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Russia: Moscow Pensioners Making Ends Meet On $1.70 A Day

  • Francesca Mereu

In Russia, the average pension is the equivalent of just $45 a month. Making it stretch an entire month is a particular challenge in the capital city, where experts say a person needs a minimum of $180 a month to survive. RFE/RL correspondent Francesca Mereu spent several days with Moscow pensioners to learn how they make ends meet on as little as $1.70 a day.

Moscow, 9 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When Nina Matveeva was young, she had two hobbies: traveling and photography. But her work as a geologist left her little spare time. After a career lasting 40 years -- 19 of which were spent on expeditions in the Russian Far North -- Matveeva was looking forward to receiving her pension and the freedom to finally enjoy her favorite pastimes.

But Matveeva's retirement came at a bad time, coinciding with the end of the perestroika era, when pensions and other state welfare programs dried up. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the subsequent ruble devaluation, most Russians saw their savings vanish. Matveeva was no exception.

Now Matveeva is 70. With no savings and only a miserly pension, she leads a meager existence in a central Moscow apartment badly in need of repairs. "I have 30-year-old furniture. The refrigerator is 30 years old. With the exception of the television, I have practically no modern appliances. They are very expensive. As far as my apartment is concerned, I can say the same. It's falling apart. But it doesn't even enter my mind to repair it -- I just can't afford it. I'm not talking about a high-quality renovation but just a good cosmetic repair job," Matveeva said.

It is Matveeva's generation that has arguably suffered the most during Russia's uneasy transition to a market economy. Too old to find new ways of earning money in the post-Soviet economy, most of the country's elderly are forced to survive on their pensions alone, which, at an average of 1,417 rubles, or $45, do not even meet the official subsistence wage of $60 a month. The problem is especially dire in Moscow, where living expenses can soar to nearly three times that amount.

Matveeva, whose only son is unemployed and unable to help her, said she survives in Russia's most expensive city on just $57 a month. "I think that people cannot live with such a pension. They have to look for some extra income. Some people are helped by their children. Some people earn on the side: Some of them work in the market, others walk their neighbors' dogs. If pensioners want to live better, they practically have to look for some extra income. I'm lucky that I'm a person who enjoys writing. My pieces are published in some magazines. The money is not a lot, but sometimes I have a modest extra income of some 350 to 400 rubles [$11 to $12.50] a month," Matveeva said.

Living on so little money reduces life to a kind of grim mathematical equation. Matveeva quickly counts off her monthly expenses: $10 for housing and utility costs, $3 for a garden plot she keeps outside of Moscow. At least $3.50 must be set aside every month for medicine. After that, she said, she is left with just 55 rubles ($1.70) to spend each day on food and other small necessities.

The only way to make ends meet, she said, is to literally count every kopeck. "I have to plan my life in order to make this money be enough for food and other small items I need every month. One month, I need to resole a pair of shoes. The next month, I have to buy laundry detergent; the next month, some light bulbs. Every month, I have to spend extra money on something. Sometimes, it's a big amount for me. For example, if I go to visit someone, I have to buy some presents, some flowers. You also think about that," Matveeva said.

Matveeva laughed as she went through her list of monthly expenses, but it's clear that making her tiny pension last is no easy task. For a start, food stores in the city center, where Matveeva lives, are prohibitively expensive. To buy her groceries, she must travel to cheaper outdoor markets located in Moscow's outskirts. It takes Matveeva three hours to travel to and from her usual market, Vykhino, which she considers the cheapest in the city. "The whole trip takes me three hours. And I do it, of course. Once a week, I go to the market to shop. I buy practically no meat. I've stopped eating it. It costs from 80 to 120 rubles a kilogram now. I sometimes buy fish. Fish is almost as expensive as meat now -- from 70 to 80 rubles a kilo. For example, when I have some 70 rubles a day left for food, I can afford half a kilo of fish and 20 eggs that now cost 18 rubles for 10," Matveeva said.

Many older people travel to Vykhino looking for affordable food. One, 78-year-old Yelena Kuzmina, a former factory worker, said she always goes to a particular stall, where the vendor, Akhmed, sets aside cheaper vegetables for pensioners. On one such visit to Akhmed's stall, Kuzmina finds good tomatoes -- "that just need the bruises cut out of them" -- for just 6 rubles a kilogram.

Kuzmina: Put two [more] big [tomatoes on the scale].

Akhmed: Two?

Kuzmina: Yes.

Akhmed: Two big ones?

Kuzmina: Yes.

Akhmed: Here you go -- 12 rubles. There you go. Now live long and stay healthy and be nice to grandpa.

Kuzmina: Now you'll see. After I leave you'll sell everything you have.

Akhmed: Oh, bravo.

Kuzmina: I bring luck.

Akhmed: Thank you, thank you.

Irina Veshnikova, a 68-year-old former Interior Ministry employee, describes herself as luckier than some because she has a daughter and granddaughter who often invite her to dinner, where she can enjoy more meat, vegetables, and fruit. Otherwise, she said, she is limited to what she can afford at Vykhino. "What can you buy? Some potatoes, some bread, a piece of butter, and a glass of sweet tea. That's all. Our life is hard. That's how we live: 'Another day has passed, thank God,'" Veshnikova said.

Matveeva, trying to stretch her food budget as far as it can go, said she spends most of her money on more-affordable vegetables like potatoes, cabbage, onions, and carrots, which generally cost some $0.30 a kilogram. Fruit is more of a luxury, although Matveeva is able to harvest apples from her garden in the country, which she uses to make jam for the wintertime. For staples like grains, Matveeva also limits her purchases to Russian products, which she said are half the price of foreign goods.

Matveeva's budget leaves her no money to go to the movies or the theater or to invite her friends for dinner. Moreover, she said, her financial difficulties often make it uncomfortable for her to visit friends who are better off than she is. "The social differentiation that has occurred [in Russia] has left its mark, since different people have different possibilities. I feel it, for example, when I have to go visit a person who is well-off. I think whether I should go or not, since I can't afford to bring a nice, expensive gift. Then I think that person might have everything he needs and that maybe my company isn't interesting for him. I've begun to have a complex about it," Matveeva said.

Many pensioners say they have grown used to surviving on their small pensions. Far worse, they say, is the humiliation they feel living in a society that no longer seems to need or care about them, despite the many years they spent working to help the country grow.

"Politicians don't look at our generation as the people who created the material and cultural base that they are now dividing up or have already divided up and privatized. Together with our generation, they have rejected everything [we've done]. They've even thought up a name for us: 'sovok' [a pejorative term for anything linked to the Soviet era]. Why am I a sovok? I'm a very educated person. I'm not a sovok. I don't agree with that. It humiliates me. They have inculcated in young people's minds the idea that we are nothing, that we are the people who organized life the wrong way. What was wrong? Everything we have today we built with our own hands. I'm one of those who helped to discover 16 gas and oil fields. I won an award from the [Soviet] Council of Ministers and received other different honors. But what do I have today from the new economic system? Do I have a single gram of oil? No. Do I have a single share [of stock]? No."

One pensioner recalled a television broadcast of a Russian politician describing pensioners and the disabled as the country's "two burdens." She asked, "What kind of burden are we if everything they have now was built with these hands?"