Galina Stolyarova, writing in the St. Petersburg Times:
In an old Soviet joke, three elderly women go to the doctor. All have exactly the same health condition but they enjoy very different incomes. When the first woman — the wealthiest — tells her story, the doctor asks what her income is, and then suggests eating plenty of fruit and vitamins and recommends a trip to a seaside sanatorium. The next one, who has an average salary, is recommended to cut meat, sweets, and fatty foods from her diet. When the doctor examines the last one, who survives on a tiny pension, all he can prescribe is plenty of fresh air.
It is an open secret that the cynicism of the Russian authorities today is no less than that of the doctor in the joke. And a 17-year-old Yekaterinburg high school student, Vitaly Nikishin, embarked on a crusade last month to expose this cynicism to the entire world. He launched a popular blog in which he recounted his attempt to survive for a month on 2,632 rubles, or $88 — the sum calculated by his regional government as the cost of the monthly “minimum consumer basket.”
“I am not going to manage more than three or four more days. If I continue like this I could at some stage just collapse,” Nikishin wrote last week, on the 25th day of his experiment. “I am feeling utterly emaciated, and have completely lost my appetite.”
“Our officials claim that one can really survive on as little as [the minimum basket], and I, a strong man in good physical shape — I exercise regularly and do not carry any extra weight — am showing what damage this sort of meal plan does to me,” Nikishin blogged. “After the first week of eating according to this budget, I lost more than a kilogram. After two weeks I began to feel constantly exhausted.”
At the end of the month, on Jan. 31, Nikishin wrote that he was scared to even think about how he would begin to recover from the experiment.
Nikishin’s campaign is far from a self-promoting publicity stunt. It is a kind of political protest. He became almost like a hunger-striker, and reminded us that millions of Russians face a very similar problem every month. Because his budget is approximately what they are left with after they have paid their rent and utilities bills.
According to official statistics, 19 million Russians live below the poverty line. In 2010, 4.3 percent of Russians had a monthly income of less than 3,500 rubles per month. A further 6.2 percent had to make do with between 3,500 and 5,000 rubles. One in 10 survives on 5,000 to 7,000 rubles a month. According to the same official survey, compiled by the federal agency Rosstat, only 10 percent of Russians have a monthly income of more than 35,000 rubles ($1,180) a month.
Nikishin’s diet consisted largely of bread, milk, potatoes, cereals, pasta, cottage cheese, fish preserves, chicken, and cabbage. He also added some fresh kiwis and frozen cowberries. Naturally, he couldn’t afford meat or fish every day, and the sizes of the portions he was eating were far below what he usually had.
How on earth do you survive on that? That’s a common question many Russians are asking of their less fortunate neighbors. The discussion typically ends there. Everyone tries to cope as best they can. And when someone sympathetically asks the shabby-looking neighbor how they are coping, they do not need to hear the full account of miseries. And, in truth, neither do they have any intention of helping. Many are simply resigned to the scale of the problem of poverty. And most people just chalk it up as part of “the toughness of life.”
Young Vitaly Nikishin has shown exactly what the state-approved minimum food budget really means.
“Both officials and people who earn a decent salary prefer to turn a blind eye to the plight of those who get ridiculously low salaries and pensions — and there are millions of these people,” he said. “Maybe I am na?ve, but I hope my campaign — even if it seems flamboyant — will ignite a public discussion at the very least.”
“I want to make poverty visible,” Nikishin says. But he says that a meeting he had with a group of parliamentarians in his region ended in frustration. “They apparently invited me to see them because my blog has attracted a lot of attention. But some were openly yawning at what I said, while the others offered only a nominal reply. The meeting lasted for an hour but after it I felt exhausted, as if I had run 10 kilometers in the heat of the deserts of Kazakhstan! And all in vain.”
In response to Nikishin’s blog, a senior government official defended the poverty line and basic food budget by saying that the minimum sums are calculated with the aim of allowing people “to stay alive.” But what sort of life you can lead with this kind of money, the authorities prefer not to think about. The tragic truth is that staying alive in this way, is, for millions of Russian people, the equivalent of slowly dying.