In 1938, Fyodor T. was driving a mine wagon filled with rock waste up the steep sides of the "tip" at the Butovka-Donetsk coal mine when he slipped from the vehicle and fell under its iron wheels.
He lost his right leg and left foot and ankle, but was lucky to have survived and to be classified as an invalid of the second class, according to his wife, Nadezhda, who spent years working as a machinist at the same mine.
Fyodor, now 80, lives in a closet-sized "kitchen" where there is enough room for his bed, some cooking utensils, a small sink with no faucets, and a bucket for his sanitary needs. The white-haired invalid spends most of his time there. His wife, 67, lives in the adjoining room, together with the couple's grown bachelor son, also a miner, and, until recently, another aged pensioner who remarried after a long widowhood and moved out to live with her new husband.
The two elderly retirees receive a total of 94 rubles (about $150) a month in pensions. The Soviet poverty line, set years ago and so far unchanged despite significant inflation for many goods and food, in 50 rubles (about $78) income per family member per month.
On a recent visit to this grimy city of 1 million, I was confronted with easily detectable anger and frustration among miners over economic abuses and endless setbacks in improving what are among the lowest living standards in the industrialized world. But when I ventured into the homes of retired miners I discovered an even more impoverished world at the edge of despair.
In an interview in their tiny apartment in the New Colony mining quarter tucked away on a back street of Donetsk, Fyodor T. and his wife and their neighbors, mostly elderly and infirm pensioners, painted a bleak picture of life in retirement for Soviet industrial workers.
Many of their complaints were similar to charges retired miners make in other parts of the world. They say they have been ignored and humiliated by the energetic middle-aged bureaucrats who run the mine today and whose principal interest is to reward themselves and those workers who help the enterprise fulfill its yearly production plan.
But the elderly here feel they are unfairly being denied a share in the living standards improving slowly during the past two decades despite the fact that they had borne great sacrifices during World War II and in the postwar years.
"When we worked, there were no private apartments. Now as pensioners, we don't get new ones, the workers do," Nadezhda said as a group of other pensioners nodded in agreement with what seemed to be a story they all knew too well in their own lives. "We have been waiting 24 years for an apartment of our own," she continued. "But relatives of the directors and the other bosses get the new flats."
A modern flat would have running water, an indoor toilet, and central heating, and likely would have more than the single naked light bulb dangling from the ceiling to illuminate it.
As it is, in the middle of the fourth-largest city of the Ukraine, a Soviet republic that holds its own voting seat in the United Nations as if it were an independent country, the people of New Colony gets their water from a community well in a weed-choked field about a hundred yards from Nadezhda's doorway. A journey of about 40 feet in another direction takes the pensioners to a row of foul-smelling, rough-hewn outhouses.
The Donetsk elderly are part of the growing army of Soviet old-age pensioners who now number more than 31 millions and by official press accounts live close to the economic margins because of limited state benefits.
Although the minimum legal pension is 45 rubles per month -- about $60 -- most receive more than that. It is a major factor in state welfare cost. Yet, in the face of steadily rising income levels for active workers and real but never-admitted inflation, the pensioners are falling into a strapped economic underclass. The government, in an effort to solve the problem, has decreed higher pensions for elderly who return to work or stay on the job after the legal retirement age of 60 for men and 55 for women.
While there is lively and sometimes even bitter criticism in the official press of housing shortcomings, and warnings from sociologists and state planners of the impact of poor living conditions on worker morale in the Soviet Union, these public demonstrations of concern have little meaning in the context of the lives described by the pensioners of New Colony.
Anna M., a hunched septuagenaian, described what happened some months ago when she visited a senior official at the Butovka mine to ask for free coal to fire the stove she uses to cook on and heat her tiny living quarters. The official, it turned out, was a man she remembered from four decades ago, when he was a sunny little boy of the miners' neighborhood. She produced her documents and well-thumbed labor-performance book to show him her record had been good and now she needed some extra help to get by.
"He shouted, 'We don't have the money, there's nothing in the fund,'" she recalled, and threw her documents on the table. She later went to regional party officials to ask for a new flat. She said she reminded them that her husband had been a dedicated Communist all his life and that when he died "the party said, 'We'll never forget you. We are your family. Turn to us if you need something.'"
She told them she lived in a kitchen with room only for her cot. "That's enough for you," an official reportedly said. "Get out of here!"
She said she had left the party building in such distress she had fainted on the street outside and spent a month recuperating from nervous strain in a city hospital.
If neighbors cannot help her out by donating some coal of their own, Anna said, she must spend about 13 rubles of her 24-ruble monthly pension on coal. This leaves a pittance for food. Clothing or other amenities are out of the question.
In accordance with usual Soviet practice, her pension has been frozen at the same level as when she retired. While she can get free medical care, she had been a victim of an inflationary pattern that leaves her farther and farther behind.
"There is no money even for milk," she said. "I haven't seen meat in years."
Even if her income were considerably more than the 50-ruble a month poverty line, Anna would have had difficulty finding meat and milk. From visits to a number of state stores and talks with shoppers in the Butovka mine area, this picture emerged:
Fresh milk generally can be found only before 10 a.m. and frequently not at all. Later than noon, it was said, supplies of such staples as sour cream, cottage cheese, and fresh eggs normally run out.
Fresh meat was described as seldom obtainable in stores, and one meat store near the mine was simply padlocked in midmorning. A miner displayed a plastic bag of bare soup bones that he bought for .90 rubles a kilo, or about $1.50. "This is for dogs, but I bought it to make borscht," he said in disgust.
Fresh meat in Donetsk farmers' markets costs about $2.50 a pound for any cut of beef and much higher for ham, lamb, and other rarer meats. Sausage, widely used as a substitute and looking as if it had been heavily laced with filler, sold for $1.50 a pound and up. There were several kinds of frozen and smoked fish available in the state stores together with tinned meats. Potatoes were sold for 60 cents per pound.
Overcoats averaged about $160 in local stores.
Few of the pensioners of New Colony had anything new to show visitors, and many were bundled in clothing with patches that bespoke only poverty. Some said they relied on help from friends and relatives just to get by from day to day.