How Mother Russia Plucks Her Pensioners Clean

By: Celestine Bohlen
The New York Times, May 17, 1999

Ludony, Russia - Another spring, this one cold and raw, finds Aleksandra Varfolomeyeva in her one-story wooden house on the road halfway between Pskov and St. Petersburg. She lives here with her husband, her 40-year-old son, six sheep, two cows, two calves, a horse, a piglet and a dog named Fog.

Mrs. Varfolomeyeva, a vivacious 75-year-old with a gap-toothed smile beneath a brief purple kerchief, spent her working life on the local collective farm, for which she receives a Government pension of 400 rubles a month. Last year, 400 rubles were worth $66. Today, that same sum is worth $16 - that is, when it is actually delivered to her door, in cash, by the postman.

There were months last year, after the ruble crashed, when the money simply did not arrive, turning Mrs. Varfolomeyeva into one of the Russian Government's many creditors. It was not the first time the Government has borrowed money from its people; by last October, the pension debt had ballooned to 30.5 billion rubles ($3 billion at that time), owed to 38 million retirees.

Russian debts are a funny business, as big Western banks have learned to their horror and chagrin. But Mrs. Varfolomeyeva long ago stopped trying to figure out when she will get her money. As she sees it, retrieving a pension from the backlog that has piled up at the regional administrative center of Pskov is sort of like a lottery. Either your number comes up, or it doesn't.

"Some people have gotten their December checks," she said, shrugging off the whole business with a sigh, and reaching for the vial of nitroglycerin pills she keeps in her sweater pocket for her heart condition. "They are the lucky ones. I got my November one just now, but no December. Some got it, others have not - that is the way it is."

Still, since January, the Pskov district - one of Russia's poorest regions, set in an idyllic rolling countryside - has been paying each month and slowly digging its way through its backed-up pensions. At this point, it has paid up most of November, some of December and on orders from Moscow, is adding 12 percent to the May checks. Nationally, the pension debt, now officially down to 17.5 billion rubles (about $750 million), continues to shrink.

But then again, so too does the value of the ruble.

Like most rural pensioners, Mrs. Varfolomeyeva has dealt with the vanishing ruble by trying to do without it. She pays 50 rubles a month for a canister of gas for cooking and 10 rubles a month for electricity.

Otherwise, her cash expenses are down to a bare minimum - animal feed (which has tripled in price in the past year), bread, salt, sugar, flour, matches, soap, medicine and the odd tin of herring, best eaten with boiled potatoes and onions for a special treat. These are the things she buys when the "store" rolls into town on the back of a truck.

She cannot even remember the last time she took a bus anywhere, let alone to the ancient Russian city of Pskov, which lies about 60 miles to the south. "Bus?" she said with a question mark in her voice. "Who can take the bus? Where can you go with this money of ours?"

Her life is here, on the one-hectare plot - a bit less than two and a half acres - surrounding her cozy "izba," a traditional Russian cottage that through a back door, past the family outhouse, spills into a dark, low-ceilinged barn. The barn itself is no bigger than a small American living room but it is big enough for the horse, the two cows and their month-old calves.

The latest addition was the piglet, still unnamed, that was bought the day after May Day, for 580 rubles. When the Varfolomeyevs bought a piglet last spring, it cost 200 rubles. That pig eventually ended up in the larder, helping the family get through a winter that many here and abroad had feared would bring Russia to the brink of famine.

There was no famine here in Ludony last winter, and it is doubtful that anyone in the Varfolomeyev family will go hungry next winter either. Besides the pig, there is a newborn lamb and the two calves, which will either be sold or eaten after a summer feasting on the wide open pastures that stretch out behind a backyard cluttered with chopped wood, a horse cart and a combine belonging to the collective farm.

An Arctic chill over the May Day holidays postponed the planting season here in northern Russia, but Mrs. Varfolomeyeva has given her tomato plants a head start, by spreading them across the windowsills, table tops and other available surfaces in her living/bed room. Come summer, she will take up her post on the roadside, selling vegetables from her garden to passing motorists.

The vegetables bring in extra cash, as does the milk from the two cows. One of these came to the family in lieu of salary for her son, whose wages at the local collective farm, when they are paid, amount to 70 rubles a month.

"I am sorry to say that our collective farm is in very bad shape, and their salaries are miserly," Mrs. Varfolomeyeva said. "I tell him he has to keep us alive because when we die, he won't be able to live."

Mrs. Varfolomeyeva has three other children, including a daughter who lives with her family down the road a piece, and other relatives, including a sister-in-law who came rushing into her house, seeking help to find a runaway horse.

These local events tend to block out the outside world, although the war in Yugoslavia has beamed its way into Ludony via television. That is the one feature of modern life shared by a majority of households - including those, like the Varfolomeyevs', that lack both running water and a telephone.

Mrs. Varfolomeyeva is not one to pay much attention to politics, despite the changes that have convulsed her country over the last 10 years. She was born in this village, married here, worked here her whole life, and in the last years, has come to realize that when all is said and done, not much has changed.

"To be honest, my dear, we have never lived a good life," she said, as she gave a visitor a reassuring pat on the arm.


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