebook.
About a year ago, a woman whom Rasner called his "fan" helped him find a home at a social services building.
Some habits from his homeless years seem to have lingered. Although he now has a spacious two-bedroom apartment that he shares with a neighbor and two cats, it is messy and malodorous.
At the same time, he seems almost obsessively punctual, sticking to a daily routine, including visits to the place where two kind women used to feed him for years, and still do.
Alexander Voronov, a social work expert at Nochlezhka, said Rasner's case helps counter negative stereotypes about the homeless.
"Usually, people think that homeless people are lazy, addicted to alcohol or drugs, have no education and are non-cultural. However, Rasner practices the creative work of a tourist guide, and has a lot of knowledge about the city and its architecture," Voronov said, adding that Nochlezhka's clients have also included former opera singers, writers, marketing experts and business executives.
People often can't imagine how vulnerable they are to the up and downs of fate, Voronov said.
"There are situations when everything collapses at one moment: People lose their job, lose their real estate property due to some deceit, lose their social ties. Their return to normal life is a matter of their psychological strength, ability to adapt and preferably help from outside," Voronov said.