CHELYABINSK, RUSSIA — RETIRED schoolteacher Grigory Shelestov rarely leaves his one-room apartment in the Tractor Works District of the grimy Siberian industrial city of Chelyabinsk. His health is too frail to allow him to stand in the endless lines.
Mr. Shelestov depends on the frequent visits of the woman he affectionately calls "my magic helper," his social worker, Ludmilla Fominikh. "I don't know how I would live without her."
Ludmilla arrives this day with a bag of peanuts and some meager purchases. Grigory receives what is by current standards a generous pension - just raised to 472 rubles a month. But with butter selling for more than 200 rubles a kilo and meat for 60 rubles a kilo, those pensions don't go far these days.
"This is difficult work," sighs Ludmilla. Many of her charges are living on bread and milk. "I feel sorry for them," she says, though she, her husband, and three children are also struggling.
Pensioner Shelestov is one of about 45,000 people who authorities in the Chelyabinsk region say are desperately in need of humanitarian aid. Among the 3.2 million population of the Chelyabinsk region, a concentration of steel and metal industry on the far side of the Ural mountains in western Siberia, there are an additional 300,000 people who require assistance.
But the regional government has neither the money nor the resources to help. The recently implemented price liberalization, which has sent prices of basic goods skyrocketing, has boosted the social-welfare budget needs from 60 million rubles last year to 1.5 billion rubles this year, says Vadim Nikitin, head of the Chelyabinsk Social Welfare agency.
"The pensioners won't be able to survive without our aid," Mr. Nikitin says. The most desperate - mostly single senior citizens - require free food; the other 300,000 get a food package at least once a month. "What we need is humanitarian aid. Even if we had money, we wouldn't be able to buy the food for sick people during a hard winter at these crazy prices," he says.
Last winter, when conditions were far better than now, the region received 700 tons of food from Germany via the CARE relief organization. So far, no Western aid has made its way to Chelyabinsk this year.
This is despite the fact that the West has made the Urals a priority for aid distribution in Russia, second only to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Help for giant cities such as Cheylyabinsk, Magnitogorsk, and Yekaterinburg, defense industry concentrations with little local agriculture to support them, is considered crucial to avert political unrest.
Yet when Nikitin traveled to Moscow to make his requests, Alexander Zhitnikov, the Russian deputy minister for social welfare, could only promise him aid when it is available.
Nikitin has his own theory about where the aid is going. "Mosow Mayor [Gavriil] Popov keeps all the aid from the planes that land in Moscow," he says.
But authorities here also admit that they do not know how to obtain Western aid. "We don't understand the mechanism of receiving aid very well," says Vladimir Seleznov, the personal representative of Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
Nor are the proud people of this frozen land comfortable with taking handouts. "Personally I reject any humanitarian aid," says Andrei Belishko, deputy head of the regional government. "But I am responsible for our old people, children, and poor people."
Standing in his room crowded with books and pictures of his family, Shelestov recalls having survived the war and three famines. "I am not frightened," he insists. "The main thing is that bread, water, and salt should be available."