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Russia: Christmas Marked Amid Hardship

Moscow, 7 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- For Anna and Tamara Kusnetsov, two sisters well over 70 living together in a tiny Moscow flat, preparing for today's Orthodox Christmas in Russia was not a complicated affair.

Anna, the older but healthier of the two, notes that her sister "Tamara's health is failing and, living on (their) combined pension of 900 rubles (equaling $45,) it has not been difficult ... to observe the prescribed 40 days of abstention from meat and egg products before Christmas."

The Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas today, in keeping with the older Julian calendar. According to a poll by the Public Opinion Fund, some 59 percent of Russians had plans to celebrate. For most Orthodox believers, whose numbers have greatly increased since the end of the Soviet-era, Christmas is a private family celebration.

Anna takes care of the daily shopping for the two widows' household. Recently, she says, shopping has been limited to bread, flour, vegetables like beetroot, cabbage, carrots and potatoes, and some milk products.

She notes that "according to the rules for fasting, milk products should also be limited," but adds that she and her sister "think God will understand." She adds that their lives are difficult, "with the cost of our main source of expenditure, medications, jumping since the financial crisis, while state subsidies vanish." She says that "a cup of hot milk is a necessity, as well as a comfort."

Patriarch Aleksii II, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, pointed out the hardship many Russians are struggling to cope with in a Christmas message issued yesterday.

He said: "Terrible poverty, the failure to pay people their well-earned wages, the excessively high level of crime and immorality in society, interethnic strife, the crisis in education, culture and the health service are all problems constantly encountered by people."

He expressed the hope that "state authorities, society and every person of goodwill will do all they can to overcome the present chaos" and ease the suffering of many of Russia's 150 million people.

According to data provided by the Public Opinion Fund at the end of last year, eight out of 10 Russians said 1998 was a harder year than the previous one. The majority of respondents to a poll conducted by the fund said the August economic crash was the most important event of the year.

For Anna, a former school teacher, the crisis also has meant that her almost daily effort to find cheap foodstuffs now involves longer hours searching the shops and the markets offering the best bargains. She says that "for Christmas, (she) bought ...a treat of apples and mandarins," adding that, "with apples at 28 rubles per kilogram, this is a very expensive present" for her and her sister.

Expressing the fear of most other poor and elderly people, she says that "women in the markets say the increase of prices ... so far is nothing compared with what (they) expect in the next months." She asks: "What are we going to do then?"

The Russian currency, trading at six rubles to the dollar before the August financial collapse, has slid more than threefold since then. Inflation reached 84 percent at the end of 1998. It was 11 percent at the end of 1997.

Despite the fact that trading is slow because of the winter holiday, the ruble took another sharp fall this week. The Central Bank set the ruble rate at 20.7 to the dollar on Tuesday, but in business trading and in currency exchange booths in Moscow the currency was traded at nearly 22 rubles to the dollar. Traders expect more falls as the year progresses.