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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Down To Subsistence

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 8 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Nearly three out of every four Russians now grow some or all of their own food, a measure of the ways in which they are attempting to cope with their ever-increasing impoverishment.

That figure, one that gives a face to Russian poverty, comes from a U.S. Information Agency-sponsored survey of more than 2,000 residents of the Russian Federation.

Conducted in September-October 1998 and released last month, this poll not only helps to answer "just how bad" poverty in Russia now is but equally importantly undercuts some assumptions about how Russians are dealing with their economic difficulties.

The poll's findings about subsistence farming are perhaps the most striking. More than half of all Russians -- some 55 percent -- currently grow approximately half or more of their food in private gardens, at their dachas, or on other plots of land.

Only 27 percent, the poll found, do not grow any of the food they consume -- and that in a country whose population remains more than 70 percent urban.

But that is just one of the ways Russians are trying to cope at a time when only 50 percent of Russian adults are employed, and only one in four of those who are employed are being paid on a more or less regular basis.

Not surprisingly, many Russians are turning to family and friends. Some 57 percent of those polled had borrowed money and another 52 percent had accepted assistance of one kind or another from family or friends in the six months prior to the poll.

But most expressed fear that this source may be drying up. Fewer than 40 percent said they assumed they could count on this source of alternative income if times become even worse.

Russians are not turning to two potential sources of income that many have assumed they are using to keep afloat.

As the USIA report notes, "contrary to popular accounts, the substitution of barter for wares overall is not that prevalent." And workers not paid on time are not making money "in a flourishing second economy."

With regard to barter, the survey found that in the six months prior to the poll only 27 percent of those working had received goods in lieu of wages and that in half of these cases, that was a one or only two-time event.

And the survey found such wage substitutes are doing little to help those not being paid on a regular basis. Some 35 percent of workers who have not been paid or paid more than a month late "never receive payment in kind," the report said.

With regard to the question of second jobs, the USIA survey failed to find much evidence that Russians are using second jobs to supplement their incomes.

While some may have underreported their participation in such jobs owing to concerns about taxation, 82 percent said they do not have a second job. Only 10 percent said they have a regular second job, and only six percent indicated they sometimes do.

Moreover, most of these jobs provide relatively little income. Forty-three percent of those with such jobs say it provides them with less than 25 percent of their income; only 16 percent say that it provides more than half.

Given the assumptions many have made about the role of the second economy in Russia, the USIA survey intriguingly found that those not paid regularly are no more likely to have a second position than those who are paid on time.

That lack of individual entrepreneurism in much of the Russian labor force was reflected in one other finding of the USIA-sponsored poll. It found that large majorities of working Russians were unwilling to leave their current jobs even if they are not being paid on a regular basis. Most believe that it would be difficult if not impossible to find an equivalent position quickly, if at all.

And all are aware that the government is unlikely to provide them with any unemployment benefits in the interim. Indeed, two out of three unemployed Russians today have never received any such benefits.

Given such concerns and difficulties, Russians are turning toward subsistence, an obvious survival strategy and one that represents an unspoken call for help from the outside.