The Curse of Poverty
published by Novaya Gazeta, Russia
It is as if the poor, as calculated in the tables of Rosstat [Russian Federal State Statistics Service – Trans.] and split up into Excel boxes, had ceased to be people and had turned into ciphers and columns of figures. People fall ill, but figures don’t, people go hungry, but figures don’t beg for bread. Statistics, based as they are on percentages and millions, lose sight of the specific and unique individual. But he doesn’t vanish somewhere, he is here on the next street, in the next block or flat.
We can see poverty right next to us, all you have to do is look. It comes in various guises, it’s the old lady who takes a long time counting out her coins at the till in the supermarket, suddenly it appears in the accordionist playing “The Waves of the Amur” behind a cardboard box, it screams and wails from the shabby façades of five-storey blocks of flats a hundred miles from Moscow, the joints of which are smeared with tar, and it lives in our pockets and our souls in the form of despondency, submissiveness and fear.
5,5% of the inhabitants in Russia are in receipt of an income of less than 7,000 roubles. Translated from percentage terms into millions, that is 8 million people with an income of less than 7,000. These figures are perfectly fine, they keep themselves to themselves, in official statistical tables and do not prompt any government crisis (we don’t have any anyway), debates in the Duma (in the absence of a Duma), or heart attacks for civil servants, who, knowing about such figures in their own agency, should be tearing their hair out and be wracked with heartache. But nothing of the sort happens and cannot happen in today’s Russia, where the defining characteristic of the government is a complete and absolute indifference to everything, except itself.
7,000 roubles a month as recorded by the dry figures of Rosstat is an outrage and the absolute bottom of the pit – one which it is impossible to clamber out of. If you start thinking of how someone can live on 7,000, you quickly find yourself on a dead end, because it is very difficult, indeed almost impossible, to comprehend. It means a life of poverty, life in a padded jacket, life with a leaky tin bucket, a life of bread and spuds, life punctuated only rarely by the purchase of the cheapest sausages, because they are a luxury. A life of lengthy reflecting on whether or not you can afford to buy a packet of Jubilee biscuits with a packet of tea. You don’t hear about people who live like this in the media, they don’t appear on TV, or join demonstrations – in fact it’s as if they didn’t exist at all.
They are a pain and a problem, and problems are something the government doesn’t deal with. Obviously, there is no room for them in the heads of those who are busy trying to belittle America or raising hell in the UK.
35,2% of people in employment in Russia live on less than 21,800 roubles a month. That means that one in five Russians doesn’t get enough to eat, gets sick because of wrong or poor diet, walks around in old clothing and does not get normal health care, because he can’t afford expensive medicines and private medicine.
These figures demonstrate the nature of our State better and clearer than all the numerous articles of journalists or speeches by oppositionists. It shows up the State as an unfeeling force which is indifferent to people and couldn’t care a toss about their suffering and pain.
(The data cited in the text are taken from tables found on the Rosstat site. These are mainly statistics for 2017; later statistics are not always available on the site. This in no way changes the assessments of the situation or the conclusions.)
We can see poverty right next to us, all you have to do is look.
The American dream is about being successful through work. Traditional German values are based on hard work being properly remunerated. In Russia it’s different. Work to be poor, work harder so that from being poor you end up as a beggar, work until retirement on a pension you can’t live on, work blindly and senselessly, with no hope of either prosperity or well-being – that’s how things are in today’s Russia.
7,9% of Russians get a wage of 10,600 roubles. 41% of Russians get a salary of less than 20,000. This translates into tens of millions of people with empty pockets, who have no savings and who are continually racking their brains about where to get money, at the same time as being dogged by hopelessness, because there is nowhere to get it from.
At best it means a straightjacket of credit, at worst – a lifetime of poverty on the verge of hunger, eking things out with the last banknote left before payday. Poverty is bequeathed as an inheritance to children, because there’s no way out. 40 or 50 million Russians work like convicts and yet live stupefied and exasperated by poverty.
They used to blow up atomic bombs on the Semipalatinsk testing-ground so as to check out the impact on buildings, military hardware, animals and people. But the radiation affects not only the people who were there at the time, but travels through time and penetrates the bodies of the next generation, as demonstrated by the fact that on the register of recipients of monthly allowances there are “children up to 18 of the first and second generations of citizens who received time-integrated (cumulative) effective radiation doses in excess of 5s3v (rems) who suffer from diseases resulting from the radiation impact on any one parent as a result of nuclear tests on Semipalatinsk testing-ground”.
What a terrifying sentence, and a terrifying expression: “effective dose”, not to mention the deadly repetition of “resulting from…as a result of” – but better not linger over the language of bureaucracy, even if it is a reflection of what is going on in the minds of bureaucrats. Let’s look at the figures instead: the allowance comes to 677 roubles and 14 kopecks.
That is: your dad or your mum were sent to, or just happened to live in, a place where the State exploded atomic bombs, a place where the earth melts and horses tethered to trees catch fire together with the trees, and the State didn’t protect your mum and dad from the effect of such explosions and that past experience has been transmitted to you, has entered your being, your genes and your bloodstream. You were sick from birth. Your life became the victim of a bomb that blew up long before you were even born. As if that weren’t enough, you were even examined by multiple doctors and passed before commissions and maybe even courts of law and you managed to prove that you weren’t just sick, but sick as a result of the radiation your parents received on the testing-ground. How is the State going to redeem its guilt for that, how should it assist you? Exempt you from payment of medication for the rest of your life? Award you a free life-insurance policy to consult any clinic of your choice? No, it will give you 677 roubles a month. But wait! Where are you going? You forgot the 14 kopecks! How many roubles and kopecks does it cost a month, I wonder, for the ruling élite of the country to eat through all that black and red caviar? How much whiskey do they get through? That’s secret data though, Rosstat doesn’t have access to that.
It’s impossible to comprehend how in a European country with museums and internet, with cars and planes, allowances of 3 euros can be paid to people.
If a child grows up without a father, his mother needs support. The State acknowledges that by the mere fact of paying out allowances to mothers. But saying that it acknowledges it is one thing, when it actually gives it, it becomes a mockery. The amount of the allowance varies from region to region, in Kursk region it’s 312 roubles, in Kostroma 230, whereas in Novgorod it’s 400, although it hasn’t gone up in either Kostroma or Novgorod over the last three years. This is a sad business, but not much worse that the increase of 12 roubles on the subsidy in Kursk. Looking at figures like these, you begin to numb over, because it’s impossible to comprehend how in a European country with museums and internet, with cars and planes, allowances of 3 euros can be paid to people. It can’t be so! But it is and has been like that for a long time now, so much so that we are used to it and keep mum, whereas we should be screaming.
The more you look at these endless tables of figures, the more you learn about the amounts involved in wages, pensions and allowances, the more you get the feeling that yes, this is indeed a mockery. That behind all these figures there is someone maliciously giggling away. There is no other way of explaining that the allowance for a woman looking after her child is 50 roubles; moreover, one that is paid not by the State, but by the employer. It is impossible to understand the monstrous rule which has it that if a woman goes out to work before her child is 18 months old, she loses her allowance. Why? What for? Do you begrudge the fact that she will receive both a wage and an allowance? That is the logic not of a humane social state interested in people having enough to live on and being in good health, but of a prison guard darting his eyes this way and that to make sure that no-one gets an extra ration. It is impossible to explain the fact that the minimum level for a pensioner is 8,615 roubles and the pension for someone who has been a very serious Grade 1 invalid since childhood is 13,341 roubles, except in terms of a mockery.
You can’t live on money like this. On this kind of money you can only suffer and drag yourself towards your coffin.
Or is it that the people living in the beautiful world of glistening white palaces on the banks of the river, with their private planes and smiling flight attendants and their gilded apartments the size of football pitches, have simply lost any understanding of the value of money and of how much things cost?
50 roubles a month for a woman looking after a child; 230 paid to single mothers and 430 allocated towards feeding a pregnant woman – after she has made an application, submitted two documents and three medical notes; and 8,000 that they insist a pensioner must live on; and the increase in college student grants for academic years 2018-2019 of 34 roubles and as much as 62 for students at higher educational establishments – is proof of the senselessness and insanity of the state.
Attacking your neighbour and tormenting him for long years, lying to all and sundry, doing nasty stuff on a global scale, threatening people with poison and nuclear weapons, keeping drugs in the embassy storeroom, boasting about your Swiss watches, transporting money off-shore in double-basses, hunting wild animals on the Red Book of Dying Species from helicopters, foisting on the Senate not a horse but a murderer, ranting unimaginable guff about the death of democracy and the demise of the West at the same time as passing each other under the table suitcases, briefcases, trunks, full of money, more and more and quicker and quicker – that’s no state, but more like a den of thieves.
It’s not that there is no money. There is money, in colossal, stupefying quantities. Rather the case that money goes on anything but people, or creating conditions and opportunities for them. Money is thrown into the stoke-hole of adventures, burnt in Donbas and Syria, squandered on the salaries of football- and hockey-players, money is spent on organising junkets for the entire world and on carving out pleasant little nooks where you can live quietly and cosily behind four-metre high fences. The money which the country needs to live and develop is instead spent on closing the country up, putting the brakes on and making it a pariah. The money that is missing from people’s pockets can be found in abundance in the pockets of civil servants and rabid propagandists. Neither is there any lack of money for hiring murderers of opposition politicians and puppets for presidential elections.
On this kind of money you can only suffer and drag yourself towards your coffin.
If you can’t live on your wages; if on your pension you can only die; if your invalid child receives only a tiny donation from the state; if the graduate, who is expected to make a break-through in science, receives a stipend of 7,000 roubles; if the monthly pension of thousands of pensioners comes to the price of a car that an insolent boy from a family of nouveaux riches heedlessly crashes into a column – that means that the money belonging to all these people has been grabbed by somebody. It didn’t just disappear or vanish into thin air or wing off to Mars, no, – it migrated into the pockets of senior civil servants, oligarchs, members of the Duma, FSB generals, their bodyguards and menials. It was spirited abroad and sits there on their accounts. Instead of being used for cheap housing, cheap food, medication for the sick, rehabilitation for invalids, social housing, free internet and cheap computers for those who can’t afford to buy them at full price (as well as a lot of other good and useful stuff), this money is put to buying – in front of our very eyes – luxury apartments for KGB agents, fabulous Maybachs for well-fed tycoons, English palaces and Italian villas for those who sing of eternal war with the soulless West.
This money should be returned to the State. Money is the lifeblood of the economy, blood has to be transfused back into the lifeless, inert body so that it can revive and regain consciousness after decades of horrendous ailing and fainting. What we need is a state controlled by the people and working for the people, a state where the managers every day start their planning with the question: What can we do today so that by the end of the day, the month and the year, the people in the country are better off? We need a state that doesn’t boast of its incredible greatness, which in fact of course does not exist, but one which realises its pathetic place in the world economy and tries to change it.
Americans eat twice as much meat as Russians, but we eat twice as many potatoes. Austrians eat 2.5 times more fruit than Russians. Europeans spend 11% of their wages on food, whereas we spend 30%. The average wage in Switzerland is 5,564 euros, or 437,000 roubles, whereas the average wage in Russia (according to data for November 2018) stands at 42,595 roubles, or 540 euros, i.e. ten times less. A cleaner in Finland gets 2000 euros and an engineer in Russia 700.
Life expectancy in Japan is 82, in Norway 82, in Israel, which is always at war, also 82, in Albania which survived the gloom of the most boorish communism, 76, in modest Honduras which lays absolutely no claims to greatness, 75, and in great Russia 72. So in what, pray, lies our greatness? That we die more often and quicker than the Germans, Americans and Hondurans?
These are the really important figures about our life and country, which, deploying all their efforts, they try to distract us from, clouding our heads with tall stories about the unbelievable hostility of the surrounding world, the difficulty of our unique path and the need to be patient and pray.
Every unhappiness has its own history, as does every form of poverty. The reasons for poverty in India, Africa, Latin America and Russia are different. In Russia, whose wealth is not a secret, poverty is artificial, man-made. It is the direct result of mismanagement, cynicism and the hypocrisy of its rulers, the gangsters in government and of a colossal autocracy which spanned four centuries, without interruption, up to the present day.
We are dealing with an inveterate and chronic disease which has warped and broken the souls and bodies of generations throughout the whole of Russian history. We feel this poverty, breathe in its musty smell when we read Radishchev, Nekrasov, Nikolai Uspensky and Leo Tolstoy. We experience it as an invariable of Russian life, as an everlasting curse that does not let the country become what it could and should become. This poverty that has lasted centuries is the main product of autocracy, whether it be Tsarist or Stalinist, the former communist or the present KGB type – and has ground itself into our souls and minds, has been absorbed by our way of thinking, tormented and exhausted us.
The State in Russia creates and supports poverty. They need poverty as a basis for governance, a premise for their power. They need to keep people in a half-strangulated, half-conscious state so that we drag ourselves from birth to death along the appointed path without wriggling and vote correctly and empty out our pockets when the moment comes. For all other eventualities they have the Rosgvardiya [the National Guard of Russia – Trans.], the OMON and the FSB. And they don’t begrudge the money paid to secret agents and death squads either.