The Price of Fresh Air and Boiled Water
Published: April 27, 2011 (Issue # 1653)
Everything in life comes at a price. In March, many of Moscow’s sick and elderly were reminded of that sad truism in the form of a huge monthly bill from the city’s social services for bathing them, taking them for a walk, or helping them to dress, cook, or clean.
These services used to be free, but the authorities have opted to tackle the budget deficit by a cunning trick: They created a short list of free services accompanied by a much longer and detailed list of paid ones, some of which nullify the free services.
For example, the short list says that “assistance with cooking” is a free service, but the list of paid services later makes it clear that preparation of any hot dish has to be paid for; that slicing vegetables is not included in the free service, and so forth. Whether this was done under the assumption that a vindictive Russian pensioner would one day seek revenge against the state by making a social worker spend hours in the kitchen cooking time-consuming dishes is anyone’s guess. The fact is that even “boiling of water” is now listed in brackets on the paid services list.
In April, some pensioners in Moscow received bills totaling around 15,000 rubles ($535), exceeding the average pension in the city. A Moscow television crew last week followed a frustrated recipient of one such bill, 77-year-old Raisa Sorokina. It takes Sorokina a good 20 minutes to walk down from her apartment to the street, and even longer to climb the stairs back. Her bill lists a charge of 193 rubles per hour for “accompaniment on a walk.” With a round trip to the doorway taking an hour, if she wanted to have the luxury of spending an hour outdoors every day, that service alone would cost her more than 11,000 rubles per month.
Asked to comment on the controversy, a senior social services official said, “Going for a walk is not a life essential,” and therefore not covered on the list of free services.
In May, Russia will celebrate yet another anniversary of the end of World War II, known as Victory Day in the country.
One phrase has survived in the Victory Day speeches of Russian leaders since the Soviet years: “All of us, your descendants, owe an irredeemable debt to you, the war veterans.”
The moral underpinning of that debt has obviously crumbled. This “irredeemable debt” is one the state has no intention of paying. Making the war veterans themselves face “irredeemable debts” to the state is an ultra-cynical gesture that serves to bring up the younger generation in the spirit of hypocrisy and double standards.
Indeed, many of the Russian pensioners who depend on social services do have younger relatives. In most cases, these relatives live separately, often in other cities, and earn salaries comparable in size to the social services bills.
Besides, for some people in Russia, deciding to have children means cutting financial support to their elderly parents.
Tatyana, a radio presenter in her mid-30s, has a mother who is nearing 80 and lives in a village near the town of Ufa. She requires constant care. The elderly woman moves around with difficulty and needs help with shopping and cleaning, not to mention paying for prescriptions not covered by state insurance. Tatyana made the tough decision to cut down on support to her mother after she gave birth to her own child. The joy of having a child came with a heavy sense of guilt, as Tatyana knows that the money that she sends no longer covers all of her mother’s pressing needs.
Tatyana’s is a situation unthinkable for any senior Russian official. Children of the country’s top bureaucrats enjoy plum jobs as top managers at the leading banks and large corporations. But even considering the enormous wealth gap, what sort of humane value system considers fresh air for a disabled person as a paid extra? Even prison inmates get a daily walk outside. The new order has essentially sentenced some of Russia’s most feeble pensioners to the life of a prisoner — with the exception that some freedom of movement can be officially purchased, at 193 rubles per hour.
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.