Russia's Elderly: a Group Cast Aside

As enterprises struggle to adapt under tight market conditions, older employees are often the first to be let go; many seniors struggle to make ends meet by selling goods on the black market

LAST year, Valentina Komarova lost her job at the former Red Army factory where she had worked proudly since 1949. The enterprise was losing money in the wake of the Soviet collapse, but Mrs. Komarova's bosses promised that her government pension would make up for her lost wages.

This year, Komarova, whose pension equals one-sixth of the average Russian salary, embarked on a new profession: She illegally sells bread outside a busy subway station for 200 rubles (about 10 cents) a loaf more than the government stores charge.

``The factory didn't have enough money to pay our salaries, so they let all the young people keep their jobs and fired all us pensioners,'' says Komarova, hawking freshly baked loaves just a few feet from Russia's first McDonald's franchise. ``They told us: `You're pensioners; you already have enough to eat.' ''

Russia's elderly, most of whom survive on barely subsistence-level pensions, have rapidly emerged as this vast nation's most-neglected class. Many have seen their life savings eaten up by inflation; but as enterprises struggle to adapt under tight new market conditions, older employees are often the first to be let go and the last to be hired.

The Soviet Union they fought for has long disappeared, and the Communist ideals they so ardently embraced are mocked by today's youth. Russia's disgruntled elderly are now a key political base for forces opposed to reforms - from the Russian Communists to extreme nationalists.

``[President Boris] Yeltsin promised not to raise prices, and now look how much food costs!'' says Galina Golovanova, as she sells bags of potato chips. ``In the old days we lived well because everybody lived the same.''

For many of these pensioners, the final indignity is to be forced, often after decades of hard labor, to take on humiliating -

and often difficult - work in order to survive in the topsy-turvy world of post-Soviet market economics.

``The police have already called me in twice for selling without a permit,'' Komarova confides as she begins crying, her shabby overcoat partially covering her faded dress. She considers herself fortunate if she pulls in 4,000 rubles daily (about $2).

Inside the station, lines of old people mirror scenes across the capital: They stand from sunup to sundown selling items ranging from toilet paper to kitchen matches to outdated newspapers. Some sell kittens and puppies they buy wholesale from the breeder; others unload Western humanitarian aid donations. Still others, including an elderly disabled man, beg for coins.

The minimum monthly pension is currently 24,000 rubles (about $12), according to the Rossiiskaya Gazeta government newspaper. The minimum amount needed to survive, the paper estimates, is about 111,000 rubles ($55) monthly, while the average monthly salary is about 227,000 rubles ($114).

``If you get 30,000 rubles a month and the survival minimum is 111,000, how can you preserve your human dignity?'' asks Natasha Kereslidze of the Veteran newspaper, which advocates senior citizens' rights. ``Our pensioners are a proud people, they were victors in World War II, and they suffered great trials. But now their whole lives are being degraded.''

The government raises pensions 30 percent every six months to keep pace with inflation, says Yuri Fedulov of the Ministry of Social Protection's statistics department. But lawmakers are considering a plan that would cut off pensions to those who take on full-time jobs.

``Old people are in a difficult situation right now,'' Mr. Fedulov says. ``But people with children are facing the worst difficulties, because children need more money to live than old people.''

Tell that to Lyubov Petrova, a retired nursery-school teacher who, like most elderly Russians, says she has not been able to afford meat for years.

``I eat salted cabbage, porridge, vermicelli noodles,'' says Mrs. Petrova, who also earns extra cash selling bread on the street. ``Sometimes I get potatoes from the countryside.''

The situation has become so acute that two pensioners in the Russian republic of Bashkortostan collapsed in a bread store last week after a clerk mistakenly posted signs saying the price of bread had risen three-fold, the Izvestia newspaper reported.

Few charity programs for old people exist, and soup kitchens are few and far between. But as more and more families slip under the poverty level, more are turning to the state for support.

``For Russian families, putting a parent in an old folk's home was always considered a disgrace,'' Ms. Kereslidze says. ``In the past, everyone helped grandma and grandpa. But now all that's changed.''

Capitalism also poses a host of new problems. Unaccustomed to new ways, the elderly are often prime targets for the myriad of financial scams that have recently emerged, such as programs that lure people in with offers of 1,000 percent or greater return on their investments.

Privatization has also brought pitfalls. The Moscow police have reported numerous cases of old people disappearing or being murdered after they sold their privatized apartments to unscrupulous agents with the stipulation that they could live with them until their death.

For Yelena Korpenko, selling home-grown tulips and daisies for 1,000 rubles (50 cents) a bouquet outside a popular farmer's market in central Moscow is the only way she can survive.

``We needed freedom,'' the widow says bitterly as well-dressed young men offer expensive cherries and bananas nearby. ``But somehow it should have been different than this.''

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