“We Are Treated like Schmucks”: Why Volga Region Pensioners Have Rebelled against the Regime

“We Are Treated like Schmucks”: How and Why Volga Region Pensioners Have Rebelled against the Regime
Yeveniya Volunkova
Takie Dela
April 4, 2017

What Happened?
Certain benefits for pensioners, disabled people, and other beneficiaries were cut in Samara at the beginning of 2017. Monthly payments for housing services and utilities were replaced by compensation for actual expenses. People now have to pay their bills first, then show the authorities the receipts, and only after that, if they have no debts, are they compensated for their expenses. The system has not been put through its paces and does not function, so there have been problems with assembling documents and getting compensation. In addition, a charge for major renovations has been added to the housing maintenance bill, a charge that many people do not pay as a matter of principle. Also, free public transportation for working pensioners has been abolished, and the number of free rides on the subsidized transport pass has been limited to fifty. This lasts many people two weeks; moreover, people complain the “rides” disappear more quickly. The frosting on the cake was the cancellation of monthly cash payments for working pensioners, who number 175,000 in Samara Region. People have lost their supplementary pensions, which ranged from 600 to 1,200 rubles. Non-working pensioners, whose pensions are over 19,500 rubles, have also been stripped of supplementary payments. The Samara administration did not give permission to hold a protest rally on the city’s central square, allowing it only in a remote neighborhood. Despite these precautions, the protesters packed the square.

The fourth large-scale protest by pensioners took place in Samara on April 2. The old folks first rebelled against Samara Region Governor Nikolai Merkushin in early February, when around 300 people attended a protest rally. The number of protesters has grown each time, and yesterday, according to unofficial statistics, around 4,000 people gathered on the square near the Athletics Palace. The protesters told our correspondent Yevegniya Volunkova what they were protesting and how they had succeeded in coming together when the rallies have not been mentioned on television at all.

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Nina Dmitrievna and Tamara Petrovna

Both women are seventy-nine years old. They heard about the rally from flyers and the internet. Their main complaints are Mordovian produce in the city and a fountain during the plague.

We’re upset about our poverty, the judicial system, and very many other things. But first of all, we want to see Merkushkin replaced. He squanders money and imports everything from Mordovia, including crushed stone, paving tile, and cement. Whatever shop you go to, the produce is all Mordovian. It’s no wonder his nickname is the Mordvin Pasha. During these hard times for the region, he wants to build the best fountain in Europe on the river embankment. Is now the time for it? Replace the pavement and benches, sure, but why the heck do we need a fountain right now? My friends and two children live in poverty, and it’s hard to buy bread. But this stadium [Samara is one of the host cities for the 2018 World Cup — TD], good God, how much money they’ve embezzled, and it’s not clear whether they’ll finish it or not. They took their kickbacks, but there’s no money left to build the thing. If we could see that everything was being done on behalf of the people, we would put up with it, but they have been stealing. Merkhushkin pumped three million into the wall on Samara Square [the Wall of Honor on Glory Square, which cut off a beautiful view of the Volga and Zhiguli Mountains, popularly known as the Wailing Wall — TD). It’s in terribly bad taste! And so much money was spent.

Mikhail Viktorovich

Seventy years old, he heard about the rally from friends. His main complaint: how can he survive on his pension?

How the mean regime deals with veterans! Yesterday, villagers told me their family had a monthly pension of 8,000 rubles [approx. 133 euros] or so. What is that? How can a person survive? Today, I went to get milk and bread. I also bought some biscuits and something to put in a soup. 600 rubles [approx. 10 euros] was gone just like that. Is the governor here? He didn’t show up? Shame on him! He stole kopecks from pensioners. Down with our government! They have not made a single effective move to improve the well-being of veterans.

Irina Olegovna

Sixty years old, she heard about the rally from a girlfriend. Her main complaint is that she has been forced to work to survive.

My monthly pension is 7,700 rubles, and I used to get a veteran’s bonus. I worked as an educator my whole life. Merkushkin took way the 621 rubles I got as a veteran’s bonus. I have no husband and no support. I’m forced to work to survive, but I have a whole passle of ailments. Should I approve his policies? He can go back to his native Mordovia. Besides, he lies and lies and lies. He shamelessly lies that he gives us a pension. I wrote a letter to him asking him to help me find work. Do you think he helped me? He didn’t do a damn thing for me.

Valentina Andreyevna

Sixty-three years old, she found out about the rally from the internet. Her main complaint is shamefully low pensions.

I came out of a sense of solidarity. I don’t receive any discount benefits: my length of service was too short. There should other slogans here: “Decent pensions!” Give us a decent pension and we wouldn’t need discounts. We’ll pay for public transport passes, for apartment maintenance costs, and so on. But it’s impossible to live on our miserly pensions.

Valery Remizov

Twenty-two years old, he found out about the rally from the internet. His main complaint is bad roads.

I came to the rally to voice my dissatisfaction with Nikolai Merkushkin’s social policies. It’s a pity our pensioners have to stand in the cold, demanding a few miserable kopecks. I’m sick of the state of the roads in this country. I’m tired of the fact the regime treats me hypocritically not only as a disabled person but also as an individual. It treats everything as a resource that can be sent off to war, god knows where. And yet it cannot organize a decent urban infrastructure, a decent life. I think the government needs to revise its policy of restricting the number of rides on public transport one can take if you have a discounted travel pass. I ride public transport all the time and I travel around town more than the authorities think I do.

Emma Viktorovna

Seventy years old, she heard about the rally on the internet. Her main complaint is that the governor was decorated “for his contribution to cosmonautics.”

Merkushkin is impudent. He’s an outsider in Samara. My colleagues, who have worked all their lives at the cosmodrome, were decorated for their service. But why the hell did they did stick an honorary pin on him for his contribution to cosmonautics? He has made no contribution whatsoever to cosmonautics. A persons should be more modest. Yet our colleagues where shown on TV standing off to the side, while he was shown in close-up. How did Samara manage without Merkushkina? Probably, it didn’t manage. But little Nikolai showed up, and it has been once achievement after another since then.

“Roads are Samara’s second misery. The fools in power are the first.” Roads are one of Samara’s worst problems. Photo courtesy of Yevgeniya Volunkova/Takie Dela

Roman

Sixty-five years old, he heard about the rally from his grandson. His main complaint is that the restricted number of trips on the discounted public transport travel pass make it hard for him to travel to the Volga.

Can you deceive people like that? They compare us with Penza, where forty-eight rides is more than enough, supposedly. Samara is a huge city: fifty trips a month is not enough here. When I’m traveling, all my rides get eaten up by he transfers. It’s a huge city. In the summer, I want to go to the Volga to swim. How many transfers is that? Fifty trips runs out in two weeks. Then there are housing services and utilities. We are forced to pay for utilities, but the discounts come later, after we’ve paid. Yet officials have included a fee for major house renovations in our bills. I don’t want to pay it. What am I paying for? I’ve lived half my life in the same building, which is falling apart at the seams. Major renovations have never once been carried out in that building.

samara-metro-28
Samara Subway and Tram Map. Courtesy of CartoTalk

Nadezha Fyodorovna

Sixty-nine years old, she heard about the rally from reading flyers. Her main complaint is how the money owed to pensioners has been used to pay for the governor’s palaces and the World Cup.

That scumbag Merkushkin took away all our benefits. How did he dare? He built himself palaces on Rublyovka, four palaces at three hundred million each. Does he have a conscience? Today, he was on Channel Two saying he built all the roads for us. The roads are all good, and everything in Samara is good. Only our pensions will have to pay for the World Cup. He’s a real bastard, a scumbag. We should send him packing back to Mordovia, where he can choke on his sons and relatives. Let’s keep coming out for protest rallies and demanding he resign.

Irina Olegovna and Lyubov Andreyevna

Forty-six and seventy-seven, they heard about the rally on the internet. Their main complaint is that the regime embezzles money and treats people like schmucks.

Irina Olegovna: I’m not a pensioner, but I came to stick up for them. I’m outraged by the injustice that flourishes in our country. The authorities have found the right people to rip off: pensioners. They holler about being a super power, that they defeated the fascists. Who beat whom? What’s the standard of living in Germany and the standard of living in Russia? Who did they defeat? Pensioners and sick children?

Young people attended the rally this time to support the pensioners. Photo courtesy of Yevgeniya Volunkova/Takie Dela

Lyubov Andreyevna: We’ve been spat on from all sides. You cannot get in anywhere to talk to anyone, whether it’s housing services and utilities or healthcare. Everywhere they could not care less about us. I’m seventy-seven. I use the internet and I know everything. I was a decision-maker when I was employed, but now I’ve been utterly humiliated. Thank you, Navalny, that you exposed Medvedev. We must send him packing

IO: It’s absolutely clear to everyone that regime embezzles money, and the fact they are silent is additional proof that thievery is going on. What happened to Serdyukov and Vasilyeva are proven facts. There was a trial, and they were let go. They sold off the property of the defense industry and lined their pockets. I don’t understand who needed this demonstrative flogging. They pulled out their dirty underwear, showed it to everyone, and put it away. I’ll be damned!

LA: Because they consider us idiots.

IO: Stupid schmucks!

LA: Stupid schmucks, cows, that’s who we are!

IO:  I agree with you completely. But ultimately they have to understand a point of no return will be reached, when it all goes to hell. What, are they waiting until people come after them with pitchforks? The country has already reached the boiling point. What the heck do we need Crimea for when our country is poor? I used to support Putin. He inherited a heavy burden, the country was in ruins. He seemed decent. I believed he’d put the country in shape. But then I realized what was what.

LA: Putin works for the oligarchs, not for himself. And we cows will all die off.

Vasily Petrovich

Eighty-two years old, he found out about the rally from a flyer. His main complaint is that payments have not been made to people who went through the war as children.

Look, I’ve brought a newspaper from 2014. Merkushkin promised to make monthly payments of 1,000 rubles to people who went through the war as children. But he didn’t give us fuck-all. We spent the war on a collective farm. Cold and hungry, we supplied the front and the cities with produce, while we ourselves ate grass and dirt. We survived, we were victorious, and now what? Now we are dying in poverty.

“Stop Making Fools of Russian Dudes!” Protest rally in Samara. Photo courtesy of Yevgeniya Volunkova/Takie Dela

Lydia Nikolayevna

Sixty-eight years old, she heard about the rally on the internet. Her main complaint is that her family has been stripped of all benefits, and that the regime takes people for idiots.

I’m a history teacher, I worked my whole life. Three years ago, my daughter died, leaving me to take care of my granddaughter Lada. She’s thirteen and in the sixth grade. By order of the city administration, the city paid the difference in the housing services and utilities bills for her as an orphan for the whole of 2016. The payment was small, but it made a difference. I’m a veteran of pedagogical work and disabled. We were supposedly divided into two groups: “rich” pensioners, who got 19,000 rubles a month, and poor pensioners. Money was taken away from us under the pretext of giving it to the poor. Money was taken from 175,000 people and then returned, allegedly, but we still haven’t got the money back. I don’t think they took the money in order to give it back. I take my granddaughter to school. I have to transfer, and I use four rides on my discounted travel pass. When they limited the number of trips to fifty, they took us for idiots. They also sucker us out of rides. My friends recorded every trip and noticed that they were shorting us by ten rides. They run out before the month ends, and they kick us off public transport. They’re secretly stealing even from these crumbs, from the fifty rides, as if we couldn’t check how many rides we were getting. I feel ashamed of this regime. We worked honestly our whole lives, and now they’re punishing us, punishing orphaned children and disabled people. It’s disgusting.

Nadezhda

Sixty-one years old, she heard about the rally on the internet. Her main complaint is the thieves in the government.

I have been denied the chance to travel by public transport. I need to drop off and pick up my granddaughter nearly every day. Of course, the number of rides on the travel pass is not enough. It’s just digusting. Why did they decide to limit us? What made them think fifty rides was enough for us? Merkushkin says that somebody made a thousand trips in a month on a seasonal pass. That’s utter rubbish. Even if it’s true, does that mean everyone has to have their benefits slashed? How many crooks and thieves are in the government? How many cases of corruption have been proven? In keeping with Merkushkin’s line of reasoning, all governors should be hauled into the Investigative Committee, no?

Organizing People through Their Wallets

“Let’s Reforge Medvedev’s Palaces into Unlimited Rides for Veterans.” The fifty rides they get on their free transport passes is not enough for residents. Photo courtesy of Yevgeniya Volunkova/Takie Dela

The main organizer of the rallies, Mikhail Matveev, a Communist MP in the Samara Regional Duma, is certain that his best organizer, the person who gets people out to the protest rallies, is Governor Merkushkin himself, the man whose decisions have driven people to the edge.

“Our old ladies don’t just read newspapers and watch TV. They’re not as backwards as they seem. They read social networks and blogs. Young people tell them things. Plus, we leaflet mailboxes and residential building entryways. We printed around 15,000 leaflets for the March 19 rally. The printing was paid for by the party and by ordinary people. It’s not a lot of money, but we don’t have anymore. Residents help us by leafletting for free and printing the leaflets at home on their printers. But the main organizing factor is people’s wallets, and the main organizer is Merkushkin. It used to be that pensioners weren’t aware that the number of trips on public transport was limited, but suddenly they were kicked off buses. The pension checks arrived, they were 700 rubles less, and so on. Dissatisfaction has been growing. We are grateful to Governor Merkushkin for the fact that his blunt propaganda pisses people off. There are all the phrases he tosses off at meetings with constituents, like, ‘It was you who did it so that we did nothing for you,’ and so on. They make the rounds. There will be more protest rallies until we get the pensioners their benefits back and send the governor packing.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

Fußball über alles

std
The new football stadium on Petersburg’s Krestovsky Island, still unfinished after years of delays and rampant cost overruns. In the foreground is a monument to former city boss Sergei Kirov, murdered under mysterious circumstances in 1934. Photo courtesy of Pyotr Kovalyov/Delovoy Peterburg

Schools, Kindergarten, and Hospitals Sacrificed to the Stadium
Antonina Asanova
Fontanka.ru
August 15, 2016

The Smolny [Petersburg city hall] will finance construction of the football stadium on Krestovsky Island twice over. The advances of 2.6 billion rubles that have not been returned by VTB Bank and Transstroy will be issued to new contractor Metrostroy. Schools and kindergartens will have to wait.

To finish the stadium on Krestovsky, the Smolny is ready to sacrifice the completion dates of three dozen facilities, including kindergartens, schools, and hospitals. 2.6 billion rubles, earmarked for social infrastructure, will be “redeployed” to Petersburg’s construction project of the century. City hall is counting on recouping the reinvested funds later, and figures it can afford not to hurry with the construction of public facilities.

The Construction Committee has prepared a draft decree on reallocating its 2016 budget. By law, the agency can redirect up to 10% of the funds in its targeted investment program, i.e., 2.8 billion rubles, a committee spokesperson said on the record.

Off the record, sources at the Smolny have explained that the stadium’s former general contractor, Inzhtransstroy-SPb, has not run through the 3.6 billion rubles it received as an advance. The company can still deliver part of the construction work and purchased materials before August 25, a month after its contract with the city was terminated. But if the city does not succeed in offsetting the entire sum, it will have to try and collect the money either from the contractor or VTB Bank, which issued the guarantee for completion of the work.

Experience shows it is not worth counting on the good will of companies when it comes to giving back money. The Construction Committee is still in the midst of suing VTB for the return of funds issued under contracts for the construction of indoor ice rinks, which were terminated over a year ago.

A strategy of protracted litigation does not suit the Smolny at all. Completing the stadium before year’s end is a matter of honor to the city government. So the Construction Committee has decided to redeploy part of the funds allocated for new kindergartens and schools to Petersburg’s main construction project. Only facilities whose completion was planned for this year have not been touched.

The city’s calculation is simple. Construction of public facilities will be slowed down a bit for the time being. But when the stadium is delivered at the end of the year, and the monies that were advanced are returned to the budget, the long-awaited construction projects will again be accelerated to a proper speed.

Health clinics and hospitals will be most affected by the budget cuts. The Construction Committee has decided to withdraw nearly a billion rubles from construction of these facilities.

Expenditures on one of the city’s most protracted construction projects, a perinatal center at Maternity Hospital No. 9 on 47 Ordzhonikidze Street, have been reduced by a quarter billion rubles. Doctors were preparing to nurse premature and sick newborns in the facility, and spoke of modern operating rooms and a modern intensive care unit. The building, in fact, was supposed to be delivered at the end of 2015. But now the contractor, Stroykomplekt, owned by former Baltstroy top manager Dmitry Torchinsky and Alexei Torchinsky, has a new deadline: the end of 2017.

People in the suburb of Kolpino will also have to wait for the opening of the new surgical wing at Hospital No. 33. Only one million rubles has been left in this year’s budget for its completion, while 155 million rubles will be transferred to erecting the football stadium. However, the construction site on Pavlovskaya Street has already been idle for a year. The Construction Committee terminated its contract with the previous contractor, but has not yet found a new contractor.

The residents of Kolpino will not have to wait alone, however. Among the facilities where construction will be slowed down are health clinics in Strelna and Krasnoye Selo, an ambulance substation in Metallostroy, and a childen’s tuberculosis sanatorium in Ushkovo.

Funds for new school construction will not be slashed so drastically: only by half a billion rubles. Contractor ETS will have to slow down construction of a school in New Okhta, a massive housing complex on the far side of the Ring Road, near Murino. This year, financing of the construction project will be cut by 230 million rubles. New Okhta is being vigorously developed. Over the past three years, developer LSR Group has completed twenty-four residential buildings into which the city has been moving people on the affordable housing waiting list. But there are still no schools in the district. Parents have to shuttle their children over the Ring Road to the neighborhoods of Grazhdanka, built long ago.

Residents of the housing project on Badayev Street will also have to be patient. The city has stripped their future school of 90 million rubles in financing.

Finally, kindergartens will hardly suffer at all: funding of their construction will be reduced only by 310 million rubles. The biggest loser, to the tune of 130 million rubles, is the future kindergarten in the Golden Bay residential complex, near Tricentennial Park. Its completion has been postponed for a year, until the end of 2017.

The Smolny is even ready to cut funding for construction of a site directly linked to the new stadium: the waterfront near the Novokrestovskaya subway station, currently under construction. The contractor, Leokam, will have its funding for making improvements to the waterfront cut by nearly 240 million rubles. Apparently, the company will have to catch up next year. Under the terms of its contract, it has to deliver the works before the end of 2017.

The site of the new stadium was previously occupied by the Kirov Stadium, a federally listed architectural landmark, built by constructivist architect Nikolsky in
The site of the new stadium was previously occupied by the Kirov Stadium, a federally listed architectural landmark. Designed by world-famous constructivist architect Alexander Nikolsky and opened in 1950, it was unceremoniously demolished in 2006. Photo courtesy of Kommersant.

However, what matters is that the stadium on Krestovsky Island will be delivered before the end of this year, and cost estimates of its construction will not increase, formally speaking.

A total of 42 billion rubles [approx. 582 million euros] have been allocated on the stadium, Petersburg’s principal protracted construction project.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Doctors Protest Cuts to Ambulance Services in Petersburg

Doctors Protest Cuts to Ambulance Services in Petersburg
David Frenkel
Special to The Russian Reader
June 8, 2015

On June 7, doctors working in the ambulance service at Municipal Clinic No. 4 on Petersburg’s Vasilyevsky Island organized a series of solo pickets against “optimizations” at the city’s medical facilities.

The pickets took place on Sunday afternoon on the pedestrian boulevard between the island’s Sixth and Seventh Lines. They were organized by Action (Deistvie), a nationwide trade union of healthcare workers that has also recently organized a work-to-rule strike by doctors in Moscow.

medicos-12 brigadesProtester holds a placard that reads, “Twelve ambulance crews for 210,00 residents. How is that?”

After recent staff layoffs, the number of ambulance brigades has been drastically reduced, and long delays in responding to emergency calls have become routine. In May, half of all calls resulted in delays of up to forty minutes, while in April the waiting time was as long as six hours. According to standards for ambulance crews, issued by the Ministry of Health in 2013, an ambulance should arrive at its destination no later than twenty minutes after being dispatched.

medicos-pediatric teamsProtester holds placard that reads, “No to the elimination of pediatric ambulance crews.” A police officer copies the slogan down in a notebook.

Another problem the protesters highlighted were plans to abolish pediatric ambulance crews. From now on, the same ambulance teams will treat both children and adult emergency patients. The protesting medics also demanded that the intensive care ambulance team be reestablished. This is especially important for Vasilyevsky Island, which is cut off from the mainland when the bridges are raised at night.

medicos-abdullyaev“Abdullayev: corruption and medicine are incompatible.”

Doctors are prepared to continue their protest campaign, expecting their demands to be heard and impact decisions made by the clinic’s management.

They had already organized protests against Municipal Clinic No. 4’s chief physician, Alisher Abdullayev. After clinic employees had their salary bonuses slashed, it transpired that Abdullayev had topped the list of Petersburg’s wealthiest chief physicians. In 2014, he declared an income of 21.86 million rubles (approximately 350,000 euros at current exchange rates), a two thousand square meter plot of land, a 109 square meter apartment, and a car.

Andrei Konoval, Action’s organizational secretary, argued that the pickets had been a success and called on the protesters not to give up. He cited counting delayed ambulance calls as a principal weapon in the campaign by medics to improve their working conditions, because such statistics impress health care officials the most.

medicos-56 delays“56 late arrivals per day is the result of optimizing the ambulance service.”

Maxim Reznik, a liberal member of the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly, was also on hand to support the protesting doctors. He promised to help them in their campaign.

All photographs by and courtesy of David Frenkel