Hungry and Humiliated
Published: April 13, 2011 (Issue # 1651)
Toward the end of March, Nina Martynova, a 70-year-old pensioner from Voronezh, paid for a loaf of bread and a carton of milk at her local grocery store and then walked toward the door. She had taken only a few steps when she was stopped by security guards and ordered to follow them.
She was ushered into a small storeroom and searched. In Martynova’s pocket, the guards found two small chocolate bars. She hadn’t paid for them.
It seems the guards had ample evidence to detain her. A recording by the shop’s security cameras, part of which has been posted online, showed the elderly woman sneaking the bars into her pocket.
On the tape, Martynova seemed so shocked that she slowly fainted when the items from her pockets were laid on the table in front of her.
She at once went into cardiac arrest. An ambulance was called, but by the time it arrived she was dead.
Until her retirement a few years ago, Martynova worked as a maternity nurse at a local hospital. Her neighbors, interviewed by the regional media, said they often contacted her for medical help, which she was always willing to give. Martynova was also an enthusiastic member of her local community and campaigned on environmental issues.
“Nina was very poor and tried her best to make ends meet; she saved every kopeck,” a neighbor told Komsomolskaya Pravda Radio in Voronezh. “Before she went to that godforsaken shop, she told me a friend was coming to visit her to celebrate Nina’s recent birthday.”
Martynova’s tragedy was not only that at the end of her life she was granted a pension too small to keep her from going hungry, but also that, as she descended into petty theft, she was in all other respects a decent, good-hearted citizen with strong morals and social values.
As of March 31, an average old-age pension in Russia comes to 5,600 rubles ($193) a month, according to government figures. A kilogram of potatoes costs around 40 rubles, a kilogram of beef costs 250 to 400 rubles, a kilogram of sugar is 40 rubles. A 200-gram pack of butter is 50 rubles, and half a liter of sunflower oil is 70 rubles. By the time most pensioners have bought food for a month, there can’t be much left to pay heating and electricity bills and buy medication.
A cashier at my local fruit and vegetable store tells me she has to deal with “old cheaters,” as she calls them, every day. In this shop, fruit and vegetables are on open display, and customers bag up what they want and weigh it themselves.
“For example,” says the cashier, “today, there was an old lady who was buying three bananas. When I saw the sticker with the price, I could immediately see that the woman had cheated. She had weighed two bananas, got the sticker, and then added another one.”
“Personally, I feel sorry for her. But if I forgive them all, and if there were, say, a dozen of them every day, I’d end up paying half of my salary to cover the shop’s losses. So I tell them – as gently as I can – that they probably made a mistake, and I go to the scales with them to weigh the stuff all over again.”
Martynova’s case has gained considerable media attention and caused some public soul-searching. Russia’s Investigative Committee, which is part of the General Prosecutor’s Office, is now looking into the circumstances of her death – to see if the guards did anything unwarranted that could have brought on her heart attack.
The video from the store showed that the guards did not physically harass her. One of them even offered her some medicine when she began to collapse, while the other rang for an ambulance. But for the woman, apparently, the very fact of the search was too much to bear.
Martynova’s case illustrates a deep conflict between social justice and law in Russia. The officials responsible for calculating a survival-level minimum food requirement and those who administer the social security system will remain unpunished. And so will the political leaders and parliamentarians who ultimately determine what is spent on social security.
At the same time, many Russian pensioners, unwillingly forced into theft to stay alive, will face charges and a terrifying court ordeal. And in some extreme cases such as this, no doubt their humiliation will lead to their deaths.
A full version of this commentary is available at Transitions Online, an award-winning analytical online magazine covering Eastern Europe and CIS countries, at www.tol.org.