Back in the Soviet days, a roll of toilet paper could have been considered a gift, given its scarcity at times. But that was then and this is now. And when a pensioner in Karelia handed a roll to local lawmakers it was an act not of kindness but of outrage.
The parliament in Karelia, a northwestern region bordering Finland, on February 20 approved an indexation of a monthly pension benefit for a category of people who worked many years and are deemed to have excelled.
The vote came after the regional Constitutional Court ruled in December 2019 that a failure to raise that benefit for more than 10 years amounted to a violation of the Russian constitution. The court was ruling in a lawsuit brought by a group in Karelia.
Based on that ruling, the regional lawmakers voted in favor of raising the monthly pension benefit that is aimed at covering telephone and transport costs for so-called labor veterans by 21 rubles (33 cents), from 700 to 721 rubles.
Sergei Andrunevich, a retired lieutenant colonel of the Federal Security Service (FSB), had made his displeasure with what he and others viewed as a miserly move clear earlier, when the legislation was approved in committee.
On February 11, Andrunevich marched into the Karelian parliament building in Petrozavodsk, the regional capital, where he addressed the gathering before pulling a roll of toilet paper from a shopping bag and laying it before a perplexed lawmaker.
“I want to thank you on behalf of all labor veterans,” Andrunevich told the assembly. “With your indexation of veterans’ benefits, I was able to buy two rolls of toilet paper. I give them to you to be used as intended.”
The toilet paper incident occurred around the same time a TV news anchor in Russia’s Kamchatka region laughed uncontrollably explaining a paltry increase in government subsidies to underprivileged people.
As the economy recovers from a recession -- brought on largely by a plunge in global oil prices and Western sanctions imposed in response to Moscow’s seizure of Crimea and other interference in Ukraine in 2014 -- many Russians are making do with less. Disposable increases are falling and personal bankruptcies are up. A survey last year by the state statistics agency Rosstat found that a third of households polled could not afford two pairs of shoes per person, per year.
In many cases, the problems are magnified for pensioners, whose average monthly stipend amounted to about $200 in 2018. Russian retirees often work past retirement age to supplement their state pensions, and in 2018 Putin signed a law that is gradually raising the retirement age by five years despite widespread protests.
For Andrunevich, the indexation of the pension benefit he receives is far from fair given the real increase in costs over the past 10 years.
“Here [in Petrozavodsk], over the past 11 years the cost of mass transit has risen from 4 rubles to 32 rubles,” Andrunevich, a Communist Party member, told the North Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service on February 20. He said that bureaucrats weren’t so parsimonious when it came to their own pay.
“I would also say that both officials and deputies in the republic [of Karelia] don’t have their pay indexed by 21 rubles. There is always money for them in the budget, but not for veterans,” said Andrunevich, who was stationed in Petrozavodsk in the 1970s as a border-guard pilot in what could have been a potential flash point in the Cold War showdown with the West.
Andrunevich, who has no complaints about his pension, saying it meets his needs, said he was prompted to protest the 21-ruble indexation because it amounted to a collective slap in the face by local legislators to all labor veterans.
“They believe that there’s nothing shameful about this amount, that something like this can be done -- raising the payment by 21 rubles -- and that is OK. That’s the problem,” he said, adding that his decision to barge in on the legislative session to hand over the toilet paper was in line with his civil rights.
Andrunevich was active in protests in Karelia against the retirement-age increase in 2018. His toilet paper stunt is the latest incident in just weeks to highlight the holes in Russia’s social safety net.
Earlier this month, a state TV news presenter became a social-media sensation when she broke into laughter while trying to inform viewers of an increase in government subsidies to certain groups.
Vesti Kamchatka's Aleksandra Novikova could not contain herself while reading the report on a benefits hike that would provide disabled people, war veterans, victims of radiation exposure, and others with an increase that would bring one category of social payments to 1,500 rubles ($23) -- of which 900 could be used for medicines, 137 toward a health resort, and the rest (363 rubles, or $5.60) for "international" transportation to such a resort.
In the first half of 2019, the World Bank found that real disposable incomes fell by 1.3 percent from the previous year.
Public opinion surveys from the independent polling agency Levada Center show that around 65 percent of Russian households have no savings whatsoever.
State statistics also show that overall poverty has increased from the beginning of 2018, rising to 14.3 percent -- or about 20.3 million people.