Chelyabinsk: Life as a Pensioner

In 1995, our main Chelyabinsk story was about a pensioner named Nikolai Mytskikh. A former police officer, he received the equivalent of just $51 a month -- $22 of which went to pay his apartment fees. The remainder was barely enough to live on, a fact that was obvious as we looked around the tiny kitchen of his apartment near the Chelyabinsk tractor factory.

After that first trip, I lost the piece of paper with Nikolai's address. We'd met him in '95 in Revolution Square as he handed out Communist literature -- but now the Communist demonstrators only gather there on Saturdays, and David and I arrived in Chelyabinsk on Sunday. I called directory assistance to see if Nikolai was listed, but was told there was no one with his last name listed in the city.

73-year-old Gennady says things were worse under Boris Yeltsin's rule, when pensions weren't paid on time. (David Hillegas)

We could have spent a few days trying to track Nikolai down, but he'd be 75 now and I doubt we could find him, assuming he's still living. Instead we decided to spend a day talking to pensioners, and asking them how life now compares with life 10 years ago.

The pensioners we spoke with received anywhere from 2000 to 4100 rubles a month -- about $70 to $145. The amounts vary according to several factors, including where and how long the person worked and whether he or she was a World War II veteran. Almost all the pensioners had to pay apartment fees, for heating, telephone service and the like, which cut significantly into their stipends. Some were very bitter -- though more than one seemed perfectly content.

Alexandra, a spry 76-year-old with a long, bright red braid, told us "I get 4100 [rubles] a month, and it's enough for me." She leaned in, and offered conspiratorially, "I think there aren't many who receive less than that, honestly. But people complain that they do." Of the dozen or so people we spoke with, she was the only one who reported receiving more than 4000 rubles.

A 78-year-old woman who jovially insisted I call her "Baba Lida" told me she received 3000 rubles a month, and that it wasn't nearly enough. "If I buy a sausage, I can't buy other things for about a week," she said. "I've forgotten what caviar tastes like. I used to know."

Gennady, a 73-year-old we met on Revolution Square, seemed perfectly content with his pension. "Whoever worked well gets a good pension," he told me. "I worked all my life, and my pension's enough for me." He thought for a moment. "Well, it's enough to live on, anyway." He went on to say that one of the biggest differences since 1995 was "the fact that our pensions come on time." Ten years ago, we were told that both pensions and paychecks were sometimes late in coming -- or never came at all.

Many pensioners get by with help from their children, who bring them food, buy their medication or help pay the bills. It is not uncommon for pensioners to live mostly on pickled vegetables, grown and canned at their children's dachas. Some, like 76-year-old Zoya and her husband, a former scientist, earn a little money on the side.

"My husband gives lectures and writes occasionally for books," Zoya told us. "I also earn a little money here and there -- 500 rubles, 600 rubles." As she put it, "We're not poor people. There are some things I don't let myself have. But I can buy the necessities."

Alexandra, 77, collects spare change from passersby on one of Chelyabinsk's most fashionable corners to make ends meet. (David Hillegas)

Others, like 77-year-old Alexandra, are not so lucky. We met her on the corner of Kirov and Lenin streets, where she was collecting change from people walking by. "I get 2500 [rubles] a month," she told us. "But 1000 goes to my apartment, and 1000 goes to paying off the debt from when I buried my brother. That leaves 500 [about $17.50] to live on." Prices in Russia are generally cheaper than in the U.S., but by any standard that is certainly impossible to live on.

Alexandra is one of many older women who stand on street corners in Russia, collecting change. She said she sold most of her belongings, including two chairs and a large cupboard, and lived on that money for a while. But at the end of August, she started coming to this corner to collect donations. "I don't beg," she told us. "I just pray for people. And people give me money."

Once she's got enough for bread and milk, she says, she goes home. And the next day, she starts over again.

By Lisa Dickey |  October 18, 2005; 10:15 AM ET
Previous: Riding the Rails | Next: Chelyabinsk: Russia's Thriving Capitalist Class


Please email us to report offensive comments.

It is extremely sad to see that the Russian society is leaving some of its neediest members behind, especially those to whom Russia owes its very existence.

One good thing about the Soviet "Gerontocracy" is that respect for the elderly was an integral part of the social fabric; at least it seemed to be, when I was growing up. It is a shame that better economic prospects for the young comes at such a cost.

Artem K. Khamzin

Posted by: Artem K. Khamzin | October 18, 2005 03:52 PM

I spent last summer in Novosibirsk and the one thing that shocked me the most was the large number of old people who were begging, searching for small change, and going through garbage looking for food. Old women sat on every corner selling berries, mushrooms, a few sad looking tomatoes and the police would periodically arrive, chase them away while completely ignoring the young men in leather jackets selling dollars and euros on those same streets. The desparate situation of old people is the true sign of an impoverished society.

Posted by: Silvia | October 18, 2005 04:14 PM

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