With elections looming on Sunday, the candidates for the Russian presidency have woken up to the fact that millions of ordinary citizens live in dire poverty.
The images of poverty often come from the provinces but there is hardship in Moscow too, in the slums of the inner city and the soulless suburbs.
Provincial Russians might be tempted to envy Natasha S because she is a Muscovite. They would be mistaken to do so. Despite living in the "privileged" capital, she must be one of the poorest people in the country. Indeed, without exaggeration it can be said that she is starving.
Last Sunday, after hearing about her through the Orthodox Church, I visited her with some food. Her kitchen cupboards were bare except for salt and bay leaves but she did not touch the rice, mushrooms and oranges I put on her table. "I try not to eat very much myself," she said, "so that what food we have goes to the children. I am afraid if I eat what you have brought, I might get an appetite. I cannot allow myself to do that. I get by with a bit of bread and cups of tea."
In Communist times, they queued for sausage. For many, life has only got worse in the last decade of "reform", as prices have reached market levels while almost everything else in society has collapsed. Despite his initial idealism, Boris Yeltsin managed only to enrich the few. His chosen successor, Vladimir Putin, has promised that if he wins the Kremlin, he will guarantee a "decent life for all".
Natasha, a minor dissident in Soviet times, lives with her husband, Edik, in the Bogorodskoe district, a working-class area dominated by a rubber factory. They have five children: the eldest son is in the army and the others are at school.
It is hard to say whether the family is poor because of the failure of politicians or because of their own weaknesses but they have a problem not uncommon in Russia, where desperation drives many to drink. Edik, a musician, has become an alcoholic. Natasha would like to divorce him but because of housing shortages, they live in hatred under one roof.
Edik cannot keep a job. Natasha, made redundant at the state institute where she worked as a biologist, managed to continue earning a living by selling books on the street until her health failed. Now they rely on what the children bring in from odd jobs.
We talk about the coming election. Edik, who has a hangover, is not allowed to join us at the kitchen table. He calls out from his chair in the corridor that he is planning to vote for Ella Pamfilova. "Now there's a nice, soft woman, not like some hard females I could mention."
Natasha ignores him. She says she is going to vote against all the candidates, a course of action recommended by former Soviet dissidents. "How can I vote for Putin when my son could end up in Chechnya? How can I vote for a KGB agent? I shall reject them all but not by sitting passively at home. I will go and cross all their names out, one after another. That way, nobody else can use my ballot paper."Reuse content