The veterans out in the cold

In Russia, 23 February is celebrated as Defender of the Fatherland Day. But despite a law entitling them to decent housing, many World War Two veterans in Siberia have little to celebrate.

Georgy Borodyansky
23 February 2014

Pyotr Petrovich Sidorenko, from the village of Tavrichanko in the Omsk Region, didn’t live to see the comfortable flat he, along with all surviving Second World War veterans, was promised by then President Dmitry Medvedev three and a half years ago. On 21 August 2013, his hundredth birthday, the local Omskaya Pravda newspaper wrote of Pyotr Petrovich that ‘he served as a machine-gunner from Stalingrad to Vienna, was wounded and shell-shocked and among his medals were two “for valour.”’ The paper was however silent about the less than festive facts of the centenarian’s daily life. Mr Sidorenko lived alone in a mud-and-straw cabin without running water, gas, heating or indoor sanitation.

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Soviet soldiers marching to the front in December 1941. CC RIA Novosti/Oleg Ignatevich

Pyotr Petrovich’s only support came from his daughter Galina, who is 72. ‘Dad never had a care worker’, she told me, ‘and we never got involved with social services. I managed on my own. I live nearby, so I dropped in most days. And we repaired the house ourselves, clad the walls in timber and Styrofoam panels, but it was still damp inside – it’s just built of clay and it’s over 50 years old. It wasn’t easy for Dad to get through our Siberian winters at his age.’

Housing fit for heroes… but where is it?

This was how one veteran began his second century of life in the land for which he had fought. Like many other old soldiers, he didn’t immediately find out about the president’s new law, but once he did Galina started collecting all the necessary bits of paper and in autumn 2012 she took them to the housing department.

Mr Sidorenko lived in a damp mud-and-straw cabin without water, gas, heating or indoor sanitation.

The paperwork took a year or so: the district council sent the documents off to the regional Ministry of Labour and Social Development, which returned them to the village for revisions: some documents were missing; others weren’t filled in properly. They were then sent off again, and again returned – something else was still missing. Council staff say that the process has recently become even more complicated than it was then, although it’s hard to believe it possible to create any more bureaucratic hoops for people to jump through. The lawmakers who drafted this generous piece of legislation seemed to have designed the process to be as long drawn out as possible, possibly to reduce the number of recipients who might live to benefit from it.

Then, after the endless revisions, the Ministry turned Pyotr Petrovich down, on the grounds that his existing home wasn’t in bad enough condition (it was his own fault for repairing it). More clued-up people advised the Sidorenkos to appeal through the district courts, which ruled that Pyotr Petrovich should be put on a priority waiting list for housing with proper amenities.

The old soldier hoped he would be able to move before his hundredth birthday, but then, in his daughter’s words, his hope began to fade: ‘We still didn’t know how long we’d have to wait.’ If he’d been given a date, he might have lasted a little longer, but without that he had no reason to go on – his country obviously didn’t care whether he lived or died. He even saved it some money, although the cost of a flat for him was negligible by governmental standards – perhaps a few months salary for some member of parliament with responsibility for the Patriotic Education programme that is so important to our rulers.

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Dmitry Medvedev presents the Order of Glory, third class to veteran Mikhail Yeremenko. CC RIA Novosti/Mikhail Klimentyev

The regional Ministry of Labour and Social Development promised to look at Mr Sidorenko’s case, to avoid a similar situation arising in the future. But there are no other centenarians left in the local population register; he must have been the last one, and the waiting list for rehousing is shrinking faster than the remaining veterans receive it.

Granny Masha…

Maria Antonovna Popova’s house is at the very end of Komsomolskaya Street, which was not easy to find, since even the people who live here don’t know it by name, and the buildings just have numbers on them. One woman eventually answered my knock, but said she didn’t know of any street with that name. Most of the streets here should just be called Nowhere Street: their muddy rutted and potholed surfaces don’t seem to lead anywhere in particular.

Maria Antonovna, usually known as Granny Masha, is the oldest inhabitant of this village. She is 96 years old, but looks younger, perhaps because she has had to look out for herself all her life. Her mother had no time to look after her: ‘I was her eleventh.’ At 17, after technical college, she got a job driving a tractor and spent the war years ploughing with it. In those days tractors were open to the elements, with metal seats. ‘They took a lot of starting as well, with a crank – the blokes couldn’t always get them going first time either. We worked 12, sometimes 15 hour days, with no days off – for our country, for victory.’

After the war Granny Masha worked for 40 years weaning calves before retiring at 69. She’s small and wiry, but her arms are sinewy, like a man’s, and as much as life has tested her sinews to breaking, they haven’t failed her yet – she still does her own washing and cooking and stokes her own stove to heat her house. ‘A carer from the social services calls round every other day; she brings water in for me and washes my floor, and I’m very grateful to her for that, but I manage all the rest myself.’  

‘We worked 12, sometimes 15-hour days, with no days off – for our country, for victory.’

Granny Masha has a pension of 9103 roubles (£152) a month. Wood for the stove costs about 1000 roubles (£17) a cubic metre, and in an average winter she gets through 20 of those, and more if the frosts are severe. A gas cylinder for the cooker costs 700 roubles, water 30 roubles a month and lighting 200 roubles. Nobody has ever told her about the concessions and rebates that war veterans are entitled to. Everything’s fine, except that when it’s cold it’s no fun having to use the outside toilet, and there is no sanitation, or running water for that matter, indoors. 

Because of her war work in an essential occupation, Maria Antonovna is legally classed as the equivalent of a veteran, and has a document to that effect. But she has never heard about her right to modern housing with proper amenities. And she’s never asked anyone official for any help, or had a penny in benefits. The two windows of her little house, which is sinking into the earth, are sealed up with insulation strips. Her neighbours helped her clad her rotting walls with hardboard and corrugated roofing panels –‘such good people!’, she says – but this patch-up doesn’t do much to keep out the winter cold. ‘And the stove’s packed up – it’s over 50 years old – so I’m freezing.'

…and Granny Nadya

Another elderly lady, Nadezhda Romanovna Kuzmina, known as Granny Nadya, also had to live without proper heating to the end of her days. She and Maria Antonovna were quite alike in looks, and had led similar lives: work on the home front all though the war, then another 40 years, 29 of them on a collective farm in a village not far from Granny Masha’s. ‘I paid out for home insurance every year’, she complained, ‘and when my roof was damaged in a hailstorm I didn’t get a penny.’

Last winter Granny Nadya fell over while clearing a snowdrift. When she was discovered, her heart had stopped beating.

She was 94, and like Maria Antonovna suffered badly from the cold. She no longer had the strength to fetch logs in for the woodpile, and her care worker, who came for a couple of hours every other day, was not overgenerous with either the logs or her own effort, and after an hour or so in the house we certainly felt it.

Last winter Granny Nadya, reeling from the wind, was clearing a snowdrift from her gateway (her nephew was coming on a visit from the city) when she fell over. The temperature was minus thirty-something. When she was discovered, her heart had stopped beating.

'We’re of no use to anybody…'

In the last few years we have made several trips around this northern taiga region, meeting with amazing elderly people who are surviving in conditions that can only be described as inhuman. And were it not for their fighting spirit, the demographic figures for the area (in the last eight years the death rate has outstripped the birth rate by 60 percent) would look even more terrible.

They depart this world when they can no longer find any reason to remain. That’s what happened with Vera Vasilyevna Konishcheva, a native of the small town of Muromtsevo and disabled war veteran who took her own life three-and-a-half years ago at the age of 92. Her death was widely reported in both regional and national media. In her suicide note she had written, ‘I don’t want to be a burden to anyone.’

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It is not uncommon in Russia for veterans to wear their medals in their day to day lives. CC RIA Novosti/Vladimir Vyatkin

Vera Vasilyevna took her tragic decision when the district council refused her her right to decent housing. Her care worker told our reporter at the time that what she feared most was the coming cold weather: ‘Last winter she was really freezing. Her house was built 58 years ago – she built it herself out of wooden panelling. When she was younger she didn’t ask for any help from anyone, but in the last few years she began to fail. She was really tiny – less than a metre-and-a-half tall; she had to climb on a chair twice a day, to open and close the damper on the stove. And as a result of her war injuries she didn’t have the use of three fingers on either hand.’   

In her suicide note she had written, ‘I don’t want to be a burden to anyone.’

Vasily Antonovich Galuza, also from Muromtsevo, was the same age as Vera Vasilyevna. He fought throughout the war and was seriously wounded twice, and when he was told that his place on the waiting list for rehousing was being frozen for an indefinite period, he had a heart attack. He wrote to President Medvedev that he no longer wanted to live.

This desperation among elderly people isn’t just about the lack of heating in their crumbling houses, but the feeling that their victory in 1945 means nothing any more: what kind of victors are they if they can’t even have a warm bathroom in their old age?

'…not even for our votes'

Nikolai Ivanovich Korneyev doesn’t have the benefit of this blessing of civilisation either, despite having two of the highest military decorations going: a medal ‘For Valour’ and the ‘Order of Glory.’ He got that one, he says, for his languages: he spent the war in an intelligence unit, ‘and we evidently captured some German big shot, nobody told us who he was. But it was generally a pretty cushy number – if you brought back a Jerry you got a week off – no kitchen duty, no construction work.’

Nikolai Ivanovich had three shrapnel wounds, the most serious to his head, spent eighteen months in various hospitals and returned to his home village of Mikhailovka an official war invalid. For the next 30 years he managed part of a large farm, with over 10,000 head of cattle as well as sheep and pigs (of which there are now only memories left). After his retirement he then worked in forestry, side by side with the now head of the local district council Vyacheslav Devyaterikov, and they became friendly.

But Korneyev is not the kind of man to ask for help, even when he needs it badly. Again, no one told him about the housing he was entitled to as a war veteran, and he and his wife Maria Borisovna didn’t need any help at home – until she became ill and bedridden. He then became her round the clock carer, even though he was 87 and walked with difficulty himself. There were no medical facilities in the village and no one from the social services ever visited them. Dmitry Dmitryevich Shchekotov, another war invalid (his sight was badly damaged) went to the district council offices and told Devyaterikov about the plight of veterans, including his old forestry colleague, and the council leader promised to do something about the Korneyevs’ situation. It wasn’t a question of a favour for a friend, after all, but a legal right. But nothing came of it. ‘I expect he just forgot’, says Nikolai Ivanovich. ‘What use are we oldies now? When we were younger our country needed us!’

There are about a thousand such godforsaken villages in the Omsk Region, and nobody knows how many unknown old soldiers live in them. Admittedly their numbers are falling steeply: in the last three-and-a-half years the Shchekotova constituency, consisting of Mikhailovka and three other villages, has lost seven WWII victors.

‘What use are we oldies now? When we were younger our country needed us!’

‘Where veterans are concerned’, says Dmitry Dmitryevich, ‘there is a complete  disregard for the law: people who approaching their nineties can’t physically cope with all this bureaucratic red tape, and the district council is obliged by law to sort out the paperwork for them.’

The council, however, feels no obligation to take this on; it’s doing well enough without the veteran vote. In fact its popularity is higher than that of the President. In the election for council leader a year ago, United Russia candidate Devyaterikov waltzed home with an 80 percent majority, which is, after all, all that matters.        

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