The Living Dead: Why Thousands of Russian Addicts Are Rotting to Death

There is a new drug in Russia, and addicts are using it until their skin falls off.

In the United States, OxyContin addiction is spreading across the country and causing a rash of problems.A powerful narcotic, Oxy’s grip on addicts is so tight it even drives people to murder, as was evidenced last week in Long Island, where an addict’s pharmacy burglary of 8,000 pills left four people dead.

Now the powerful pull of addiction is showing new strength in Russia, where it has reached an unprecedented level of self-destruction by rotting its victims to death in a short period of time.

In Russia, efforts to stunt the flow of Afghan heroin have resulted in a diminished dope supply with higher prices.To some, this may seem like a success, but expensive heroin did not result in fewer junkies.

Instead, Russian heroin addicts are turning to Krokodil – a devastating home-made substitute so addicting users will inject it long beyond the decay of their flesh, until they literally rot to death.Nearly inconceivable, the effects of the drug are horrifying, and so many Russians are using Krokodil it can be seen as approaching a national epidemic.

Desmorphine, a synthetic with similar effects of heroin made from house-held chemicals like codeine (available over the counter in Russia), iodine, lighter fluid, gasoline, and industrial cleaning oil, is street-named Krokodil for the way it literally devours its users (like the mean crocodile).Injection sites turn flesh grey, green and scaly until gangrene skin peels away and bone is exposed; it can lead to amputated limbs.

Photographs of addicts are shocking, to say the least.Exposed bone from wrist to elbow, arms look more like the half-devoured limbs of a zombie than a living human.

Also like the living dead, users can be identified by their smell.Iodine, the flesh-decaying component of Krokodil, causes a scent so pungent Russian drug treatment doctor Artyom Yegrov says “there’s no way to wash it out, all you can do is burn the clothes.”

What’s almost as shocking as the sight of these addicts is the number of them. An estimated 100,000 Russians are using the drug – that’s 100,000 of the walking dead.

The life expectancy of Krokodil addicts is reported to be between one and three years. Recovering Krokodil addict Pavlova told Time nearly all the friends she used Krokodil with are now dead.“For some it led to pneumonia, some got blood poisoning, some had an artery burst in their heart, some got meningitis, others simply rot,” Pavlova said. The drug is so morbid Russian filmmakers titled their documentary on Krokodil “Half-Death.”

Brain-damaged from an incredible six years of use, Pavlova has developed a speech impediment, a vacant gaze, and poor motor skills.“She’ll try to walk forward and instead jolts back into something.So we try to be gentle with her,” said her recovery house manager Andrei Yatsenko.

Pavlova entered the treatment house when, after weeks of Krokodil binging, she developed gangrene around injection sites on her groin.Blood poisoning was setting in, so she fled to the hospital, where she accepted an offer from Pentecostals inviting addicts to rehab.

As should already be clear, life on Krokodil is not a romantic, doped-out existence, but quite the opposite.

Once users have compiled enough codeine, lighter fluid, industrial cleaning product, and iodine, the thirty-minute cooking process creates enough Krokodil for about a 90-minute high.Most addicts thus spend all their time cooking and shooting, cooking and shooting, until enough skin falls away that they die.

Users say the chemicals in Krokodil actually make it feel unclean, unlike its purer cousin, heroin. Thus, most users turn to Krokodil when heroin becomes unaffordable and then return to dope when they have their funds in check. But while Krokodil is prominent in cities like Tver, it is spreading rapidly in poorer, rural areas.

Krokodil takes understanding the power of substance dependency to a whole new level.As addicts watch abscesses (the inevitable result of missing a vein) ooze and their skin rot before their eyes but continue to use, the addictive nature of the drug should not be shocking.

Desmorphine, the active ingredient in Krokodil, “causes the strongest levels of addiction, and is the hardest cure,” said Dr. Yegrov.

For one Krokodil-withdrawing addict,U.K. newspaper The Independent reported“horrendous withdrawal symptoms that included seizures, a 40-degree temperature, and vomiting."  Lucky to be alive, he nonetheless experienced some horrendous casualties of Krokodil, including hepatitis C and the loss of 14 teeth after his gums rotted away.

“With heroin withdrawal, the main symptoms last for five to 10 days. After that there is still a big danger of relapse but the physical pain will be gone. With Krokodil, the pain can last up to a month, and it's unbearable. They have to be injected with extremely strong tranquilizers just to keep them from passing out from the pain,” Dr. Yegrov said.

The ingredients necessary to prevent the crippling withdrawal are easy for users to find.Codeine is available over the counter in Russia, and talk about making the drug available on a prescription-only basis has generated heavy lobbying by pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies, some of which make 25% of their profit selling the tablets.

Like OxyContin sales in the U.S. skyrocket with increasing abuse, codeine sales have been on the rise in correlation with Krokodil use.“Over the past five years, sales of codeine-based tablets have grown by dozens of times,” said head of Russia’s Drug Control Agency Viktor Ivanov, “It’s pretty obvious that it’s not because everyone has suddenly developed headaches.”

Codeine’s high availability, matched with heroin’s unattainability, means desperate addicts can quickly switch to Krokodil to grab a fix, and quickly relapse when feeling weak. With heroin already a huge problem in Russia, which accounts for 1/3 of global deaths from the drug, Krokodil has huge potential to spread to many more desperate addicts.

As thousands of addicts turn to Krokodil and use until their skin falls off, it is becoming clear that no punishment or regulation can tame the beast of addiction.What they need is treatment, and fast – before thousands more rotting Russians die.

Kristen Gwynne is a freelance writer and editorial assistant at Alternet.