Street life: Samotechny Lane - How Ivan the Typical survives

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The Independent Online
RUSSIANS WHO have been elbowing each other in queues to buy dollars or consumer durables are the second-class passengers on the ship that has hit the economic iceberg. (First-class ticket holders long ago monopolised the lifeboats and sailed away.)

But down in the hold are millions more, so lowly paid they have never saved a kopeck or worse, survived for months without wages at all. Only the Siberian miners have mutinied. The rest have shown a calm that is really the resignation of the doomed. It is a miracle they are still alive. How have they kept their heads above water?

In the week that the Kremlin welcomed back Viktor Chernomyrdin, a fat cat thanks to his links with the gas monopoly Gazprom, I visited another man who has also made his career in the gas industry. But Ivan Andreyev is a very thin cat indeed.

Mr Andreyev works at a gas station in Voskresensk, in Moscow region. The station, controlled by the Ministry of Fuel and Energy rather than Gazprom, sells propane to drivers who economise by running their cars on gas, as well as canisters to householders who cannot get mains gas.

The stream of customers at the station testifies to the demand for this service. Nevertheless, Mr Andreyev last received a wage packet in October 1996. If he is ever paid, his money will have lost nearly half its value because of the rouble slide. How does he get by? "There are many inexplicable things that are only possible in Russia because this is the `strana chudes' (Wonderland)," he said.

Mr Andreyev, who has just turned 60, should be retired but goes on working because he and his wife, Valentina, cannot make ends meet on their joint state pension of 600 roubles (now worth about $50). In any case, they receive their pensions irregularly and have been kept waiting for the money again this summer.

Some old people in their position might be able to rely on their children. But the Andreyevs' son, Andrei, is disabled. "His disability allowance of 200 roubles comes from the same state pension fund and his payments have been sporadic too," said Mr Andreyev.

And so the old man continues to work at the gas station in the hope that his wages will be paid. "When they first stopped paying us, I thought it was a temporary problem and accepted it. But things just got worse."

Luckily he and his wife do have a roof of their own over their heads. Russians in the greatest difficulty these days are those on low incomes who are also obliged to rent their accommodation. But Mr Andreyev was able to buy a small house when he moved south from Norilsk in the Arctic, where he spent most of his working life in a nickel plant. "I don't have to pay rent, just the utility bills. I'm up to date with my gas bills," he said proudly.

The house has a garden in which he and his family grow fruit and vegetables. Like survivors of a nuclear war, they go into the forests to pick berries and mushrooms. The only food items they have to buy are bread, milk, tea and salt. "That's our salvation. If we had to shop for food, I do not know what we would do."

The same techniques that helped Russians survive in Soviet times, when the shops had nothing to sell, still apply now when it is pockets that are empty. As well as gardening, which is a rural option, or collecting empty bottles and claiming the money back, a method of the urban poor, work "nalevo" (on the side) is crucial.

"See that tanker over there?" said Mr Andreyev. "We sell gas from that directly to the customer and make a few roubles for ourselves. Some of the younger lads also fix cars here in working hours. You can't blame them. They've got to live."

Mr Andreyev, who was never a Communist, believed briefly in the possibility of democracy in Russia but has now lost hope. He sees no difference in the corrupt politicians who come and go and, although he respects the miners, sees no point in protesting as they have done, because nobody in power listens. He takes joy in things that are beyond politics. "I've got my family, two fine grandsons, thank God. They are my reason for living."