Unlike Putin, Russia’s pensioners have little to celebrate

When Russia’s president Vladimir Putin turned 60 on 7 October, he reached an age where he could finally collect his state pension. But hardly any Russian would call Putin a pensioner, and not only because of his macho image.

In Russia, most pensioners are associated with poverty and isolation; they certainly can’t afford the kind of luxurious wrist watches that make up Putin’s US$700,000 collection. Truth be told, there is very little an average pensioner can afford in post-Soviet Russia.

“It’s a cruel model of ageing, as I call it,” said Eduard Karyukhin, a gerontologist who also heads Kind Deed, a charity which assists the elderly. “This system is designed so that [it] cuts them off any resources of help,” he said in an interview with Equal Times.

The average retirement pension officially stands at 9,800 rubles ($315) a month, while in many regions it is as low as 6,000 rubles ($193). However, armed forces veterans, particularly those who served in World War II, do receive a higher than average pension.

Last year, the number of pensioners in Russia reached a record number of more than 40 million. With approximately 140 million citizens, that’s a considerable proportion of the Russia population and it is expected to continue to grow.

But many face dire conditions. For instance, Karyukhin said, pensioners do not have access to doctors unless they go to a hospital themselves and stand in line for several hours. Many of them also live below the poverty line, making it difficult to afford fresh fruit and vegetables, medicine and clothes.

Galina Fyodorova, 84, is one such pensioner. Even though she has two grown up sons she is forced to beg for a living near the Belorusskaya train station in downtown Moscow.

“They don’t work and my pension is not enough to support us all,” she said grasping coins with her small, withered hands. “I have to pay 2,500 rubles (approximately $80) monthly for our flat and there is no [pensioners’] discount,” Galina complained, adding that she is a diabetic.

A seamstress by profession, she worked for 48 years at the Vympel factory having gained the honourable Soviet title of “A Veteran of Labour”. Her husband, also a factory worker, died of throat cancer some 20 years ago, while neither of her sons work.

Elderly people like Galina can be seen begging or selling self-made woollen socks all around Moscow, clustering around churches and centrally-located metro stations. But in contrast to her desperate reality, the financial support for Russian pensioners has actually improved greatly in recent years.

In 1999, the average pension was only 750 rubles (which works out somewhere between $33 and $36 based on the exchange rate for that year). Under Putin’s two previous presidential terms, pensions grew rapidly – but so too did the cost of living.

“It’s true that the situation is different from that in the 1990s, but it has had little effect, because the utilities have jumped up as well as prices for the drugs and medical services,” Karyukhin said.

During the run-up to his presidential campaign earlier this year, Putin pledged that his government would continue to increase the state pension. But there has not yet been a unanimous decision in the Cabinet on how to cover the annual pensions deficit, which currently stands at 1.3 trillion rubles ($42 billion).

Observers have repeatedly insisted that Russia will have to increase the retirement age – currently 55 for women and 60 for men in most cases – in future to cover the losses. But on top of their financial difficulties, many pensioners face widespread problems such as depression, which frequently leads to suicide.

Hardly any pensioners are able to find work, even if they want to, and even fewer can afford to relax and travel like their European counterparts, meaning that many pensioners live as virtual prisoners.

A stark example of this came to light in August.

A scandal broke at a nursing home in the Perm region when bloggers wrote that 19 pensioners were still living there even though it was officially closed in 2009.

Located in the premises of a former school, there are no longer any nurses or staff at the home but because many of the residents had nowhere else to go they stayed, paying utilities and organising the care of vulnerable residents amongst themselves.

Local media reports said that many didn’t want to leave for fear of being left alone but for many of Russia’s pensioners, that is already the case.