oDR: Feature

Life in Russia: ‘War or no war, I still need to buy food'

Russians far from the frontline – women, children, pensioners, the jobless – explain how the war is affecting them

Gulmira Amangaliyeva
22 March 2023, 10.05am
Almost 335,000 people in the Saratov region – 14% of the population – live below the poverty line

Marina Margarina

The city of Saratov, the capital of the Saratov region in southern Russia, is more than 800 kilometres from any fighting, but its inhabitants are still impacted by Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine a year ago.

Economic sanctions imposed by the West and the partial mobilisation of the country’s reservists in September 2022 have added to people’s problems – particularly those living on the breadline and the chronically ill. Many in the city have had to say goodbye to their husbands, sons and brothers, who’ve been sent to fight.

openDemocracy spoke to five people in Saratov whose lives have been changed by their country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Alexei: struggling to buy food

For Alexei*, it has become hard to make ends meet on the pension of 13,000 rubles (just over £140) he receives every month.

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“War or no war, prices in the shops have risen and will continue to rise. But I still need to buy food, otherwise I will die,” he says.

Alexei has stopped eating meat to save money, and gets some free food from a charity-run weekly distribution in the city centre. During the school year he tries to find one or two students to teach English to, which brings him an extra income of up to 4,000 rubles a month.

For the past five years he’s had a new hobby, traditional Russian folk dancing, which has become very important to him. “I only survive thanks to dancing. As soon as I start dancing, I feel alive. It's like a drug, an escape from real life,” he says.

But it’s expensive: one trip out of town with his team costs 6,000 rubles (£66) and once a year he needs to replace his dance shoes – another 3,000 rubles (£33).

Alexei tries not to show he is struggling and does his best to always look neat. But sometimes he spends more than he earns, for example when he has to buy expensive medicine. “Then I have to take money from my own ‘reserve fund’, which, like [Russia’s national wealth fund], is disappearing more and more each year,” he says.

Almost 335,000 people in the Saratov region – 14% of the population – live below the poverty line, according to the local branch of Russia’s state statistics service. About 65% have an income of less than 27,000 rubles (£300) a month, and the elderly, like Alexei, are especially vulnerable.

According to data from independent Russian think tank Esli Byt Tochnym (“To Be Precise”), Saratov is one of several regions where poverty among older people is particularly acute. The situation has worsened since 2021, and is likely to deteriorate further.

Ekaterina: no pay after husband mobilised

Like many people, Ekaterina* met the man who would become her husband on social media. The pictures on her Vkontakte account tell the story of their relationship: a wedding in 2013, the birth of their son in 2015 and, then last September, her husband Kirill wearing a camouflage army uniform, all smiles, while Ekaterina hugs him, looking very sad.

“My husband reacted to the mobilisation like a real man. He said: ‘I have to go. I’m not alone, there are many of us,’ and also ‘don’t worry, everything will be fine.’ I cried a lot,” she recalls.

Before being called up to fight in Ukraine, Kirill worked at an electrical appliances plant. His salary was small, but it was always paid on time – unlike his soldier’s pay, as Ekaterina discovered.

President Putin promised a one-time payment of 195,000 rubles (around £2,140) to all Russian soldiers, mobilised and regular, while federal authorities set up a monthly payment of at least 195,000 rubles and the Saratov authorities promised a one-off payment of 50,000 rubles (£550).

Patriotic poster Saratov

A patriotic poster praising Russia's heroic soldiers in the streets of Saratov, January 2023


Gulmira Amangaliyeva

It took Ekaterina several months to get the payments she was entitled to. She contacted numerous regional officials including the governor, the defence ministry, the military commissariat, even the State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin – none offered any explanation for the delay. Other families of mobilised and volunteer soldiers said they had experienced similar problems.

Ekaterina says she and her child didn’t go hungry because she has a job. “But my son started primary school, he often gets sick and I have to take sick leave. And we have a mortgage. I worried about how to pay the mortgage on time,” she says. She was also worried about her husband and whether the authorities had forgotten him.

Ekaterina adds: “I understand that these problems are only temporary, and that our family is not the only one affected… These are just human errors.”

As for her attitude towards the war, Ekaterina says that as a wife who watched her husband leave for the front, she’d much prefer “if none of this was happening” and if he hadn’t been called up.

“However,” she says, speaking as a Russian citizen, “perhaps [war] is the only correct option to preserve our peace, a peaceful life for all citizens of Russia, including my child.”

She never received an answer from the regional governor or the Ministry of Defence about when mobilised soldiers would get leave. Ekaterina hopes that Kirill will return home soon – alive.

Ekaterina Subbotina: caring for a child with coeliac disease

Following the imposition of economic sanctions on Russia, many imported goods have become much more expensive or disappeared completely from shops. This is a major problem for those who need imported products for health reasons.

Ekaterina Subbotina has to buy gluten-free foods for her ten-year-old daughter Tamara, who suffers from coeliac disease (a serious autoimmune disease associated with a permanent intolerance to gluten). Subbotina says it wasn’t easy to find gluten-free products in the Russian provinces before the war, but now “Italian pasta and Spanish biscuits have disappeared from the shelves.”

The range of Russian dietary products is limited, often inferior in quality and more expensive than before, she says. For example, a bun made from rice, corn or buckwheat flour has risen from 180 rubles to 250, and store-bought bread has become a luxury.

She tries to bake gluten-free bread herself, but the dough smells unpleasant, the bread doesn’t hold its shape well and Tamara sometimes refuses to eat it.

What did you want?! You can see what’s happening in our country. Enjoy what we still have

Tamara has also lost a lot of weight – a common problem for children with coeliac disease if they can’t follow the right diet. She always wears trousers to hide how thin she is. When she started going to the local swimming pool, the other parents stared accusingly at Subbotina until she told them about the disease.

“I said, you should see what other [coeliac] children in the region look like. One little girl is so skinny, it’s as if she’d been in a concentration camp! Her mum is a single mother,” says Subbotina, who has become a kind of informal adviser for other parents of coeliac children.

Subbotina believes that to provide a coeliac child with all they need you have to spend at least 15,000 rubles (£165) a month – sometimes up to 20,000 rubles (£220).

Children with coeliac disease are not entitled to national disability payments unless they suffer from other serious conditions, though a handful of regions – including Saratov – do provide some local funds. Recently, Subbotina celebrated a small victory: since January, the regional payments have increased from 1,000 rubles (£11) to 5,000 rubles (£55) per month.

Subbotina dreams of being able to move with her husband and daughter to a country where gluten-free products are easily available and affordable. For the moment, that’s not possible. But they pay for English and Spanish lessons for Tamara, hoping that one day she can leave for a place where it’s easier to live with her illness.

Your Hero Saratov

A photo from patriotic Telegram channel 'Your Hero, Saratov!' shows a car sticker saying: 'I always think positive, I am proud to be Russian, Putin is my president'


'Your Hero, Saratov!' Telegram channel

Anna: shortages for diabetics

The war has also caused problems for diabetes sufferers in Saratov.

Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, patients were sometimes unable to get insulin, insulin pumps and test strips for free through the health service, and had to buy them with their own money at a pharmacy. Now, it’s impossible to get them at all.

Anna Mukhina’s nine-year-old daughter, Natasha, suffers from type 1 diabetes and is given imported insulin, but Mukhina worries about the consequences of medication substitutions. “Adult patients are given mainly Russian insulin, which can be fine. But it’s better not to jump from drug to drug – that can have bad consequences. It now looks like children will also be given Russian insulin,” she says.

A public organisation helping patients with diabetes used to operate in Saratov, but in 2018 it was added to a list of “foreign agents” – organisations that allegedly pursue “political aims” while receiving funding from abroad – following a complaint by a medical student from a pro-government youth group. The district prosecutor's office claimed the organisation was engaged in “monitoring the problems of the region, especially in the provision of healthcare to the population”, and it was shut down.

Now, diabetics mostly have to defend their rights alone. At the start of 2022, Marina Larina filed a lawsuit against the regional health ministry because she was denied access to a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) – they are a requirement for diabetic children, but not given to adults.

Implanted under the skin, a CGM automatically tracks blood sugar levels day and night, making it much easier for diabetics to monitor and control their condition. Without such a device, patients have to prick their fingers several times a day to test their glucose levels.

In March, the month after Russia invaded Ukraine, Larina was in court where, she recalls, health ministry officials said to her: “And what did you want?! You can see what’s happening in our country. Enjoy what we still have.”

She won the case – she’s one of four adult diabetics in the region who went to court to get a CGM. Simultaneously, the devices stopped being sold; deliveries only resumed towards the end of the year.

However, the problem is not just with medical supplies for diabetics. Vrachu.ru, an online education site for health professionals in Russia, surveyed 1,843 doctors at the end of 2022 – 78% complained about a lack of medicines.

Smile gentlemen smile Saratov

A mural showing the face of actor Oleg Yankovsky, a Saratov native, here as Baron Munchausen, saying: 'Smile, gentlemen, smile'


Gulmira Amangaliyeva

Alexander: job problems

Mobilisation of men into the Russian army does seem to have had some positive effects on the labour market. As men have been called up into the military, and others have fled abroad to evade the draft, the number of vacancies on job search websites in construction, agriculture, transport and logistics increased in autumn last year.

But that hasn’t changed the overall situation with job opportunities, which were already reduced due to sanctions and the consequences of the global pandemic.

In the Saratov region, the number of vacancies for 2022 as a whole fell by 10% in comparison with the previous year, while the number of applications increased by 17%, according to data collected by Russian job website HeadHunter. Most of the vacancies were in the male-dominated areas already mentioned; the fewest were in the civil service, the charity sector and insurance.

Alexander Nikitin, 34, didn’t get called up to fight last autumn – and is exactly the kind of candidate that potential employers are looking for. He started looking for a job in December 2021, after being forced to leave his previous office job due to health problems.

What? You want to work for us? But we don’t have a job going

At the beginning of 2022, because of his experience monitoring elections and his opposition views, he was offered work as a political strategist for a candidate running for the United Russia party in the regional parliament. But the party withdrew the candidate, and Nikitin ended up as an unpaid coordinator for Golos, the only independent election watchdog active in Russia.

After the stalled election campaign, Nikitin went to the job centre. Since he’d only been paid in cash at his last place of work, social services offered him the minimum monthly unemployment benefit: 1,500 rubles (£16).

“This is only enough to buy petrol to come and see you,” Nikitin told the job centre employee. “I won’t even have enough left for cigarettes.”

Nikitin hoped to get on a retraining scheme with the job centre, but says he was told that only pensioners were being retrained. Men of working age can find work through the centre’s ads, he was told. The centre repeatedly sent him for interviews for jobs that didn’t exist. “I would get there, call the phone number I had been given [and be told]: ‘What? You want to work for us? But we don’t have a job going.’”

Nikitin removed himself from the job centre’s register in September. Then banks started offering him work as a debt collector – in part, he thinks, because the country’s economy collapsed after the invasion of Ukraine, and many people fell into debt.

“I don’t want to be a debt collector,” Nikitin said. “But I started to worry, and did a three-hour online training [on debt collection]. Then I got a call from the bank, to say ‘unfortunately, you won’t do, as you might be sent to the army.’” In the end, he wasn’t called up in the mobilisation.

Nikitin currently works in the delivery department at Ozone, Russia’s equivalent of Amazon, and works as a taxi driver in his spare time. Like many, he is afraid that there will be another military draft.

*Some names have been changed for security reasons.

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