Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bombshell state of the nation address on January 15, 2020, wasn’t just about power-grabbing constitutional changes — it was also filled with populist promises about throwing money to the 21 million Russians living in poverty.
But while Putin was giving his speech, a queue was forming outside of a supermarket dumpster in Yekaterinburg, where the city’s poorest residents regularly line up for hours in the hopes of getting packages of expired food.
Hromadkse’s partner outlet Novaya Gazeta spoke to people in the queue, to find out why pensioners in Russia’s fourth-largest city are being driven to dumpster diving.
On January 15, 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed sweeping changes to the Russian Constitution, initiating what is perhaps the biggest political shakeup in Russia since he switched from Prime Minister to President to extend his rule in 2008.
But before announcing his power move, Putin spoke about the country’s economic situation. For many, he seemed to be emphasizing that Russia has money, since he talked about increasing family benefits, raising the minimum wage to a living wage and upping teachers’ salaries.
These populist appeals have been typical of Putin’s state of the nation address ever since he unveiled an ambitious poverty reduction plan in 2018. The plan aims to halve poverty rates by the end of his final presidential term in 2024.
However, Russia’s poverty rate has actually gone up since the plan was announced. Between 2018 and 2019, the poverty rate rose from 13.9 percent, or 20.4 million people, to 14.3 percent, or 20.9 million people.
The queue outside the supermarket dumpster includes a diversity of people. The majority are pensioners, some of whom are barely able to walk. But there are younger people too: a forty-year-old man, a woman in bright makeup and furs, and even a girl who’s not yet thirty-five. All total there’s twelve people.
They stand near the dumpster for half an hour, then an hour, talking to each other as they wait for the supermarket’s employees to take packages of expired food out to the trash. One of the pensioners, a woman named Svetlana, explains that there’s usually a lineup from eleven a.m. to six p.m. and that people sometimes wait three to four hours for food.
“We divide [it up] fairly, whoever needs cottage cheese gets it, whoever [needs] bread, gets bread,” Svetlana says. “The store is good: if the goods expire on the fifteenth, then they take it out on the fifteenth. But that supermarket across the road, they can take it out two or even three days later. Before that everyone’s trying to sell.”
Svetlana is a full-time caretaker to her disabled son, and at 70-years-old, she’s no longer able to work. She receives a pension of 15,000 roubles per month (about $240), but it’s not enough to cover food after she’s paid the rent for her communal apartment and bought medicine for her son.
“There are six thousand [roubles] left in my hands,” Svetlana says, explaining that she’s left with about $96. “With them, I can buy noodles, peas, some kind of grain. But I can’t [afford] meat. Although sometimes they bring good ground meat here and I make cutlets for my son.”
Svetlana tells Novaya Gazeta that she does not believe standing in line at the dumpster is shameful. She says that she worked honestly and that the government should be ashamed – not her.
“I’m not scared for myself, [but] for the grandchildren. There’s practically no work now,” Svetlana says, lamenting the decline of Yekaterinburg’s heavy industry. “People began to leave. And in the whole country, there are two to three thousand people getting rich.”
“The store has its own mafia”
“I don’t know what Svetlana told you. There is no meat here. In two years I have never seen ground meat,” insists another pensioner, named Georgy. “But you can find buns and there is actually sausage. Often it’s already gone off. But I already know from Soviet times [that] if you rub [it] with olive oil and salt, then you can eat [it].”
This sixty-year-old man has been lining up at the dumpster for the past two years. He has been unable to work since suffering a heart attack five years ago. Georgy tried finding a job after his heart attack, but no one would hire him. “[I’m] sick and too old already, they wrote me off,” he sighs.
Georgy now lives off a total of 18,000 roubles per month (about $289): made up of an 11,000 rouble pension (approximately $176), plus the 700 roubles he gets as a “bonus” for disability (about $11).
And on top of the fact that his pension is not enough to buy food, he says that the people who wait at the dumpsters are not even getting the “best” of the expired groceries.
“The store has its own mafia. From out of town. As soon as [the food] is past expiration they take the meat, cheese, and good vegetables from here for themselves. And bring us what they themselves [don’t want],” Georgy explains. “Even in this, we are second class citizens.”
“I worked too honestly”
After three hours of waiting the packets still haven’t been brought out of the store. In conversation with Novaya Gazeta’s correspondent, many of the people in the queue express embarrassment. They ask the reporter not to talk about them because their “relatives do not know.”
“The administration decided not to renew my lease agreement for both kiosks. And that was it: the business had to be shut down” says the woman in furs, who introduces herself as Tatyana.
While she used to own her own small business, she was unable to start over after her kiosks were closed. Now she receives a meager pension of just 7,086 roubles per month (less than $115).
“I only regret one thing: that I worked too honestly,” Tatayana says. “You could probably give out envelope salaries and bargain with vodka under the counter. I could have saved for old age. But [my] upbringing didn’t allow [it].”
Finally, a man comes out of the store with two big black bags in his hands. The crowd immediately surrounds him. But the man puts the bags on the ground, looks at the people and says, “There won’t be anything today.”
“Yesterday someone took a picture of your queue and put it on the internet. Now the store will be punished,” he explains (by law, stores are supposed to recycle or destroy expired groceries). “So today the truck took everything.”
With that, he throws the bags away – and the people in the queue begin discussing whether or not they should come back tomorrow.
/Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart. With materials by Ivan Zhilin of Novaya Gazeta. Courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange.