“Life Is Very Difficult for People”

“Life Is Very Difficult for People”
Yelizaveta Mayetnaya
Radio Svoboda
November 30, 2017

The announcement first appeared on the doors of a cafe in St. Petersburg, and then on the social media networks: “Olivier salad, kharcho, vegetable ragout with chicken, compote or ale, bread. 200 rubles. Free of charge to veterans and impoverished pensioners.” The whole town learned about the charity campaign literally within a few days, and old people flocked from all ends of the city to enjoy the free lunch special.

No one asks for any letters, verifying a person’s income. Pensioner ID cards are not required, either. You just have to sit down at a table and you will be fed.

Czech Yard, the cafe that will not let pensioners go hungry, is a family business. 25-year-old Alexandra Sinyak, the cafe’s co-owner, came up with the idea for the charity campaign.

“It all started with an old man who came into eat, but had little money on him. My husband was working in the cafe that day. He felt sorry for the man and said that lunch specials in our cafe would be free to pensioners,” recounts Sinyak. “The old man came for lunch every day for three weeks or so. We thought we should be feeding all the old people in our neighborhood, and not once, but on a permanent basis. We hoped our colleagues would support us, and one or two cafes that fed old people would pop up in each district. We did not imagine, of course, that they would come from all parts of the city to our cafe, but life is clearly very difficult for people. They spend forty minutes, an hour traveling one way to come here. We feed everyone. We do not turn anyone down.”

At first, Sinyak recalls, for some reason the old women brought their pension receipts along with them. The amounts listed on them were 6,200 rubles, 8,000 rubles, and 10,000 rubles. [That is, these women receive, at most, a pension of 143 euros a month.] They brought other receipts as well, such as the receipts for their apartment maintenance bills, which contained almost identical sums. [In fact, the amount of my latest apartment maintenance bill is 6,285 rubles and 20 kopecks. It tends to be lower by two or three thousand rubles in the summer months, when the centralized heating system is shut off—TRR.] Many of them have adult children who are employed, but they cannot help their own old folks, because they are barely making ends meet themselves.

According to Rosstat, around two million employed Russians are paid wages below the subsistence level. If we account for the fact that this money is also spent on other family members, the number of employed but impoverished Russians is over twelve million people or 16.8% of the population, according to calculations made by experts at the Russian Federal Government’s Analytical Center. Analysts at the World Bank have argued that the percentage of economically vulnerable people in Russia is over fifty percent.  According to a World Bank report, the proportion of Russians with a daily income of less than $10 has risen to 53.7%, while 13.8% of Russians spend less than 5$ a day.

Sinyak has seen her share of employed poor people in hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Four years ago, she and her husband gave birthto a premature baby. Doctors told the couple the girl would not be able to walk, talk or see, and they could not even dream of sending her to school. The Sinyaks threw all their efforts into making their baby daughter well. Now she has a slight limp, but is otherwise a normal child.

“We organized charity concerts for the children, and my husband and I simply gave their parents money because we really wanted to help them,” says Sinyak. “Now we are thinking about organizing a New Year’s party for the old people.”

At first, they posted the announcement about the free lunch specials on the cafe’s front door, but only one person showed up. It was only after Sinyak posted the announcement  on social media sites that the whole city discovered her and her husband’s lunches. Now they serve at least twenty-five free lunch customers daily.

То самое объявление

The initial announcement outside the cafe: “Dear patrons! The restaurant invites needy people of pension age and veterans to enjoy free lunches daily from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.” The post on the VK social network reads, “Czech Yard Cafe at 73 Sixteenth Line. All veterans and elderly people can eat lunch for free from noon to four p.m. […] We will support all cafes that can afford to do it. There are three of us for the time being. We are reposting this. Maybe a whole bunch of cafes in every district of the city will join us.”

One of their customers is 66-year-old Lyubov Volkova. She lives nearby, but she ordinarily does not walk on the side of the street where the cafe is located. She saw the announcement on VK. She spread the word to all her girlfriends in the neighborhood so they could lunch together.

“The lunch specials are a tremendous support to me. I worked my whole life. I have the title of veteran worker, but my monthly pension is 10,200 rubles, and the maintenance bill for my two-room flat is at least 7,000 rubles during the winter. I’m left to my own devices,” says Volkova, sighing heavily. “The electricity has been shut off for non-payment, and I have 15,000 rubles in unpaid fines, but I have not paid them, because I do not have the money to pay them. There are lots of people like me in our district. The people at the housing maintenance service and the electric company have become insolent. They constantly raise rates. They could not care less whether we can pay their bills or not. It is a good thing that Alexander appeared on the scene. Her cafe is charming and serves tasty food, and it is just nice to come here.”

Александра Синяк с мужем Евгением и пенсионеркой Любовью Волковой

Alexandra Sinyak, her husband Yevgeny, and pensior Lyubov Volkova

Volkova leads a rather active lifestyle. She is a member of the human rights public monitoring commission, inspecting pretrial detention centers and prisons, and she also volunteers at several public veterans organizatons. But all this work is unpaid.

“Most of the work in Russia is done by migrants. Our own people struggle to make ends meet, and they cannot get jobs. I have two sons, but they themselves have to squirm to feed their families. And I have lots of girlfriends: we left jobs at research institutes in the nineties to trade on the streets in order to raise our children. The situation was no better: everyone’s pensions were tiny. You know, I really love Russia, but everything that is happening makes me terribly sad. I want to go back to the Soviet Union. There was stability and calm then. Sure, we did not live high on the hog, but nor did we go begging. We had enough to pay for the essentials.”

Igor Bukharov, president of the Federation of Restaurateurs and Hoteliers of Russia, says the vast majority of restaurateurs have been feeding the needy for many years, but they do not talk about it.

“Societies for disabled people ask us for help, as do war veterans, as do veterans of military operations, as do the orphanages. Who doesn’t ask us for help?! Some ask to be fed breakfast, some ask to be fed lunch, some ask for help with charity suppers, and I have never heard of anyone being turned down,” claims Bukharov. “Generally, I think helping the needy is everyone’s personal affair, and we should not talk about it.”

For the time being, according to Alexandra Sinyak, they have been contacted by one only restaurant, in Sestroretsk, about arranging lunches on a permanent basis, rather than a one-off basis, and businessmen have turned up who are willing to supply their cafe with produce. Municipal councils in some large cities arrange free lunches for pensioners, but there are waiting lists, and the pensioners have to provide documented proof of their neediness. On the other hand, you can then eat free twenty-one times per quarter, says Lyubov Volkova.

Social organizations also provide assistance in the form of produce and groceries. For example, the Rus Food Fund has distributed 20,000 tons of produce and consumer goods to the needy during the five years it has operated. Right now, for example, the fund has been collecting “Food for the Backwoods” in time for the New Year’s holiday. The food will be delivered to the poor and lonely who live in villages in seven regions. Fifteen thousand people will receive assistance.

Anna Kirilovskaya has taken charge of so-called foodsharing in St. Petersburg. Volunteers collect food from various businesses, and distribute it for free to the needy. Originally, Kirilovskaya explains, the idea was to save edible produce from being discarded. The project now employs around 400 volunteers. The produce is collected almost daily, and thirty businesses give away their leftovers on a constant basis. According to the project’s website, over 113,000 kilos of produce have been saved in the different regions where foodsharing exists and there are teams of foodsavers.

“The volunteers decide themselves what to do with the food. They can take unsold soup from a cafe and pour it into sixty packets, freeze them, and eat them for the next two months. But I know that many of our volunteers take care of neighbors, families with lots of children, and old people. Some volunteers will take leftover meat that has been given to them, turn them into cutlets, and hand them out to the people they look after, but we get the most donations from vegetable warehouses. We mainly distribute fruits and vegetables,” says Kirilovskaya.

According to Kirilovskaya, the businesses most willing to help are owned by green-minded people who promise their customers fresh products and goods.

“Imagine how bakers at a private bakery feel when they have to throw their unsold goods into the trash in the evening?” Kirilovskaya wonders. “But everyone, employers and employees, likes giving away food to the needy. By the way, employees appreciate their employers more when they have this considerate attitude to their work.”

Alexandra Sinyak says she does not know what to do if hundreds of people come every day for their lunch specials, and whether she and her husband can continue to feed them at their own expense for very long.

“We decided we would do it as long as we were able,” she says.

In the coming days, she plans to make the rounds of the cafes in neighboring districts to personally persuade their owners to provide similar lunches to their own local pensioners. Sinyak is certain that someone will respond to her request.

Lyubov Volkova argues that Sinkyak should keep a count of the people who come for lunch, and if there are really too many of them, to refuse to serve everyone.

“I would not want these wonderful, kind folks to end up beggars themselves because of us poor pensioners,” she says.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Preobrazhenskaya for the heads-up

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