ORYOL, Russia — For Russia’s eldest generation, the “children of the war” as they are called, poverty is a matter of perspective.
When Galina Chuchukova, 81, was 10 years old, in 1944, she crawled onto a minefield searching for berries, only to be called back by an imagined voice whispering her name. “My guardian angel,” she thought then. Seven of her relatives starved to death
in the siege of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, and the rest were scattered across Siberia in the mass evacuation.
With all that behind her, she said, she can handle today’s financial hardships.
“I lived through the war, the evacuation, the hunger of 1946,” her friend, Lyubov Fabrichnaya, 84, said over a cup of tea. “So I look around myself and think, everything is normal. My pension is enough.”
These are, nevertheless, stark times for pensioners in Oryol, a city of 300,000 about 230 miles south of Moscow, and for the more than 40 million others across Russia. The ruble has fallen to less than half its value of just three years ago, driving prices up even as state pension payments have lagged behind. The average pension amounts to about $200 each month. Take off 4,000 rubles, or $64, for utilities such as gas and water. Divided by 30, the remainder is about $4.50 a day, enough for food and not much else.
Chuchukova likes to keep active, taking spare work to get out of the house (and “there’s never such a thing as a spare kopek,” she added). On a recent Thursday morning, she and 17 other women in their 60s, 70s and 80s filed into a fourth-floor schoolroom in this regional Russian capital for a morning gymnastics routine: salsa, box steps and breathing exercises. It’s part of a routine of hard work that’s kept her going through decades of tumult.
Even the younger pensioners — women can retire at age 55 here — have lived through tremendous upheavals: perestroika, the fall of the Soviet Union and the 1998 devaluation of the ruble, which wiped out savings accounts overnight. Russians are no strangers to setbacks.
Now they are struggling through a protracted, 23-month crisis. Inflation has hit 15 percent. Pensions were paid late in several regions this past winter, sparking concerns of currency shortages. The Russian government is offering pensioners a one-time payment of 5,000 rubles ($77), rather than indexing pensions a second time this year. And in a tremendous moment of bad judgment, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told an elderly woman in Russian-annexed Crimea this past spring that there was no money to raise pensions, but to “hang in there” and “have a nice day.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who owes his popularity more than anything else to prosperity in his 16 years as Russia’s leading politician, has pledged to raise pensions by the inflation rate in February. Cutting benefits could hurt him somewhat before the 2018 presidential election.
Under duress, Russia’s pensioners, characteristically unfazed, have further tightened their belts. Theirs is a story of secondhand or sometimes self-knit clothing, of shelves stocked with preserves and berries from long days working summer gardens at the dacha, of ditching coffee for tea, of sometimes putting off medical care or seeking help for operations from children and relatives.
It’s still apple season in Oryol, and the elderly are selling them by the bucketful in the city’s markets and along its roadsides, even as the first snows begin. Many come from nearby — from country dachas or village houses with fading paint and jigsaw window frames, with small gardens and a few fruit trees, humble dwellings that are an essential part of getting by.
Everyone makes her sacrifices.
“Maybe I can allow myself chicken, but definitely not beef,” said Tamara Kozyreva, who at 62 hardly looks like a retiree. A native of Magadan in Russia’s Far East, she blames the bitter climate and recent bouts with depression for her poor health, and now “the diseases are piling up.” She has turned to homeopathy, because a visit to the doctor can cost $100, and she says the effects are better than antibiotics. She borrowed money from a brother for surgery.
“Don’t get sick,” she said. “If your treatment includes drugs, no pension is going to cover that.”
After a decade of rising living standards, Russians, including pensioners, have faced two years of backsliding, said Marina Krasilnikova, head researcher for incomes and consumption at the Moscow-based pollster Levada Center.
Pensions are enough “not to starve,” Krasilnikova said. “As long as you just spend money on utilities and food, and forget about participating in public life or going to cafes. It’s enough to sit at home.”
That wasn’t enough for Lyudmilla Zadernyuk, 61, dressed in a zebra-stripe sweater and bright-green scarf, her hair dyed a jaunty red.
“Sure, by comparison to the war, today is heaven, but we see how pensioners are living in other countries,” said Zadernyuk, with a hint of exasperation. “Pensioners in other countries go to restaurants! I can only dream of that.”
Seeking human contact, the women came here, a DIY school for the elderly, where the students attend classes in gardening, computer literacy, chess, and physical aerobics for 80-year-olds, just to name a few. Zadernyuk teaches dance lessons.
It is the brainchild of Tatyana Kononygina, 53, who in the dawn of the 1990s teamed with a German nongovernmental organization to create a school for the elderly. They called it the “University of the Golden Age.”
“It’s not right, to my mind, when our government creates a national youth policy and no national elderly policy,” she said.
Most of her several hundred students have average or below-average pensions, she said, some living on the “minimum living standard” of just $145 a month.
“Pretty much everyone in the summer is at the dacha planting,” she said. “We’ve also trained some younger pensioners on computers — it helps them find work to supplement their income.
“But most of all, the people coming here are seeking companionship,” she said. “Old age has a woman’s face. No country has the same ratio of women to men in old age, and when the kids have moved away and their husband has passed on, they come here.”
For Kozyreva, whose husband died 25 years ago, and whose daughters have also left home, the school was a way to escape her depression.
“I ended up in a vacuum, alone,” she said. “This place was my savior.”
Her first class was “aerobics for the brain.”
“It’s for old people who are getting close to Alzheimer’s, and as not to end up further in there, we train our memories,” she said. “I find exercises. We learn poems by heart. We solve anagrams.”
There is something of the old Communist ethos to the place, reflected in a “can do” attitude and the morning exercises.
Fabrichnaya, a former Communist Party functionary, recently channeled her energy into pestering political parties and Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, for funds. “No one gave anything,” she fumed, especially at the Communists. “I believed in this party. I believed I was building something in the future.”
“Putin says everything is good, and okay, I really respect our president,” she said. “But why is he the only one? Where are the people around him who should be supporting him like they should? That’s what concerns me!”