Millionaires wail as wealth evaporates

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The Independent Online
LYDIA and her husband are millionaires, for whom salami, fish and fresh fruit are luxuries. The 1 million they earn each month - she as a laboratory assistant, he as a builder - comes in roubles.

Since the sharp fall of the rouble against the dollar this week, their 'million' is more laughable than ever - worth a mere dollars 267 ( pounds 175).

'Our belts were already tight,' said Lydia, as she scoured the shops for bargains. 'Now we will have to tighten them another notch. It means I shall be feeding the kids on soup, soup and more soup this winter. I used to get very upset but now I just accept it. Most people do.'

Andrei, a businessman, reacted more emotionally. He makes enough money to refurbish his flat and take his wife on holiday to Paris and Nice, by supplying the Russian market with batteries for electronic goods. 'I have just got rid of a big consignment at the old prices. Now, with the fall of the rouble, prices will shoot up. I stand to lose about dollars 30,000,' he lamented.

Andrei will no doubt bounce back. He is one of the estimated 10 per cent who owns dollars, a reliable cushion against inflation. For the majority, struggling on rouble incomes, the collapse of the currency from about 2,000 to the dollar over the summer to nearly 4,000 on Tuesday is a heavy blow. Pensioners, invalids and large families will suffer most. They live on bread and potatoes, and cannot economise.

Alexandra, a widow, manages on a monthly pension of 136,000 roubles, now worth dollars 36. That might not be so bad, had she grown-up children to look after her or an allotment on which to grow vegetables. But she is alone, with only one room in the city. Yesterday, she bought a loaf of black bread for 800 roubles and joined a queue for potatoes being sold off the back of a lorry for 400 roubles a kilogram. She said she had chicken stock cubes with which to make soup.

Alexandra puts aside every spare rouble to pay for her funeral. 'It will cost about 1.5m roubles and I have no-one who will pay that last bill for me,' she said. But, she was not bitter, and not nostalgic about Communism. 'You know, my dear, the only person I miss is my husband.'

President Boris Yeltsin may face fury from the opposition over the rouble crisis. But the mood on the street suggests the long-suffering public is far from boiling point. True, some Muscovites blamed corrupt officials for the crash. 'What do you expect from Yeltsin and his bandits?' demanded Tatyana, a teacher. 'It has been the same throughout Russian history. The tsars covered themselves with brocade and pearls while the people starved. Tsar Boris is no different.'

Others support the President. 'I don't exclude the possibility that forces are at work trying to rock Yeltsin and the government,' said Mikhail, an army pensioner living on 300,000 roubles a month.

Nikolai, an artist, was philosophical. 'The summer is over, winter is back,' he said, remarking that the economic chill took place on the day the first frost ended the Indian summer. 'All through summer, we were living with the illusion of stability. The politicians said the economy was getting better. But Russia is still importing everything, producing nothing itself. So how could that recovery have been real?'