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Russia: Standard Of Living Still Lower A Year After Economic Crisis

  • Sophie Lambroschini

This is the second of two features marking the one-year anniversary of the Russian financial meltdown of August 17, 1998. In part two, RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that while average Russians are far from regaining their modest pre-crisis standard of living, many Muscovites have "adapted" to the new circumstances. However, she says that reports from many of Russia's regions indicate life outside the capital is tougher.

Moscow, 12 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Right under the Kremlin walls, the Alexandrovsky garden attracts hundreds of Muscovites on sunny weekends for a walk or even the celebration of a wedding. Hot-dog, ice-cream and soft-drink vendors stand shoulder to shoulder. While rented stretch-limousines wait outside the park, newlyweds line up to lay carnations at the tomb of the unknown soldier before swallowing the first of many glasses of champagne. Nothing reflects the economic crisis that hit just one year ago.

However, many of those enjoying a sunny summer day in the garden are quick to tell you that times are hard. They know that since the ruble collapsed and Russian banks gobbled up peoples' savings, the standard of living of the average Russian has fallen by up to 30 percent. And under the appearance of well-being, not much can temper the bitterness they feel.

Yulia, a teacher, and Dimitry, a construction worker, are the parents of a "crisis baby". Misha was born September 7. Before the crisis, Dimitry earned the equivalent of $500 to $600 a month. He and Yulia could afford going out and buying furniture. Now he manages to earn the equivalent of $100, and that is only when he can find work. So for the past year they have spent all their money on food. The couple talked with RFE/RL:

Dimitry: "Of course we had to give up all kinds of achievements of civilization. Pampers and the like.

Yulia: Now we use pampers only in exceptional cases. The rest [of the time] we have to do like in the old days, like our mothers.

Dimitry: It's a step away from civilization.

Yulia: For us it has become more difficult. We used to be part of the middle class and now we are on the brink."

Others, like Natalia Novikova, who sells hot-dogs for 4000 rubles a month -- now roughly $160 -- feel the crisis didn't only hit their consumption but also jeopardized their family's future. Her ruble income has stayed the same even as the ruble has plunged. She says she recently told her son that he would have to drop out of computer school to find work.

"My son can't study because I can't pay {for his tuition]. I didn't get a raise. My salary stayed the same."

In Moscow, the collapsing standard of living doesn't mean starvation. Muscovite Olga Pavlovna told our correspondent "It's just that we have come to consider ham as a great delicacy". She adds "we just sacrificed things we got used to and can't afford anymore."

But some say that their lifestyle hasn't changed. Roman, a law-student, says he "just took on two extra jobs."

"There's nothing sad about that, actually. Moscow is a European city. You just have to make an intellectual effort, show some diligence. Then everything will turn out all right."

Analysts say such optimism is representative of the younger generation. And according to Yuri Levada, the main issue is adjusting. Levada, the director of the Russian Center for Public Opinion Research (Vtsiom), says that "adaptation is where Russians excelled this year".

Analyzing opinion polls his center conducts every two months, Levada says that the mood of Russians has stabilized in recent months, or perhaps has even improved slightly. He says that a poll taken just before the crisis showed that 29 percent of respondents said that they could barely make ends meet. He says the percentage of those saying their situation was dire rose to 40 percent in December but then fell to 37 percent in July.

Levada says that several factors explain this slight improvement. The economic catastrophe everyone was expecting did not take place. Also, the economy seems to be getting a little better. However, Levada says that it is difficult to say whether the slight improvement in mood is based on a real improvement in peoples' lives or whether their way of looking at things has changed. Levada says that "Russians still believe that the future holds better times for them than the present." He adds that "People manage to adapt. They want very much to adjust and therefore they have very few expectations. They really long for stability and therefore are ready to find stability in situations where there is practically none."

But in many regions away from Moscow, the situation seems more desperate. Early this month near Ulyanovsk, a middle-sized town about 700 kms southeast of Moscow, two men trying to steal potatoes from a private vegetable plot got caught by the owners. Furious at having lost some twelve potatoes, the owners beat the thieves to death. According to Itar-Tass news agency, last month six would-be thieves were killed in vegetable gardens in the same region.

In a report shown by Russian television ORT, villagers in the Mari-El Ural region complained that rubles have completely disappeared since nobody has a job paid in cash. The report said that Samogon, Russian home-made vodka, has become the local currency.