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Russia: life on the poverty line

About the author
Liza Surnachev is a student of the Moscow University Journalism Department and writes for the Russian e-zine

From now on, I'm becoming a lonely pensioner. For the next month, I'm going to live off what the Russian State Department of Statistics, Rosstat, calls its minimum consumer shopping basket.

russia-lisa-1 Rosstat publishes a quarterly budget of the minimum cost of living. This takes into account inflation, the index of consumer prices and the cost of the food required to live on. At the beginning of March 2008 it read like this: ‘The monthly cost of a subsistence selection of grocery products in Moscow was 2,181 rubles and 70 kopecks." This is about 62 Euros. If you've ever tried living in Moscow, the very fact of putting the words ‘groceries', ‘month', ‘Moscow' and ‘2,181 rubles 70 kopecks' into the same sentence will provoke the sorts of reaction I got from the editorial staff at What's that? Where can you find prices like that? What's actually in that basket?

Russia has suffered rapid inflation in recent months. According to Rosstat, it was 5.3% over the last three months. In some regions the price of bread is almost 30 rubles a loaf. Surveys in April suggested that Russians are now more afraid of rising prices than of terrorism.

Elections have only made things worse. There were the State Duma elections on 2 December and the presidential elections on 2 March. Then Dmitrii Medvedev was designated to become our next president on 7 May. Last autumn, the government ordered a price freeze on some staple foods during this pre-election period - bread, flour, milk, eggs, vegetable oil. But this price freeze only served to heat up the price of other foods. What's more, we can expect a steep rise in prices after the ‘unfreezing' on 1 May. Since this more or less coincides with Medvedev's inauguration, the new government, headed by the Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is going to have to sort that one out.

This ‘consumer shopping basket' consists of a list drawn up by several departments of the minimum required for subsistence. It includes foodstuffs (107kg of potatoes, 23kg of fruit and 238 litres of milk per year), as well as clothes (5 pairs of tights or socks per year, 5 sets of underwear every two years), plus housing, utilities, transport etc. It was established in 1992 as a way of calculating a poverty threshold (desperate poverty, I'd say). The contents of this basket are reviewed once every five years, and the cost is recalculated once a quarter. In theory at least, the minimum wage, the level of pensions and other social security benefit are determined on the basis of it.

For one day, I tried to live on exactly the foodstuffs suggested by Rosstat's ‘shopping basket.' But it rapidly became clear that I wasn't going to be able to keep this up. So I decided to stick within the sum of money rather than limit myself to the contents of the basket.

Brilliance and poverty. The first day.

Items purchased: bread, two cabbages, 0.5kg of carrots, 1 onion, 2 heads of garlic, 1 litre of vegetable oil, 1 kg of rice, a selection of chicken bits for soup (0.5 kg), chicken pieces for stewing (0.7 kg), 100g of tea, 1 kg of potatoes, a bunch of dill, 250g of sour cream, 1 kg of buckwheat, 250g of butter, 10 eggs, 1 litre of milk , 150g of cheese, 10g of saffron and an apple.

Cost: 628 rubles 90 kopecks. Balance remaining: 1552 rubles 80 kopecks

I decided to buy vegetables more cheaply later in the evening, from the vegetable kiosk at the metro. There are only three stalls there, where three brothers sell the same vegetables for the same price. I always go to the same one - he never cheats me, and always wishes me bon appetit. But by the time I got out there it was dark and ‘my' kiosk was shut, so I went to another. Because it was dark, I couldn't see what the man was doing through the kiosk window. When I came home I found that three of my eight potatoes are slightly rotten and the cabbage is yellow inside and inedible. OK, at least I could eat half the potatoes for supper. But my cabbage salad was wretched.

Next morning I went back to the stall-holder and told him he ought to be ashamed of cheating a young girl. ‘Me - cheat! The very thought! Look how fresh and firm my cabbages are!' he said, chopping one open right there . I felt like bursting into tears: so he doesn't cheat everyone - just me. I'd have done better to keep quiet.

I comforted myself by buying a bunch of dill. Mum said I should be growing my own herbs in the window box.

I went round all the markets within walking distance of the three metro stations nearest me- basically there just isn't any cheap fruit and vegetables. Carrots are all imported now, and cost 30 rubles a kilogramme. As for this mythical fruit I've been hearing about, which they say you can get for 100 rubles, I haven't got a clue where to find that. There are just mandarins for 80 rubles, oranges for 60 and apples at 50 for the cheapest. Miserably, I got myself an apple for 15 rubles (well, it was a big one), saffron for 10 rubles (not an extravagance -a way of making all this cereal taste of something), onions and garlic for 10 rubles.

At the supermarket, the prices were catastrophic. I bought the cheapest milk, and by the third day it was off. I forked out for ten eggs too, which is meant to last me for three weeks. No salami, sausages, bacon, pate or other ‘sandwich' products - they're not nutritious and they cost a lot. As for the vast array of goodies to eat with tea and coffee, and the fruit, tomatoes, cucumbers and Bulgarian peppers (very expensive out of season) - I couldn't bear to look at any of that. Real coffee beans are a luxury. The price of fresh meat, poultry and fish are horrendous.

I buy buckwheat and rice. Cheap and filling. When we were students and utterly broke, one of my classmates gave me this mantra ‘Buckwheat's the most nutritious food'. Repeat after me..

I get butter - a packet costs more than half my daily budget. My friends will say I'm being extravagant again. I looked at the margarine then put it back. Another time...

The problem is that there's not a single shop with decent prices anywhere in walking distance. There's the market, but that's usually over by the time I get back from work. There's a shop which sells beer and crisps, and there's the supermarket, where prices are frozen on bread, milk, eggs, vegetable oil. I suppose I'm going to have to stick to those for the next month.

From now, everything that saves time is out: nothing oven-ready, and above all, no eating out. Breakfast cereals, yoghurt, sweetened curd cheese, buns, frozen ready-meals, pel'meni and pizzas have all become forbidden foods. Kinder, Kuchen, Kirche.

End of Part One.

Part Two: Day 10, and Liza tries to work out why she's not managing.

Part Three:

A young man woos the dwindling Liza with tempting invitations

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