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In Russia, pensioners acquire a new name: paupers


MOSCOW -- Vera Kovtunenko, who served the Soviet state as a teacher for 40 years, is reduced these days to standing on a frozen walkway near a down-at-the-heels outdoor market, trying to sell her late husband's trousers.

She holds up the clothing patiently, silently, hoping to get a precious 500 rubles -- the equivalent of $1 -- for the warm quilted pants her husband wore fishing. She is getting by on a monthly pension of 3,000 rubles -- $6 -- which puts her firmly in pauperdom.

Like most of Russia's pensioners, Mrs. Kovtunenko belongs to a generation born into suffering and raised on terror; they matured in hardship, and only retirement brought the promise of respite.

Then the system collapsed, and the future evaporated with it, leaving the nation's 43 million pensioners to grow old in poverty and humiliation.

Living on fixed incomes and vulnerable to all the pain inflicted by Russia's economic reform, they might well be expected to do everything in their means to resist. But in a humbling testament to fortitude and grit, most pensioners here decline the opportunity to march across Red Square hoisting the red banners of old.

They are out on the streets, making do.

"We're still smiling," Mrs. Kovtunenko says, standing stoically under a gray sky and falling snow, occasionally shifting her feet in the cold wind.

Her friend, Lydia Scherbenok, also a retired teacher, stands next to her, offering a couple of packets of out-of-date okra seeds from the United States, some dish towels and old but hardly used books like "Where the Threat to the World Comes From." (It's about the United States.)

"Of course life is hard," Mrs. Scherbenok says. "But I haven't lost my optimism. I wasn't happy under communism. They ruined everything. The country was great, and it was forced into such poverty. The country was beautiful and rich, and then the Communists made it so ugly."

A few miles away, inside the Russian Ministry of Social Protection, Alevtina Klimkina shakes her head in admiration.

"I love this generation," says Mrs. Klimkina, deputy minister for social protection. "They have never seen anything good. They have always suffered, and yet they are optimists. How can we not survive with people like them?"

It's somewhat misleading to call pensioners here retired. Almost all of them are fully employed. Last year, their time was consumed shopping for other family members. When stores were bare, it was the elderly who stood for hours in line to provide for the family while their children and grandchildren were at work and at school.

Then, most people had some money but there was nothing to buy. This year, there's plenty to buy, but hardly anyone has any money.

So the pensioners have adapted once again. Now they're trying to make money. They stand in line to buy cigarettes at state stores where the prices are still low, then stand on the street and sell them for a profit. Vodka sales work the same way.

Elderly women buy an armload of bread, then take it to markets where busy foreigners and businessmen will buy it, paying a few rubles for the convenience.

Others stand on the street, selling their possessions, trying desperately to stay ahead of inflation. Late at night, some of Moscow's main downtown streets are still lined with a gantlet of motionless elderly women, holding up a pair of boots or a tablecloth or a sweater, trying to make a little money. Only a very few beg.

"Pensioners have a double burden," says Mrs. Klimkina. "One is psychological. If they had any savings, it was destroyed by inflation. Everything they ever worked for disappeared. And then they have the financial burden of trying to live on a small pension."

If this were the United States, congressmen's telephones would be ringing off the hook. Faxes would be humming. Marches would be under way.

But in Russia, there's nothing like the American Association of Retired Persons. Advocates for old people tend to gather in pro-Communist groups, and the general population certainly does not sympathize with a return to communism.

So when the pro-Communist, anti-reform marches gather on Red Square, many of them attended by old people, they don't carry much political clout.

The idea of pressure groups hasn't caught on here yet. And most politicians have not yet had to confront a real re-election campaign, so the idea of a voting record is untried.

"I don't see any point in a political group for pensioners," says Mrs. Scherbenok. "The government knows the economic situation for pensioners quite well, and what do they do?"

Both women feel somewhat neglected by an ungrateful government. "I feel it very much," says Mrs. Kovtunenko. "I worked very hard, and we never had enough money. Of course I feel forgotten. My voice is not heard. All my life, I gave to the state, and the state doesn't care now."

If the elderly here are less represented than their counterparts elsewhere, they are in a way more protected. The vast majority of the elderly live with their families rather than on their own. The entire family shares what they have.

"It's our tradition," says Mrs. Klimkina. "We keep our old people in the family. And usually there's no choice, anyway. It's hard to get an apartment."

Also, for the time being, the conservative-dominated Russian Parliament has been regularly raising pensions.

As of Feb. 1, the minimum monthly pension was nearly doubled, to 4,275 rubles. Pensions also are being indexed to inflation, and will be adjusted quarterly. But even this will keep pensioners close to penury because they remain at the bare subsistence level.

Just the other day, a burglar broke into the home of a pensioner living in a small town on the Volga River. According to the local newspaper, Sovetskaya Chuvashia, the door was open and the lock was broken, but nothing was stolen.

Instead, the elderly inhabitant found a sympathetic note and 5,000 rubles. "Old man," the note read, "no one can live this poorly. Sorry for the broken door. Here's money for the damage."

Indeed, most elderly people must spend their entire income on food. "If my rent is increased, there is nothing left to do but die," says Mrs. Kovtunenko, shivering in her worn brown coat.

Mrs. Scherbenok, who worked fewer years than her friend, has a slightly lower pension. "I think soon we will die of hunger," she says.

But they don't dwell on such gloomy prospects. Despite their fear and privations, neither woman is willing to oppose economic reform. Neither wants to return to the past.

"We lived near the river and you could see beautiful ships go by, four decks high, filled with well-dressed, well-fed people amusing themselves," Mrs. Scherbenok says.

"That was for the apparatchiks [bureaucrats] and nomenklatura [influential people]. But what did we get? I could see it, and I knew there was no justice. No, I don't want to go back."

Mrs. Kovtunenko looks up cheerfully. "Never mind," she says. "We'll survive."

Mrs. Scherbenok agrees. "At least our grandchildren will live better than we did."

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