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Siberia Snapshot: Krasnoyarsk's Most Vulnerable Families Anxious As COVID-19 Crisis Deepens

Many vulnerable Russians are being helped by volunteers and NGOs during the coronavirus crisis, but not everyone has been so lucky. (file photo)
Many vulnerable Russians are being helped by volunteers and NGOs during the coronavirus crisis, but not everyone has been so lucky. (file photo)

KRASONYARSK, Russia -- Even before the coronavirus pandemic swept the world and Russia introduced lockdown measures to combat it, Anastasia Smirnova's situation was precarious.

She has lived in virtual lockdown for the last eight years, ever since her son was born with a severe form of epilepsy that has left him paralyzed and dependent on a machine to support his breathing. Five years ago, Smirnova's husband left, and she has raised Vanya on her own.

Once a quarter, social workers bring the family a parcel of food -- most recently, some pasta, flour, sugar, rice, canned goods, cooking oil, and tea. The food is long gone before the next parcel arrives. About twice a month, another social worker comes to their apartment and Smirnova is able to leave for a couple of hours and run essential errands.

"The drugstore, the doctor, the grocery store, the social-services office," she told RFE/RL. "I have no time to even think about my own affairs. I haven't been to a hair salon in many years."

With the stay-home regime in full swing in this south-central Siberian city of about 1 million people more than 4,000 kilometers east of Moscow, Smirnova says she can no longer allow such strangers into her apartment -- for fear of Vanya becoming ill.

"Today a friend came by and left a bag of groceries outside the door," Smirnova said, adding that her only income -- Vanya's social-security payments -- does not allow her to use delivery services. "Will we have food tomorrow? I honestly don't know."

Anastasia Smirnova with her severely epileptic son, Vanya.
Anastasia Smirnova with her severely epileptic son, Vanya.

A spokeswoman for the Krasnoyarsk Krai Social Services Ministry, Yelena Zlobina, told RFE/RL that families like Smirnova's continue to receive the same assistance that they received before the coronavirus crisis. Smirnova, however, never applied before for food delivery, preferring to do as much as she could to help herself. Now it is too late to apply, as nonessential ministry staff is under orders to remain home at least until the end of April.

"Those who are not registered are advised to apply to the volunteers of the Popular Front," Zlobina said, referring to a national assistance program set up by the pro-Kremlin All-Russia Popular Front (ONF), a group established to provide broad support for President Vladimir Putin across the country. A woman who answered the Krasnoyarsk coronavirus hotline offered the same advice.

Keeping Spirits Up

Smirnova's long experience of such isolation, however, enables her to keep her spirits up.

"If I go a day without posting something on social media, friends start calling and asking if we are all right," she told RFE/RL. "In general, such people are our saviors. We wouldn't survive on our own. In very hard times when all we had was a little macaroni and we had to sell possessions to buy food, such people came and helped us."

"When things get really bad, I sing," Smirnova added. "For myself and for my son."

According to official statistics, as of April 10, Russia had some 12,000 registered coronavirus infections and more than 90 people had died.

However, some analysts say the government figures are suspiciously low for a country of some 144 million people, and critics have accused the Kremlin of hiding the true numbers.

On March 25, Putin announced a partial lockdown nationwide until April 5, a policy that he then extended until at least the end of April in a speech on April 2.

Irina is a single mother of three who lives in Krasnoyarsk and asked RFE/RL not to use her real name.

"I don't really want anyone to know my name or where I worked and so on," she said. "It doesn't feel right."

Before the crisis, Irina barely made ends meet by working two jobs, both of which were shut down when the city's stay-home regime was announced. She and her three young children live in a 20-square-meter rented room for which they pay 12,000 rubles ($160) a month.

"Now I'm left alone with three children and an empty refrigerator," she told RFE/RL. "We don't really have anyone to help us."

illustrative photo
illustrative photo

Irina didn't have time to apply for assistance from any of the volunteer organizations because the lockdown came so suddenly. Instead, she left a desperate post on the social-media page of a popular local journalist. In response, the journalist and her colleagues took up a collection and raised nearly 3,000 rubles ($40) to buy groceries for Irina.

"It was really embarrassing, but I have to thank them a lot," Irina told RFE/RL. "But it makes me wonder how many people like me there are across the country. The first to suffer are those who have no savings or support."

Ksenia Derbeneva is in a similar situation. She lives with her three daughters in a single room of a local hostel. She had to leave her job as an inventory clerk when the schools were shut down and her children sent home. Previously, she earned 30,000 ($400) rubles a month, plus a 1,500 ruble ($20) child subsidy from the state. She did not manage to stock up on food before the lockdown was announced.

"How much money do I have now?" she said. "Eight hundred rubles ($11). I don't have much food, but I have something I can cook for today. Tomorrow I'll have to shop but you can imagine how far 800 rubles goes for [four people]. I'm hanging on for now, but what will happen next, I don't know."

'No One Has Helped Me'

Natalya Alyokhina lives with her husband and three children in the town of Sharypovo, about 400 kilometers west of Krasnoyarsk. Her 9-year-old son, Nikita, is severely disabled and, before the lockdown, required daily physical therapy.

"Because of the pandemic, our rehabilitation has been canceled," Alyokhina said. "We are trying to do what we can at home. Before the lockdown, my husband left to work in a mine, so now I'm alone with three children."

Natalya Alyokhina with her son, Nikita.
Natalya Alyokhina with her son, Nikita.

She says that everyone in the town of some 40,000 people knows about her, but no one has contacted her about the situation.

"I am in a chat list with other Sharypovo mothers with special-needs children," Alyokhina said. "I haven't seen any indication there that social services are helping anyone."

On the contrary, Alyokhina said the city administration sent her a mass e-mail asking her to volunteer to deliver groceries to people who need assistance.

"But no one has offered to help me," she said. "There aren't so many mothers like me in Sharypovo and it wouldn't be hard to call all of us."

No one answered RFE/RL's repeated calls to the Sharypovo social-services office and to the city administration.

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting from Krasnoyarsk by correspondents Svetlana Khustik and Igor Chigarskikh from the Siberia Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service.

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