Road Runners Rule!
How to live on $5 a month in Russia
November 6, 1998, Reuters News Service
Russians survive on as little as $5 a month
By Adam Tanner
STAVROPOL, Russia, – Yuliya Simenyak, a full-time secretary who makes out
the schedules at the local university, earns 90 roubles ($5.50) a month,
yet continues to live a decent if spartan life. She is just one of millions
of Russians whose pay cheques are a pittance but are yet able to make ends
meet in a time of what statistics suggest is a deep economic depression.
“I live with my mother who has a salary of 500 roubles ($31) a month,”
Simenyak said. “We only have enough money for food.” “You see this chain
around my neck? I bought it long ago, as I did the dress I am wearing,”
Despite the country’s crisis, the legendary Russian ability to endure hardship
has leant a semblance of normality to Stavropol, a southern city surrounded
by agricultural land where former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began his
political career. Hundreds of vendors at the central market offer a rich
variety of fruit, vegetables, fish and meat. Stores on the city’s main Karl
Marx Boulevard remain well stocked with imported televisions and Nike sneakers.
“I often wonder why things look as good as they do,” said Alexei Selyukov,
the Stavropol region’s chief prosecutor, referring to life after the August
devaluation of the rouble and near collapse of the country’s banking system.
HIDDEN RESOURCES OR THE ROAD RUNNER THEORY
Local officials and residents have two explanations for the semblance of
normality amid deep economic crisis. One explanation is that Russians have
hidden resources — significant assets beyond their regular salaries, from
side businesses and jobs, to savings under their mattresses and food stocks
from garden plots. “The statistics written on paper are far from the truth,”
said Viktor Cherepanov, deputy head of President Boris Yeltsin’s representative
office in Stavropol. “In the city, a store clerk might earn 300 roubles
($19) on paper, but more is coming directly from the owner,” he said.
“In rural areas, farm workers have a very large additional income from their
side efforts such as raising cows and selling milk or chickens and selling
eggs.” Many city families benefit as well. More than 87 percent have garden
plots outside town where they grow food. Larisa Pashena, who owns a fabric
store in town, said her garden crop was essential to her daily living, supplying
vegetables to pickle for the winter. “We have many jars at home filled with
cucumbers, tomatoes and other food,” she said. “We grow or buy them in
summer when they are cheap and save them up for the winter. “In the West,
you go to your weekend house to rest. Our weekend consists of going to the
garden to cultivate potatoes,” said Pyotr Akinin, head of the economics
department at Stavropol State University.
These plots are so vital to Russia’s food supply that even though they take
up just 2.6 percent of cultivated land, they produce half of the country’s
food, according to the Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation.
“Stavropol is better off than many regions because it lives off fruitful
land,” said Cherepanov. “People in our region have always lived well because
they have always had their own plots to grow on.” But apart from hidden
wealth, there is another explanation as to why Stavropol still seems so normal.
Call it the “Road Runner” theory.
Like a character in a slapstick animated cartoon, Russia’s economy ran off
the edge of a cliff in August, but it will take a while to look down, realise
there is nothing below but air, and drop into the canyon. “Things may look
normal now, but in a few months, after the winter, it’s likely to get a lot
worse,” said Alexei Sokolenko, a 60-year-old artist who earns his living
teaching students as he rarely sells any paintings now.
TRADE LIVES ON
Shop assistants say the people of Stavropol are still shopping, buying even
Grocery store worker Valentina Chernova hawks U.S.-produced vitamin supplements
she says will improve your sex life. “One pill of this and you’ll feel the
result in an hour and half or two hours; it’s a super stimulant!” said the
middle-aged woman, pointing to a jar of pills costing 640 roubles, more than
many people make in a month. “Everyone wants to live a full life so they
are still buying them anyway,” Chernova said. “Of course, on my salary
I cannot afford them so I have never tried one.”
Olesiya Gerasmova, 22, who works in a store selling imported perfumes and
toiletries, said sales have risen since the August crisis because people
want to look and feel good in hard times. There are also other reasons why
the August banking crisis and devaluation, which cut the value of the rouble
by a third, may not deliver a mortal blow to local residents. Food prices
remain low, with a tasty loaf of bread costing about a dime (10 cents). And
of the few people who had money in banks, 91 percent had accounts with Sberbank,
the state savings bank which is still working, according to Governor Alexander
Clearly, there are signs of hardship in Stavropol.
Some residents gather around a noticeboard wearing signs around their necks
hoping to sell apartments or other property. Roads and buildings are in need
of repair. Some poeple have cut back on what they consume. “In mornings
I used to have coffee and juice. Now I drink only Russian tea,” said Yelena
Stovburova, who works in a stationery store. Yet amid difficulty, many keep
their sense of humour.
“I have some good news and some bad,” a smiling aide to the governor announced
recently when walking into a room of several government workers. “The good
news is that Wednesday is pay day. The bad news is that it is only for
Stavropol Mayor Mikhail Kuzmin’s explanation of the current economic situation
mixes the “hidden resources” and “Road Runner” models. “Externally,
things seem normal,” he said in an interview. “But of course people are
worse off today. We are still going forward on inertia, including existing
supplies. “Everyone survives in their own way,” he continued. “But if
nothing changes, then things will only get worse.”
Newsday 25 July 1999
Living Off Land / Gardens called key to survival
BY: By Michael Slackman.
Balabanova, Russia – At the very first hint of spring, Nina Fomichenko trudged
down four flights of stairs and made her way across a courtyard of dirt and
weeds to begin tending a small vegetable garden ringed by a makeshift fence
of sticks and twigs.
For the disabled, 68-year-old pensioner, working on her hands and knees in
the dirt and a blazing hot sun is anything but a hobby. It’s a matter of
survival, providing her main source of food. “I don’t know what would happen
if I didn’t have my garden,” Fomichenko said as she plucked green cucumbers
from the vine one recent day.
In October, Fomichenko stood in the mud outside her dilapidated apartment
building and sobbed. As her shoulders heaved, she told a reporter she was
terrified of starving to death, alone in her two-room, unheated apartment.
She had little money, and food prices were out of her reach.
But Fomichenko survived – primarily because of her garden. And now, while
the summer sun is still scorching Russia with a record-breaking heat wave,
she is anxiously preparing for the next winter, pickling, salting, canning
and praying for as long a growing season as possible. “Can you just imagine?
I do this to have my own,” she said as she pulled a carrot from the ground,
wiped it off and tucked it beneath her arm.
If the quality of life in Russia is starting to feel better, it is primarily
because the people have grown accustomed to their circumstance, honing personal
strategies of survival rather than waiting for the government to remedy society’s
underlying social and economic troubles. This is most evident when it comes
to the production of food.
Russia is barely producing any. Instead, its people are feeding themselves.
Russians have long grown vegetables to supplement their diets. But not since
World War II, when Russia was invaded by the Germans and its economy geared
entirely toward the war effort, have the people here had to rely so exclusively
on their own gardens, cows and chickens to feed themselves. Even in relatively
well-to-do Moscow, many families rush to the countryside to tend their gardens
as much out of necessity as desire.
“We have a situation now where this seems to be the only way to avoid hunger,”
said Marina Krassilnikova, an economist and specialist in Russian living
standards. “Food produced on your land is the last opportunity to have something
Last winter, officials in Russia and throughout the West predicted that this
nation’s economic crisis, coupled with a collapsed agricultural system, would
lead to widespread famine. The wheat harvest was at an all-time low, imports
were far too expensive and the winter is always long and brutal. This year,
the situation in some ways appears to be even more perilous. While the wheat
crop is expected to be slightly better, it will fall far short of actual
need. And after last year’s poor crop, wheat reserves are down from 30 million
tons to just 3 million tons.
But like last winter, it’s unlikely that famine will strike. “There is no
food shortage,” said Dimitri Vermel, professor of the All-Russian Scientific
Research Institute of the Economy of Agriculture. “From this point of view,
we are similar to other civilized countries.”
And the main reason, experts agree, is because the people are producing record
levels of food themselves – up to 80 percent of fruits and vegetables, 56.6
percent of meat, 48.1 percent of milk, 91 percent of potatoes.
Galina Puzikova is a typical example. She lives with her husband, a retired
army officer, on the outskirts of this city. Her husband has not found any
work since leaving his military base in Siberia more than a year ago, so
they invested their meager savings in a cow. The animal lives in the front
yard of their wooden house, behind a rickety wooden fence, and provides them
with milk, which they consume and sell to neighbors. This one cow is the
main source of dairy products for many in the area, including Nina Tepleykh
and her husband, Boris. “It is what we have,” Boris said as he poured himself
a glass of the raw milk.
Balabanova, once a vibrant industrial city, is today a rundown low-income
housing project. About 30,000 people live in concrete apartment blocks that
look as if they were built in a hurry, huge slabs pieced together, one identical
to the next. The hallways are urine stained, with no working lights and plaster
crumbling from the walls.
But all around Balabanova, as well as in the city center and throughout the
surrounding woods, there are gardens, some more elaborate than others, but
each one containing some of the essentials of survival: Potatoes, beets,
cabbage and cucumbers. Many are just plots of land, 66 by 99 feet, with rows
of vegetables. Others are slightly larger, located in summer communities,
where individuals built their own small, unheated homes, with well water,
outhouses and metal mansard roofs.
The story of Nina and Boris Tepleykh is typical not only of Balabanova but
also of Russia. Like Fomichenko, they panicked as last winter approached,
and like their neighbor, they survived on the foods from their own garden.
“I don’t do this for recreation,” said pensioner Nina Tepleykh, who spends
the spring and summer working full time in their garden. “Without this, we
Even before the snow was off the ground in Balabanova, the Tepleykhs had
planted seeds on their bedroom window sill – tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.
Nina is a retired laboratory worker, and her husband is a retired driver.
Together they earn about $45 a month, enough to cover their housing, electric
and phone bills and to give their children some help. But that leaves almost
nothing for food.
When he was still working, Boris had begged his employer to give him a small
piece of land to grow vegetables and build a small house, called a dacha.
For decades, even though land ownership is not permitted, employers have
allocated small plots to their workers. The best connected, particularly
government officials, received the choicest parcels.
Boris only received his patch of land after his retirement 10 years go. It
is about 10 miles from his home, a long, hot drive in his 1976 Moskvich car,
located just at the edge of the woods. There, he and his wife built a tiny
A-frame house, leaving the rest of the land for their garden. The minute
the weather started to break, they rushed out, with the seedlings in the
back of the car, and began to plant.
“Not every man can cope with the amount of work my wife does,” says Boris,
who can barely help because of arthritis in his leg. “We have to do this,”
she said as she inspected the peas growing beside the house. “It is getting
worse. Prices go up every day.”
But there is also an intangible benefit to all this work, something the people
rarely talk about but that is evident in the flowers that grow beside the
fruit and vegetables, the chamomile that spreads beyond the gates of the
gardens and mixes a sweet scent with the dirt and weeds. In the midst of
their dreary, difficult lives, these gardens provide a chance to take control,
to get out of tiny, stuffy apartments and to experience the creative fulfillment
from watching something grow.
“It’s true”, Nina said, gently rubbing a tall purple flower with her hand.
“I have 50 different kinds of flowers. It gives me pleasure.”
Nina’s garden is robust, with everything from pumpkins
to garlic and beet root. But the unusually hot weather this year has only
made it more difficult, threatening to dry up the well that she uses not
only to water the plants but also to cook and drink. Weather officials say
this was the longest sustained heat wave since the meteorological service
here began collecting data more than 110 years ago.
Nina Fomichenko is facing the same problem with the weather. She has been
working her small plot, about 100 yards from her apartment, for 20 years,
ever since a brick factory closed down and stopped dredging mud from the
area. Her garlic is already turning yellow, from the heat, and her cucumbers
are small. She fears that a nearby pond, from which she drags buckets of
water, will soon dry up. She would then have to lug buckets of water from
Nothing here seems to come easy.
“It is impossible to bear this life,” Nina Tepleykh said, looking at her
hands, callused and stained from the garden.