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Russia: In City Of Riches, 'Average' Family Focuses On The Essentials

Masud in his Moscow apartment Moscow is a bustling city full of restaurants, cinemas, and fashionable boutiques. But such pleasures are largely reserved for the rich. Life is much tougher for average Muscovites, whose living conditions dip far lower than those of middle-income families in most industrialized countries. Russia is among the richest countries in transition -- its gross national income is $2,600 per person per year, compared to $970 in Ukraine, or $250 in Afghanistan. But the United Nations children's agency, UNICEF, notes that Russia's wealth has been slow to trickle down to the middle class, particularly among families with children and single-parent families. The steady erosion of social welfare benefits has made the situation all the more challenging. As the UN marks the fifth anniversary of International Youth Day on 12 August, RFE/RL talks to a young Muscovite and his mother about their hopes for a better life.

Moscow, 11 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Eight-year-old Masud likes to joke around when his mother, Yelena, has guests. His favorite tricks include reciting the Russian alphabet at full speed and making funny faces behind her back.

He is a sociable, high-energy boy who credits Yelena for giving him a "good life." But he admits life would be even better if his mother could give him more than his standard allowance of 30 rubles a day -- the equivalent of $1.

"It's a shame she doesn't give me 1,000 rubles a day," Masud says. "My friend's dad gives him 2,000 every day."

Yelena, however, can't afford such extravagance. Mother and son rely solely on the $300 that Masud's father sends every month from Germany, where he has lived since 2001. The 70-ruble monthly state subsidy she receives for parents of young children is not much help.
Masud's mother receives the equivalent of $2.50 a month from the state to help with living expenses. In all, the family lives on some $300 a month.

Masud's father, Yelena's second husband, is from Afghanistan, and used to work as a marker vendor in Moscow despite a degree in journalism from Moscow State University. Depressed by the lack of career opportunities for immigrants in Russia, he decided to leave the country. Germany, however, has also failed to fulfill his professional hopes so far.

Yelena and Masud hope to eventually join him in Germany. But for now, they share a single room in a cramped two-room flat in southern Moscow.

Masud's 26-year-old half-sister lives in the other room with her husband and their baby. The family extends to a big orange cat and a parrot that lives in the kitchen -- a tiny room that, like most Russian kitchens, serves as the heart of the flat.

As Yelena prepares tea, she talks about her ambitions for Masud. At first she says she simply wants him to enjoy his future job, whatever it is. But when Masud announces his intention to work on an excavator at a construction site, she gently makes it clear that she has loftier hopes -- namely, that he will carry on the cultural and educational traditions of his father's father, Mohammad Hassan Bareq-Shafi, once a high-ranking politician and a famous Afghan poet, who now lives in Germany with his son.

Yelena is eager to keep this part of Masud's heritage alive. So she manages to put a little money aside to pay for her son's hobbies, which so far include chess, piano, and ballet. Masud has proved particularly talented at ballet, and was recently selected to train with the prestigious Bolshoi Theater dance academy.
"I just want to spend a bit of time in Germany. People there probably live well." - Firuz

Masud would also love to play soccer, but Yelena says there is only enough money for one hobby at a time. She is already spending 900 rubles a month for chess lessons, and 1,000 rubles a month for music school.

"Educating a child is very expensive," she says simply.

Yelena says she is finding it increasingly hard to make ends meet, and this worries her. The cost of living is growing steadily in Moscow, where utilities alone have quadrupled over the past three years. Social spending has dwindled to just 5.5 percent of state budget expenditures.

The Russian government has put a priority on doubling the country's economic strength, and there are signs of improvement: the percentage of Russians living below the poverty level has dropped six percentage points since 2002, to 17.8 percent. But the majority of Russians still fall into categories of very rich or very poor. The middle class comprises just one-fifth of the population, and last year the average wage hovered at only $250 a month.

For Yelena, however, money is not the only issue. The past four years have been a strain emotionally as well as financially. Masud was 4 years old when he last saw his father, and Yelena is concerned about the lasting effect the separation may have on her son. She's promised to send Masud to Germany for a visit as soon as she can, but he says the wait to see his father again is agonizing.
The middle class comprises just one-fifth of Russia's population. The average wage last year was only $250 a month.

"I just want to spend a bit of time in Germany," he says. "People there probably live well. I feel like I am already in Germany. I sit here, and it feels like I'm sitting on a chair in Germany. I miss him a lot. I want to be in Germany already. Right now."

Ultimately, Yelena would like to move to Germany with Masud. She says she doesn't delude herself about finding an interesting or well-paying job there. She is already 48 years old, and understands that Russian immigrants rank low on the hiring scale. But she says she has other priorities.

"Of course, things won't be easy," she says. "But what's most important is for the family to be together so that my son can grow up normally."

For Masud, however, everything looks much simpler. Twirling on his kitchen stool, he already pictures his future life in Germany, with a great job, a wife, and maybe even children -- all together, in a home of their own.

In that way, he says, his life will be different from that of his parents.

According to research by the Asian Development Bank and UNICEF, there are now more than 70,000 school-age children in Kyrgyzstan working to earn money for their families instead of attending school. RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service correspondent Jannat Toktosunova went to the Osh Bazaar in Bishkek to meet some of these children:

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