Livin’ on the Russian Poverty Line

Who is leading the tandem dance? Is it Medvedev’s or Putin’s turn this week? The answer to who is at top in Kremlin Inc. is superfluous to those who live at Russia’s poverty line. Like in most places, the little guy is mostly a creature for cardboard cut out used for political rhetoric and posturing to those inhabiting the commanding heights. For the class conscious lumpen, it’s not who’s dancing that matters. It’s the dance itself. Each twirl, dip, side step, or skip is another assurance that the Russian elite will remain prosperous and the Russian prols will have to continue fighting over the scraps that trickle down.

For those living at the very bottom of Russian society, that trickle down is a fine mist. With costs of food, energy, and other staples rising that mist is leaving many Russian more and more parched. All the Russians can take comfort in is that they are not alone. With food riots in Haiti, Bangladesh and Egypt, fuel costs hitting pocket books the world wide, and a commodities bubble fueling the shebang, one can only wonder what will come next. For the Russians, its a sign that being part of the globalization block party isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Medvedev may pirouette and motion to West as the source for the despair all he wants. But the nature of the economy can no longer be thought of in terms of states or even regions. It’s all connected making the latest global economic crisis structural in nature.

With rising inflation in Russia (up 5.3% in the last three months), those living at the poverty line are forced to make it by with less. According to the Russian State Department of Statistics, Rosstat, the minimum subsistence level in Moscow is 62 Euros a month (or about 95 in sinking dollars terms) . This is supposed to cover food, clothes, housing utilities, and transportation in the capital. As of 2006, 21.6 million (15.3%) of Russians live below this threshold. Just to add some perspective, a recent figure says that there are 131,000 millionaires in Russia. That’s about sixteen impoverished Russians to every one millionaire. Sixteen live on what every one minigarch throws down for decent sushi. Can living in Moscow on 62 Euros a month be done? If so, how?

For answers we have to turn to Polit.ru journalist Liz Surnacheva, who recently pulled a Barbara Ehrenreich to see if the seemingly impossible is indeed possible. She chronicled her travails in a three part series on Open Democracy. The latter recently teamed up with Polit.ru to provide a bit more comprehensive coverage of the Russian scene for the English reader.

In part one, Surnacheva quickly finds that Rosstat’s statistical “shopping basket” and what is actually possible to do with it are two different things. Also, she finds that livin’ on the line is not just about cheap food, its more about what one has to do to first find it and then not getting screwed over when you get it. Kiosks are cheaper, though you run the risk of getting cheated. Prices at supermarkets are “catastrophic.” “From now on,” Surnacheva writes, “everything that saves time is out: nothing oven-ready, and above all, no eating out. Breakfast cereals, yoghurt, sweetened curd cheese, buns, frozen ready-meals, pel’meni and pizzas have all become forbidden foods. Kinder, Kuchen, Kirche.” One day of shopping: 628 rubles 90 kopeks. 1552 rubles 80 kopecks left.

By the time part two is published, Surnacheva is down to 920 rubles 50 kopecks. Sick of the “soup selection,” she laments that she has no choice. “I can’t afford meat, poultry or fish.” The Moscow favorite business lunch is out and days at work are spent hungry. But what is most revealing is not that she’s not managing, but why. Here is her conclusions:

1. I’m inexperienced. This is my first attempt at living on so little money. The worst time in any crisis is the beginning, when you haven’t worked out a survival strategy.

2. I’m irrational. I can’t even turn the classic female trick of making a salad and a scandal out of nothing. My grasp of energy and nutrition values is weak. 2000 calories still means half a kilo of sugar to me rather than so much cereal, milk and meat. Apparently I even use carrots inefficiently – I’ve had readers explaining to me that that the body can’t digest raw carrots without fat.

3. I haven’t got my bearings. I haven’t a clue where to get things cheap, or what to buy. In the first week I discovered that a perfectly fresh carrot that’s broken is half the price, and that apples that cost 15-20 rubles per kilo do exist – they just don’t look so great. For me, the word ‘meat’ means an expensive cut, and I haven’t yet learned what to do with cheaper cuts, bones and offal.

4. I don’t belong to the local network. Those who live on really limited means belong to a sort of informal club, whose members know where, what and how much. The moment cheap dairy products appear on a neighbouring stall or good cheap meat in the market, its members find out about this from one another. Outsiders like me only get to hear about these bargains by accident.

5. I live alone. Of course it’s a bit different for families- wholesale is cheaper. I went to this conference on regional poverty a month or so ago. The researchers noted something interesting: people always think of pensioners as the group most at risk of poverty. Actually, the group most at risk are families with children. Without going into the reasons (discrimination against single mothers, tv propaganda about programmes of social support etc) I must admit I made this assumption myself when I took on the role of lonely pensioner for this experiment. True, it would have been complicated trying to simulate being a family with lots of children – I might have had to starve the entire editorial team of Polit.ru.

Apparently living poor isn’t just about surviving, it’s about surviving artfully.

In part three, it’s day twenty and Surnacheva is down to 583 rubles, 70 kopecks. Life is consumed with a new consciousness of prices and looking for alternatives and substitutes (margarine for butter, damaged fruit and vegetables for fresh ones, and organ meats–liver, kidneys, and bones–for quality meats). Other items are put into perspective. “I could live for half a day on dictaphone batteries, and as for a ticket for the Paul Anka concert at the Kremlin, I’d last almost six months on that.”

Advice from babushkas on the street and readers begins pouring in. “Eat ground elder and dandelions. Sunbathe. Make rusks. Buy sea kale. Make friends with some Uzbeks and eat pilaf. Plant Jerusalem artichokes,” a reader suggests. Students tell her to eat “lots of kasha,” pop vitamins instead of fruits and veggies, and processed and canned meats instead of the real deal. Heroin chic devs write in urging a diet plan where eating less is more. A spoonful of cottage cheese for breakfast and soup for dinner. Surnacheva admits she could live on six days with a diet like that. But for your average person? Forget it.

By day 31 she’s down to 18 rubles. Even her colleagues at Polit.ru began feeling sorry for her. Invitations to lunch and offers of food began to pour in. The desire to be fed restaurant food even leads her to agree to a date.

In the end, Surnacheva survived one month on Rosstat’s “shopping basket.” Barely. Proving that living in poverty is as much about how you live than what you have to live with.  “I did survive,” she concludes, “but I won’t be doing it again.”

If only 20 million or so Russians had such a choice.

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