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Russia: report 3 from the poverty line

About the author
Liza Surnachev is a student of the Moscow University Journalism Department and writes for the Russian e-zine
liza-3 Day twenty.

Remaining balance: 583 rubles, 70 kopecks.

I've been chatting to some elderly shoppers. Although they manage on a slightly larger monthly sum, its comparable, and even they don't buy any old rubbish: they don't go for the cheapest milk because of the quality and short shelf-life; they prefer butter to margarine, except for baking. They go for damaged fruit and vegetables, and offal - liver, kidneys and bones.

So I forgave myself the butter. I also bought more oat flakes for baking, a kilo of apples (I'm gasping for vitamins!), dried fruit for porridge, a ‘soup selection' and frozen vegetables for soup (more than enough for a week). And I'm left with a measly 500 rubles in my purse... No more shopping for me this week.

After a few weeks of this experiment I find myself comparing all prices to my food budget: I could live for half a day on dictaphone batteries, and as for a ticket for the Paul Anka concert at the Kremlin, I'd last almost six months on that.

Readers letters

‘Eat ground elder and dandelions. Sunbathe. Make rusks. Buy sea kale. Make friends with some Uzbeks and eat pilaf. Plant Jerusalem artichokes.'

In general my advisers on how to live on an extremely limited sum of money divide into two large groups:

а) Students, people in a temporary crisis, bachelors, hikers.

Shared characteristic: dealing with a short-term problem.

Recommendations: lots of kasha, margarine instead of butter, buying vitamins rather than fruit and vegetables, tins instead of meat. If you follow this advice, you can make a very little money go a long way. However, that's not what I'm trying to do.I'm trying to live on what the Ministry of Health regards as a balanced diet.

b) Girls, women and celery-eating ‘girls on a diet' who are full of useful advice

These recommendations come from people who are all quite young, female, and not the remotest bit greedy. This kind of young woman needs no more than a spoonful of cottage cheese for breakfast and soup for supper, or porridge for breakfast and nothing for supper. I can more or less manage for six days like that. But let me remind you once again that a man of working age is meant to be able to live on this monthly sum - that means a cooked breakfast, three-course lunch, and perhaps even a little supper. Not one of these girls who offer me their brilliantly healthy, nutritious and tasty diets have tried managing on a budget like that.

c) Then there are those who believe that ‘We live badly, so everyone else should too.'

Let's not bother with them.

Day thirty one

Balance remaining: 18 rubles.

Kind colleagues started feeding me gingerbread and crackers. More rigorous ones proposed fines for any unsanctioned feeding of Surnacheva. The offers tailed off...

I've started being invited to restaurants, though. These are not the most romantic of invitations - ‘I'm prepared to take Liza to any restaurant in Moscow - she's wasting away!' to ‘I'd be happy to give Liza lunch, but unfortunately it's Lent, so it'll have to wait till after Easter...'

Then I met this beautifully well-brought up young man who, being well-brought up, invited me out to supper. I was thrilled - he's going to feed me!. Then I had second thoughts: I'm meant to be an independent young woman - I can't go letting strange young men pay for my supper. Damn emancipation. And on 50-70 rubles (my daily budget) you can't even get a cup of espresso in central Moscow. So I got out of my date: ‘You see, I'm really picky about my food - I like it home-cooked'. He must take me for a complete idiot. But he doesn't seem to be fazed: "Fine,let's go to the cinema then, then we can go back to my place - my friend and I will whip up something". What a mover! We've only just met, but already he's got me staying over. But I'm a nice girl, and I don't accept this kind of invitation.

We don't meet on Tuesday, or on Wednesday. By Friday my inner voice is telling me to ring him. I explain that I'm not really that averse to restaurant food. So there I am in the restaurant, chatting away with my young man, and I can't bring myself to order a dish which costs more than my entire weekly allowance. He notices I'm upset: "Don't look at the prices, go on, order what you want.' I pick out what looks like the most filling dish on the menu. ‘Lizaveta, are you really going to eat beef during the fast?' I almost choke at the word ‘fast'. Then I understand that he wasn't talking about the Rosstat fast at all, but Lent. I didn't want to upset the young man, of course, but I'd hardly eaten any meat for the last two weeks, and I hadn't seen cheese for a week, so I went for it. I ate a starter, a main course, mineral water (it seemed almost blasphemous to spend money on water). I was feeling almost full, when the young man made the following proposition: ‘I expect you'd like a cake with your coffee...' At this point, remembering Zoshchenko's story of the aristocrat at the theatre I think - it's high time you stopped eating: ‘No', I say, ‘thank you very much, but I don't really have a sweet tooth.' Although I'm desperate for that cake, of course.

By the last day of the experiment I had 18 rubles left in my pocket. Without thinking twice, I bought myself an ice-cream with my last pennies and breathed a sigh of relief: I'm going to be able to stop thinking about food all the time.

In the course of the month I not only managed to keep within the 2,181 rubles 70 kopecks, I even had a bit of sunflower oil, rice, millet, sugar and flour left over. Enough to invite some guests for a blow-out one rainy day.

In all, I ate a kilo of buckwheat, two kilos of rice, a few kilos of potatoes, a few heads of cabbage and masses of carrots, 14 litres of soup made from chicken bones, as well as apples, oranges and frozen berries. I did survive, but I won't be doing it again.

End Part Three
Part Four: Liza has survived the month, but only just. Her conclusions on the state of poverty in Russia should worry the politicians.

Earlier entries:

Part One:

Liza, young journalist of the Russian e-zine tries to survive for 62 euros per month.


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

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