Buggered

rossiya This bankrupt agribusiness was called Rossiya (“Russia”). Photo courtesy of Maxim Kemmerling/Kommersant and Republic

“The Data Leaves Us at a Loss”: A Few Figures That Might Surprise the Kremlin
Yevgeny Karasyuk
Republic
April 4, 2019

“Why on shoes? Why a third? Where did they get these figures?”

Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s press secretary, responded with questions to journalists who questioned him yesterday about Rosstat’s depressing report for 2018.

According to Rosstat’s study, in which sixty thousand Russian households were surveyed, every fifth Russian skimps on fruits and vegetables. Every other Russian family cannot afford to travel anywhere when they have a week’s vacation, while every fourth family does not have enough money to invite people over to celebrate birthdays and the New Year’s holiday.

And, indeed, the report does conclude that 35% of Russians are unable to purchase each family member two pairs of seasonally appropriate footwear.

“I would be grateful to Rosstat if they clarified these figures. The data leaves us at a loss,” Peskov added.

Meanwhile, there are other figures—lots of figures—that would probably also bedevil the Kremlin if they were aired in public. Let us recall a few of them.

Nutrition
Consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor concluded that 63% of deaths in Russia were associated with bad food and poor nutrition. According to official figures, Russians spend approximately 35% of their household budgets on food, while independent researchers put that figure at over fifty percent. However, the average Russian household skimps on all purchases and tries to do without everything it can, claim the researchers behind Romir’s Coffee with Milk Index, which charts the quantities of chocolate, coffee, milk, and bottled water purchased by Russians. Researchers at RANEPA recently described the diets of Russians as unhealthy, unbalanced, and lacking in energy.

Health
According to a report by RANEPA’s Institute for Social Analysis and Forecasting, 22% of Russians who live in straitened circumstances face the stark choice of whether to buy the bare minimum of the cheapest produce or the cheapest drugs, drugs they need to survive. It is typical of Russians, not only those below the poverty line, to postpone going to the doctor, if it involves costs, noted researchers at the Institute for Health Economics at the Higher School of Economics.

Education
According to the pollsters at VTsIOM, fifty percent of Russian parents experience serious financial difficulties when getting their children ready for the first day of the school year. Over the past five years, the average sum of money Russians claim to spend getting children ready for school has increased by sixty percent, rising from 13,600 rubles to 21,100 rubles.

Housing
According to the Construction Ministry, the Russian populace’s debts for utilities and housing maintenance bills have grown by five and a half times since 2015. The ministry reported that, as of the end of last year, the total amount of this debt was 1.2 trillion rubles [approx. 16.34 billion euros]. The rates for water, electricity, gas, and other utilities and services increase rhythmically year after year, and yet the real incomes of Russians have continued to fall five years in a row.

Transportation
Forty percent of Russian car owners “try not to use their own vehicles, taking public transport instead.” Another 22% of car owners follow their lead, but do it less frequently. VTsIOM has explained the outcome of its January opinion poll by citing the concern of Russians for the environment while failing to note that the price of petrol has skyrocketed in recent years. Last year, a liter of AI-95 rose in price three times faster than inflation. The government has resorted to artificial, decidedly non-market measures to depress prices, and yet petrol in Russia is now twice as expensive as it was when the decade kicked off.

Only twelve percent of Russians believe that, when it describes the economy and the social sector, the Russian regime always or mostly tells the truth. The Levada Center has done polls on the same subject since 2010. Russian society’s confidence in what the country’s leaders and senior officials say has never been as low as it is now.

By voicing surprise at Russia’s poverty, at least on paper, the Kremlin is, apparently, determined to convince people it inhabits a parallel reality in which Russia makes one breakthrough after another, and the rank and file enjoy “stability” by way of spiting the country’s numerous enemies. Peskov seemed genuinely puzzled by Rosstat’s claim that Russian families have trouble buying shoes, but he probably had not yet read the government’s report on the increase in mortality rates in every third region of Russia. Clearly, something is wrong with the figures. In short, we expect a reaction.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Falling

200 ruble note-1

200 ruble note-2A year ago, Russian Central Bank chief Elvira Nabiullina triumphantly introduced the new Crimea-themed two hundred ruble banknote into circulation. Since the economy is shaped more by flows of goods, resources, people, services, knowledge, and money, and the actions of ordinary people, decision makers, and the snake oil salesmen known as capitalists, and less by puerile revanchist neo-imperalist symbolism, the new banknote, pegged at €2.90 by Deutsche Welle only a year ago, is now worth a mere €2.65. I am keeping my specimen as a souvenir of the current bad times until better days arrive. Image by the Russian Reader

Fall in Real Incomes of Russians Accelerated Sharply in September
Economists Say Government’s Forecast No Longer Realistic
Tatyana Lomskaya
Vedomosti
October 17, 2018

Real incomes of Russians have declined for a second month in a row, Rosstat has reported. Their decline accelerated in September to 1.5% in annual terms after falling by 0.9% in August. Prior to that, they had grown for seven months, from the start of the year, by 1.7%. (This figure excludes the one-time 5,000-ruble payments made to pensioners in January 2017.) Real wages accelerated their growth in September, from 7.2% to 6.8% in the previous month.

Incomes of ordinary Russian had been falling for four years in a row, from 2014 to 2017, resuming growth only this year. In the first half of the year, they increased by 2.6%, mainly due to wage increases, notes Igor Polyakov from the Center for Macroeconomic Analysis and Short-Term Forecasting (TsMAKP). Business income increased only by 0.7%, while social transfers (excluding the one-time payment to pensioners) increased by 1.2%, which was significantly weaker than all incomes generally. Other sources of income decreased. There was a slight increase in incomes derived from property, but incomes received from securities and deposits decreased, as did, apparently, incomes from unreported activity, says Mr. Polyakov. He argues it is unlikely circumstances have changed considerably in recent months.

But the anxiety of Russians caused by the volatility of financial markets has increased, says Mr. Polyakov. People have taken to withdrawing cash from foreign currency accounts and transferring it to safe deposit boxes, as well as spending it abroad on holiday. Rosstat cannot register these expenditures and thus reduces its assessment of miscellaneous income. In August, the public’s net demand for US dollars grew by comparison with July from $0.8 billion to $1.7 billion, an increase of nearly 53%, the Central Bank reported.

Retail growth slowed in September to 2.2% in annual terms from 2.8% a month earlier. It is likely the public preferred buying foreign currency while curtailing consumption, argues Mr. Polyakov.

The drop in incomes combined with the serious increase in wages [sic] remains a mystery, writes Dmitry Polevoy, chief economist at the Russian Direct Investment Fund. The growth in real incomes in the first half of 2018 was mainly due to the presidential election campaign, notes Vladimir Tikhomirov, chief economist at BCS Global Markets. Salaries in the public sector and pensions increased rapidly. [That is, the Kremlin bribed Russians directly dependent on its largesse to get out the vote for President-for-Life Vladimir Putin—TRR.] After the election, growth stalled. And, after a palpable devaluation of the ruble in April and accelerating inflation, a dip in incomes was anticipated, argues Mr. Tikhomirov. In September, prices for imported goods rose. In addition, the seasonal discount on fruits and vegetables ended, and the July increase in utilities rates made itself felt, explains Mr. Tikhomirov.

By the end of the year, the incomes of Russians will gradually decline a little, while overall incomes will grow less than 1% on the year, predicts Mr. Tikhomirov. Real incomes might grow by 2% on the year, counters Mr. Polyakov. In any case, this is noticeably lower than official forecasts. The Russian Economic Development Ministry anticipated a 3.4% growth in real incomes in 2018.

Real incomes of ordinary Russians fell by 1.7% in 2017, although the government had forecast a 1.3% increase, the Federal Audit Chamber noted in its opinion on the draft federal budget for 2019–2021. When the forecast was corrected, incomes had decline dsteadily from the beginning of the year, and there were no preconditions for rapid growth by year’s end, the auditors write.

Income growth depends on whether private enterprise will increase wages, argues Mr. Polyakov, but thos wages will be subject to the planned rise in the VAT to 20% in 2019.

President Putin has set a goal of halving poverty by 2024. (The official poverty rate last year was 13.2% of the populace.) The Economic Development Ministry’s forecast significantly increased the growth rate of real wages and anticipated higher growth rates for real incomes, which has raised doubts at the Audit Chamber. There is no wage increase for public sector employees planned in 2019, while the growth of wages in the private sector will depend on growths in productivity.

Rank-and-file Russians have been forced into debt, write analysts from RANEPA and the Gaidar Institute in their opinion on the draft budget. By mid 2018, Russians owed banks 13.7 trillion rubles (approx. 181 billion euros), an increase of 19% from the previous year, they write, and an amount that significantly outpaces the increase in nominal incomes. It is an alarming trend that means an increase in the amounts of money ordinary Russians spend servicing loans, experts warn.

Translated by the Russian Reader

“We Are Racing into a Huge Pit”: The Small-Town Russian Businessman Who Publicly Opposed Putin

All that is left of the anti-Putin leaflets posted by Nikolai Korshunov

“We Are Racing into a Huge Pit”: The Businessman Who Spoke Out against Putin
Аlexander Valiyev
Radio Svoboda
26 February 2018

In the town of Verkhny Ufaley, Chelyabinsk Region, police have torn down posters cataloguing the “brilliant” outcome of Putin’s reign from the outside walls of several shops. The posters were hung there by a local businessman, who has already had occasion to fight the authorities in this way. 

Nikolai Korshunov owns six small shop in this company town 120 kilometers from Chelyabinsk. Police paid visits to Korshunov’s shops on the eve of Fatherland Defenders Day, February 23. The businessman told Radio Svoboda what happened.

Николай Коршунов (в центре) с сыном и родственником на Забастовке избирателей в Москве

Nikolai Korshunov (middle) with his son and another relative at the Voters Strike, Moscow, January 28, 2018. Photo courtesy of Nikolai Korshunov and Radio Svoboda

Nikolai Korshunov: I am very active civically. I always serve as an elections monitor during elections. I own six small shops. We sell the basics: bread, milk, etc. The stores are my venue for voicing my opinion about current events. This takes the shape of handmade posters, information leaflets.

My argument is that, since the stores are my property, I have the right to post any information whatsoever in them. The Constitution gives me that right. But I have run into opposition from law enforcement and the city hall in our town. It also happened before the 2016 Duma elections, in which Verkhny Ufaley famously voted only four of the twenty United Russia candidates into the local parliament. People read my posters very carefully. Naturally, they regard anything that is not propaganda as out of the ordinary. It is interesting because if they, say, live in one part of town and the neighborhood dairy plant has shut down, they still remember that, but if, say, a timber plant or infant feeding center has ben closed on the other side of town, they might not have heard about it at all, because it does not affect them.  But when they read the entire list, they think to themselves, “What a lot of things have happened in our town over this time.” Even since the 2016 Duma elections there have been colossal changes for the worse in Verkhny Ufaley: total poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness.

An excerpt from one of Korshunov’s information leaflets. It lists by name the Verkhny Ufaley plants, companies, businesses, and services that have closed during Putin’s eighteen-year reign. Photo courtesy of Nikolai Korshunov and Radio Svoboda

​Radio Svoboda: What was on the the posters?

I have lived in Verkhny Ufaley for a very long time. I was born and raised here. In the run-up to the presidential election I decided to make a list of things that have changed in our town during the eighteen years of Putin’s administration. What businesses and factories have closed? The town’s main employer, the Ufaley Nickel Plant closed [in December 2017]. The Metalworker Factory closed. The open hearth and wheel spring shops closed. Then all hell broke loose: the sausage plant, the dairy, the furniture factory, etc., closed. There are thirty-four items on the list, including the children’s hospital and the railroad’s inpatient clinic. Then there are the plants that are barely hanging on. I wrote about them, too, for example, the metallurgical plant where five thousand people once worked. Now it employs a maximum of five hundred to seven hundred people.

Do you think people have suddenly forgotten about what has been happening in town?

Of course they know, but it is just another reminder, a way of saying, Hey, guys, you say that Vladimir Putin has raised the country from its knees, but I don’t think that is the case. I think we are racing into a huge pit at enormous speed. I cannot answer for the entire country, but as a resident of a small industrial town, I see what has been shut down, what has been destroyed, what has been dismantled, what has been pilfered. When you go and vote, people, think a bit before making your choice.

The continuation of Korshunov’s list. Photo courtesy of Nikolai Korshunov and Radio Svoboda

​How many votes do you think Putin will pick up in Verkhny Ufaley?

He will win for one simple reason. Our town is small: everyone knows everything about everyone else, and everyone tells everyone else about everything. I will give you an example. At the employment office—our town has terrible unemployment, by the way, because everything has shut down—the boss gathers his underlings and says, “God forbid you don’t go and vote. If you don’t, I won’t pay you bonuses.” This is more or less what goes throughout state sector. So a huge number of people, maybe even dissenters, will naturally go out and vote in order to keep their miserable jobs at places like the employment office. No one will buck against the bosses. So, Putin will definitely win. Because he has the administrative resource behind him, and huge numbers of people are incapable of thinking.

The administrative resource can compel people to turn out for an election, but people go into the voting booths alone. 

They have their tricks. They can ask people to photograph their filled-out ballot paper on their telephones and send them the photos. We have been through it before. It happend during the 2016 Duma elections, and during the 2012 presidential election, when I was a polling station monitor. It’s all elementary. It’s not a problem at all. But most people have, of course, been hypnotized by television. They cannot reason, think or compare facts. When it comes to them, what the TV says definitely goes, although it is flagrant, mendacious, aggressive propaganda.

I am sure people have asked you, “If not Putin, then who?” People do not see an alternative. How do you counter them?

В таком виде полиция оставила стену магазина после своего визита
The wall of one of Korshunov’s shops looked like this after a visit from the local police. Photo courtesy of Nikolai Korshunov and Radio Svoboda

There is no alternative for one reason and one reason alone: all of politics has been purged by the administrative resource. Anyone who could compete against Putin would never be allowed to run in honest, alternative elections under any circumstances. That’s why there is no alternative. Putin’s only “opponents” are people who have definitely been appointed to the role. They stand for nothing and no one, and compared with them Putin looks like a superhero. On top of everything is the propaganda and hypnosis that reinforces the message that Putin is the most respected politician in the world, and we are the world’s mightiest country.

Do people in Verkhny Ufaley know about Alexei Navalny, his exposés, and his call to boycott the presidential election?

Most of them don’t know, of course. A particular segment knows, young people mainly, of course, because Navalny has access only to the internet, to YouTube, which is largely viewed by young people, by schoolchildren and university students. Elderly people know nothing about Navalny, naturally. They know only what the propagandists on TV tell them: that Navalny is an out-and-out thief, scoundrel, and so on.

What about middle-aged people?

Middle-aged people are probably more thoughtful, but not so very thoughtful at the end of the day. Our town is basically a village. We live in a kind of swamp. Middle-aged people are averse to risks. They work somewhere in the state sector, earn ten thousand rubles a month [approx. 142 euros], and are up to their necks in debt. When they sit around chatting in the kitchen, they support Navalny, of course. But they cannot voice their opinions actively, because they would be fired from their jobs in two seconds flat. People primarily think about themselves. Their political views come second.

A photograph of all thirty-four factory and other closures in Verkhny Ufaley during the Putin years, along with the message, “Think hard! What will become of the town between March 18, 2018, and March 2024? || March 18: Not an election, but a fraud. Don’t let yourself be fooled. Don’t go [and vote]. The Voters Strike.” Photo courtesy of Nikolai Korshunov and Radio Svoboda

How have the authorities reacted to your protests?

Our mayor is also secretary of the local United Russia party branch. During the 2016 election campaign, I hung up leaflets in my shops saying United Russia was the party of crooks and thieves. The United Russians came running and blatantly tore down the posters. Many locals approached me afterwards and said, well done, I had done the right thing, because the United Russians were high-handed, arrogant, and had lost all sense of measure. During this campaign, they have reacted differently. First, they sent young women who work in lowly positions at city hall to photograph the leaflets in my shops. Then city hall put pressure on the police, who showed up on the eve of Fatherland Defenders Day, February 23. The leaflet had been up for around two weeks by then, and from time to time I had added information to them. They showed up when I was not there and tore down everything. In one shop, they tore down a big piece of fiberglass along with the posters. There were five or six of them. They intimidated the cashiers. They took statements from them and drove away. That happened in five shops. They showed up at the sixth shop the next day. There, however, the cashier is a serious woman. She did not let them tear down the posters and called me. I arrived, and we hashed things out with them for two and a half hours. There were two neighborhood beat cops and an investigator. They were unable to tell me what laws I could have violated. I imagine they are quite unfamiliar with the Administrative Offenses Code. From time to time they would call the dispatch center for instructions. I know there is nothing illegal about my actions. Nothing will come of it, just like last time.

There was no pressure on you after the Duma elections? You were not tormented with surprise inspections of your shops?

No, there was nothing of the sort. I was written up for an administrative violation, but apparently the magistrates told the police there was no law covering leaflets. So nothing came of it, nor was any pressure put on me.

Are you planning to file a complaint against the police?

I did not complain last time, and I will not complain this time, either. It is a waste of time. There is honor among thieves.

Will you put the leaflets back up?

Yes, definitely, they are already up in some shops.

What are your plans for March 18? Will you vote?

I completely agree with Alexei Navalny. I’m going to boycott the vote. I even traveled to Moscow on January 28 for the Voters Strike. But I will definitely go to some polling station or another on election day to help prevent vote rigging.

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

(Don’t) Pay Your Rates

DSCN4253A Petersburg housing services worker risking life and limb to clear snow off the roof of a tenement building in the city’s downtown. Photo by the Russian Reader

Russians Are Increasingly Not Paying for Their Flats
Growing Debts for Housing Services and Utilities Reflect Obvious Social Ills
Pavel Aptekar
Vedomosti
February 21, 2018

The increase in housing and utilities rates, occuring alongside a protracted downslide in personal income, has produced an abrupt upturn in debts for housing services and utilities, and collections of arrears in court, especially among low-income segments of the Russian populace.

The Russian Supreme Court has published statistics on the collection of debts for housing services and utilities. In 2014, 2.1 million such cases were ajudicated by the courts. In 2017, the figure was 5.4 million cases, and the total amount of recoverable debt had doubled, from ₽60 billion to ₽120 billion—taking into account, however, the debts of legal entities that paid for heating irregularly. Nevertheless, these figures reflect both an alarming trend—utilities payments have increasingly become a burden for disadvantaged parts of the populace—and the unwillingness of the rich to pay the bills for flats they have purchased as investments.

Generally, the collection of payments for utilities and housing services proceeds calmly. According to the Institute for Urban Economics, 95–97% of apartment residents pay their bills on time, but an individual’s timeliness in paying their bills depends on their income, as well as the climate and budget priorities of the Russian region where they live. According to Rosstat, household expenses on utilities and housing services per family member rose between 2014 and 2016 from ₽1,511 to ₽1,816, i.e., by 20.2%. The share of total household expenses spent on utilities and housing services rose during the same period from 10.3% to 11.3%.

For the sake of budget savings, many regions have reduced subsidies on housing and utilities, which has seriously increased the amount of money spent on these services by local populations, says economist Natalya Zubarevich. For example, housing and utilities account for 25.8% of paid services in Kursk Region, while in neighboring Oryol Region the figure is 41.1%. In Khabarovsk Territory, housing and utitilies expenses make up 26.7% of the cost of all services, while in Amur Region, which has a comparable climate, the figure is 45.8%.

In 2016, housing and utilities expenses accounted for 15.2% of all expenses among the ten percent of Russian families with the lowest incomes, and 14.8% of all expenses among the ten percent of families who were less poor. People who have to scrimp on everything are often forced not to pay for housing and utilities simply in order to survive. However, according to Mikhail Men, Minister for Construction and Housing, some of the arrears are owed by the proprietors of apartments bought as investments, who do not want to pay the bills for vacant flats.

According to Rosstat, the total amount of money owed by the Russian populace for housing and utilities in 2014 was ₽111 billion; in 2015, it was ₽135.8 billion. Subsequently, the debts have grown more quickly. In October 2016, Andrei Chibis, Deputy Minister for Construction and Housing, informed TASS News Agency they had reached ₽270 billion, and in July 2017, Men cited the figure of ₽645 billion [approx. €9.2 billion].

This increase reflects an obvious social ill. Housing and utitilies fees are billed by private companies, who turn not only to the courts to collect unpaid bills but also to the services of illegal debt collectors. Such circumstances could engender serious conflicts, especially in small towns with poor populations.

Translated by the Russian Reader. See my numerous previous posts on the problem of debt in Russia.

Household Debt in Russia Over 170 Billion Euros

reliable future consumer credit coopReliable Future Consumer Credit Cooperative is one of many retail lenders ready to help ordinary Russians “boost their standard of living.” Photo by the Russian Reader

Household Debt of Russians Exceeds Twelve Trillion Rubles
Half of This Amount Was Borrowed Over the Last Year
Emma Terchenko
Vedomosti
January 31, 2018

This emerges from statistics gathered by the United Credit Bureau (OKB), based on information about the outstanding loans of 82 million Russians.

According to the Russian Central Bank, the Russian populace’s bank debt grew by 13.2% in 2017 to 12.2 trillion rubles [approx. 170.75 billion euros].

The OKB’s calculations show the number of new loans grew more slowly than their total amount. Over the past year, loans increased by 37% compared to 2016 (by 4.14 trillion rubles), whereas their quantity increased only by 12% to 34.8 million individual outstanding loans.

Moreover, an increase was observed in all segments of the loan market—mortgages, cash loans, auto loans, and credit cards—according to the OKB’s statistics.

Banks mostly disbursed money to Russians in the form of cash loans: nearly 3 trillion rubles or 33% more than in 2016. The number of such loans reached 24.7 million units, an increase of 14%.

The total amount of mortgages issued for the year increased by 42% to 1.8 trillion rubles, while the total number rose by nearly a third to 959,237 individual mortgages. According to Rusipoteka, a financial analytics company, 53% of the housing mortages issued last year were supplied by Sberbank.

In November, the mortgage portfolios of Russian banks exceeded a record five trillion rubles, the Central Bank reported previously.

“Afer the crisis, banks tried to build up their mortgage portfolios. Many of them reduced their down payments to accomplish this. Therefore, amongst the loans issued last year, around a third had down payments of less than 20%,” says Rusipoteka director Sergei Gordeiko.

According to the OKB, auto loans for all of 2017 increased by 36% to 333.3 billion rubles or by 25% to 436,539 individual loans. The National Credit History Bureau (NBKI) estimated the annual growth of auto loans at 29%.

“Auto loans have returned to pre-crisis levels, and the share of cars bought on loan has been growing,” notes NBKI’s director general Alexander Vikulin. “In 2017, every other automobile in Russia was purchased with a loan.”

The OKB claims credit cards are the fastest growing segment. Although the number of new credit cards issued last year grew only by 8% to 8.65 million cards (this figure excludes replacement cards), their total limit increased by less than half: by 48% to 544.5 billion rubles.

According to the NBKI, the number of newly issued credit cards grew by 52.6% to 6.87 million units in 2017. Equifax reported an 52% increase to six million new cards issued on the year.

The reason for the discrepancy is the databases of creditors monitored by the various credit bureaus differ. Unlike other credit bureaus, the OKB receives all information about loans made by Sberbank, which, according to different estimates, accounts for 42% to 46% of the loan market. The NBKI, for example, does not monitor figures from Home Credit Bank. None of the three bureaus—OKB, NBKI, and Equifax—take Russian Standard Bank’s statistics into account.

With its share of the credit card market, Sberbank has an impact on discrepancies in the calculations of the OKB and the other bureaus, argues Frank RG director general Yuri Gribanov.  According to Frank RG’s data, based on the management statements of banks and taking into account the utilization of credit limits and overdue debts, Sberbank’s portfolio of credit cards and overdrafts constituted 42.5% of the overall portfolio of all Russian banks as of December 1, 2017. During the year, it grew by 16.4% to 559.6 billion rubles.

A Sberbank spokesperson did not provide exact figures for the issuing of new credit cards last year, but confirmed they had not grown, remaining at a “consistently high level.”

Tinkoff Bank issued 2.41 million new credit cards in 2017, 43% more than the previous year, while Sovkombank issued more than a million credit cards. Vostochny Bank increased its issuing of credit cards by 140%, OTP Bank, by 135%, and VTB Bank by 13% (440,000 cards).

“The main reason for the growth is that banks have returned to sales channels that were frozen after 2015, for example, lending to walk-in customers,” says Alexei Shchavelev,  director of the cross-selling department at OTP Bank.

“In addition, many banks now have built up a broad base of quality customers: payroll customers, debit card holders, borrowers. It is now much easier for them to sell credit cards, because this customer base has been clarified,” Pavel Samiyev, managing director of the National Rating Agency, explains.

The demand for credit cards from borrowers themselves has been caused by the growth of consumer activity in general and improved customer solvency, argues Rostislav Yanykin, director of Russian Standard’s credit card sales. In the fight for customers, banks have been offering increasingly advantageous terms for using credit cards, he admits.

People who take out loans to boost their standard of living have mainly fueled the growth in lending to the populace, argues Nataliya Orlova, chief economist at Alfa Bank.

“In the past two years, they suffered more than others from the crisis in terms of reduced purchasing power.”

According to NBKI’s Vikulin, retail lending has been growing due to the economy’s stabilization.

Translated by the Russian Reader

NB. According to a May 17, 2017, article in the New York Times, household debt in the US had risen to $12.73 trillion in the first quarter of 2017, a new peak. Converted into rubles, this would amount to approx. 742 trillion rubles at current exchange rates. Based on the latest UN estimates, the current population of the US is nearly 327 million people, while the population of the Russian Federation is nearly 144 million people, based on the same estimates. In 2016, GDP (PPP) per capita in the US was over $57,000, while it was just over $23,000 in Russia, according to figures published by the World Bank. TRR

Russia’s Working Poor

Employed and Poor
Andrei Bespalov
Takie Dela
December 13, 2017

According to official statistics, at least ten million Russians work hard all their lives but cannot escape poverty. 

Russia has no clear criteria for poverty. The concept is absent from Russian legislation. There are poor people throughout the world, but not in Russia. We vaguely define them as “low income,” meaning people whose income is below the subsistence level. Each region of Russia has its own subsistence level. For example, for a person of working age to make it for a month in Omsk Region, he or she needs at least 9,683 rubles [approx. 140 euros]. In Moscow, the minimum income is twice as high: 18,472 rubles [approx. 267 euros]. If your income is lower than the officially approved subsistence level, you are living below the poverty line. True, this in no way mean you cannot be paid less this same minimum for your work. You can indeed be paid less: if your monthly wage exceeds the minimum wage at least by one kopeck. Currently, the minimum monthly wage in Russia is 7,800 rubles [approx. 113 euros].

Story No. 1: Olga
We imagine you have go looking for poor people far from Moscow, and the farther you get from Moscow, the more flagrant poverty you will encounter. It is not true. There are large numbers of people living below the poverty line in the capital. I should emphasize that, in this case, we are talking Russian nationals, not about migrant workers from the former Soviet republics.

Take Olga. She works in a lab at Moscow Medical University. In her fifteen years there, she has risen from senior lab assistant to head of the lab. Olga’s monthly salary is 12,000 rubles [approx. 173 euros], and it is her entire income.

True, she gets the occasional bonus, but they come “a little more often than once in a lifetime.” Ordinary lab employees are paid 11,000 rubles a month [approx. 159 euros]. Such salaries are hardly a rarity in Moscow.

Olga was educated as a programmer. She graduated from Bauman Technical University, but she has not worked as a programmer for a long time. She believes she cannot catch up and has lost her qualifications. Olga worked as a programmer before her children were born. Her family had enough money for everything, and besides, she had the opportunity to earn money part-time. When her maternal leave was up, she was unable to go back to her old job: her department has been disbanded. She was able get the job in the lab at Moscow Medical. Olga likes everything about the job—her colleagues respect her, and her work team gets along well with each other—except the salary. Management occasionally permits her to work from home. This is good for Olga: she does not have to spend money on commuting. (Olga lives in Moscow Region, not in the city.) This comes to around 300 rubles [approx. 4 euros] a day for the trip to the city and back on the commuter train and a round trip on the subway to the university.

When her children were small, Olga did not try and find better-paid work, and when they were older, she tried, but was turned down everywhere she applied. To her surprise, she realized no one wanted to hire a woman in her forties.

“First, you can’t find work because of the children, who are constantly ill, and then you can’t find work due to your age. Although what age are talking about? I’m forty-five!”

Olga had wound up in the category of people with no prospects. The only place she could get a job was a school. Olga worked there for several years before quitting. She had never been offered a full-time position, and her monthly salary of 6,000 rubles [approx. 87 rubles] was only enough to pay for her commute.

“I don’t want to leave these folks. It’s easy working with professors. They are quite cultured, decent people. It would be a pity to quit the job. I feel I’ve become a highly qualified specialist over the last fifteen years,” said Olga.

If it were not for her husband, a programmer, she would have a hard time feeding them and their two children. The family of four’s overall income is above the subsistence level, if only by a little. It comes to around 80,000 rubles [approx. 1,155 euros] a month. (The per capita subsistence level in Moscow is 18,472 rubles, meaning Olga and her family make around 7,000 rubles more in total than the subsistence level.) It was their good fortunate both her sons were admitted to university as full scholarship students. Olga and her husband would definitely not have been able to pay their tuition.

Olga’s family took out loans to improve their living conditions. They started out in a room in a communal flat and, after several steps, moved into their own two-room flat. However, they had to rent housing for three years, since construction of their apartment building had been postponed. Renting meant additional expenses. Subsequently, Olga had to take oout a loan to fix up the flat in order to move in as quickly as possible. That was five years ago. Of the original loan of 500,000 rubles, they still have 300,000 rubles [approx. 4,300 euros] to pay off. The monthly minimum payment is 20,000 rubles [approx. 290 euros].

In her free time, Olga tries to earn extra money by knitting. She says she is very good at it. But she is unable to supplement her salary by more than 4,000 or 5,000 rubles a month, and this happens extremely irregularly. Olga says a master knitter would have to work all month without taking a break to earn that kind of money. Everyone likes the things Olga knits, but people are willing to buy them if they do not cost more than mass-produced Chinese goods, that is, they are willing to pay the price of the yarn. Olga is not ready to give up her job at the university.

It’s Unique
The poverty experienced by employed people harms the economy and hinders its growth. This was the conclusion reached by the Russian Government’s Analytical Center in a report published in October 2017.

“The poverty of workers generates a number of negative economic and social consequences, affecting productivity and quality of work, shortages of personnel in the production sector, especially manual laborers, the health of the population, and educational opportunities,” wrote the report’s authors.

Olga Golodets, deputy prime minister for social affairs, has spoken of the fact that the working poor have no stake in increasing productivity. Judging by a number of recent speeches, the authorities are aware that grassroots poverty threatens the country. Golodets called poverty among the working populace a unique phenomenon in the social sector. A uniquely negative phenomenon, naturally.

Story No. 2: Nadezhda
Nadezhda works as a history teacher at a technical school in Barnaul. She has been teaching for twenty-seven years, and her monthly salary is 12,000 rubles [approx. 170 euros]. Nadezhda has been named Teacher of the Year several times. The regional education and science ministry awarded her a certificate of merit for “supreme professionalism and many years of conscientious work.”

Nadezhda works with a cohort of students that includes many orphans and adolescents with disabilities: the visually impaired, the hard of hearing, and the deaf and dumb. It happens that her class load is as much as eight lessons a day.

Nadezha and her eleven-year-old son share a room in the technical school’s dormitory. Nadezhda has been on the waiting list to improve her living conditions for fifteen years.

“Last year, I was ninety-fourth on the list. This year, I’m ninety-first. At this rate, I can expect to get a flat in thirty years or so,” she said.

Nadezhda thought long and hard about applying for a mortgage, but she decided against it, although the bank had approved a loan of one million rubles [approx. 14,500 euros]. But what income would she have used to pay back the loan, when the monthly payment would have been 21,000 rubles?

In Altai Territory, where Barnaul is located, 12,000 rubles is above the subsistence minimum, which has been set at 10,002 rubles for the able-bodied population. In addition, the state pays Nadezhda’s son a monthly survivor’s pension of 8,300 rubles after the death of his father. Officials cite this as grounds for rejecting her request that her son should receive additional social benefits. The family’s monthly budget is 20,000 rubles, so they should be living high on the hog from the official viewpoint, apparently.

In 2013, Nadezhda suffered a severe concussion involving partial loss of hearing and eyesight. She was struck by a student high on drugs, she said. She spent over two months in the hospital. Ever since then, she has had to take pills that run her 3,000 rubles a month.

“Working with classes in which there are many orphans is not easy at all. They demand your constant, undivided attention. When I say ‘demand,’ I mean ‘demand,’ and they get that attention. But then conflicts arise with the parents of other children: the class doesn’t consist entirely of orphans. They say I don’t give their kids enough attention.”

Over the course of her life, Nadezhda has never been able to earn enough money to buy a standard 600 square meter dacha plot. Thanks to her former father-in-law, however, she grows vegetables on his plot.

“I hear the call to be a patriot from every radio, TV set, and kitchen appliance. What are you going on about, guys? I have been humiliated my entire life, paid crumbs for a difficult, responsible job. I’m hit on the head by students, and they go unpunished. I’m told to quit if it doesn’t suit me: no one is holding me back. They tell me they will find a way to evict me from the dormitory, although they are unlikely to succeed as long as my son is a minor. I’m a teacher of the highest category, with a certificate of merit from the education ministry. Our family income exceeds the minimum subsistence income by 700 rubles, meaning that officially we are not poor. Thank you very much, it makes life so much easier.”

A Trend
Since 2005, the poverty level in Russia has decreased threefold, note the authors of the study. At the same time, they write, “We cannot recognize as normal circumstances in which over ten million employed people have incomes that do not allow them to provide decent living conditions not only for themselves, but for their families.”

The researchers at the Russian Government’s Analytical Center have noticed a trend in recent years. There have been more people working in needy families, but “this has not vouchsafed their exit from poverty.”

Story No. 3: Igor
Igor Kurlyandsky, a PhD in history and senior researcher at the Institute of Russian History of the Russian Academy of Sciences, cannot be categorized as belonging to the working poor. His monthly salary exceeds the minimum subsistence income for someone living and working in Moscow by 600 rubles. His monthly after-tax income is 19,300 rubles [approx. 279 euros]. There are freelance jobs, of course, but they are irregular and do not change Igor’s circumstances for the better.

“Generally, the salaries at the institute are pitiful. Doctors of Science and senior employees are not paid much more than I am, three or four thousand rubles more,” Kurlyandsky said.

FANO (Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations) is supposed to pay quarterly bonuses based on performance indices, for example, academic publications. But this year, according to Kurlyandsky, FANO has not paid out any of these bonuses, and it has canceled old bonuses as well.

“It’s wrong to demand that scholars publish frequently. They might work for a year in the archives, collecting material for future academic articles. Or they might take several years to write a book. I worked for four years on a book about the relationship between the regime and religion during the Stalin era. I will not be paid a fee for the book. I might get a salary bonus for it from FANO. But whatever it is, if you divided it by four years, it would amount to kopecks. The institute has nothing to do with selling books. Authors earn nothing except complimentary copies.”

According to Kurlyandsky, the Institute of Russian History, one of the principal historical research institutions in Russia, with many wonderful scholars on its staff, is itself a beggar.

“It literally has no money for anything. The state hardly finances it. Of course, for many years, its fellows can travel for business only at the expense of host institutions.”

“If memory serves me, the last time researchers got a raise was around fifteen years ago. Life becomes more expensive, but our salaries stay the same. Over this period there were several spikes in inflation, but our salaries were not indexed. I have to skimp on lots of things,” Kurlyandsky confessed.

Where Are There More Poor People?
If you look at the situation by sector, the majority of the working poor are employed in housing services and utilities, education, culture and sports, agriculture, forestry, and a number of other sectors. The sectors with the fewest working poor are the resource extraction industries, finance, public administration, the military-industrial complex, and social security administration.

Generally, the statistics say that, since 2005, the number of working poor has decreased from eight million to two million, and the percentage of poor people from 24.4% to 7.3%, and this has occurred mainly due to the private sector, not the public sector.

Story No. 4: Svetlana
Forty-four years old, Svetlana works as a senior librarian. She arrived at the library immediately after graduating from a teacher’s college. Twenty years on the job, Svetlana has a huge amount of experience and a monthly salary of 8,300 rubles [approx. 120 euros].

“When I was a student, I imagine my future job as a perfect idyll: silence, lamps glowing on the tables, people reading, and me bringing enlightenment to the masses. It’s funny to remember it. I didn’t think about the money then, of course, but nowadays it’s the thought with which I wake up and go to sleep. My husband teaches at a university and makes a little over 14,000 rubles [approx. 200 rubles] a month. We have two sons in school. My dad is quite unwell, and my husband’s mom and dad are also quite ill. So we earn our 23,000 rubles a month and divide it among seven people. Among seven people, because my dad and my husband’s parents have pitiful pensions, public pensions, despite the fact they worked in factories for thirty years. It’s my perennial puzzle. What should we buy? Medicine for the elderly? Shoes for the kids? Pay off part of the debt we owe on the residential maintenance bill? Buy decent trousers for my husband? I haven’t given myself a thought for a long while. Honestly, I wear blouses and skirts for ten years or so before replacing them. I can’t recall the last time I bought cosmetics.

“Earlier, we bore our poverty more easily, maybe because we were younger. So what there was nothing to eat with evening tea? Who cared that we dressed modestly? It was a style of sorts. We tried to make sure the children had better shoes and clothes.

“The most terrible thing right now is not that we are paid kopecks. My husband used to believe we would struggle through, that we would work off our debt. But then he burnt out. He forces himself to go to work. The children are perpetually dissatisfied, and our parents are always ill. Only I don’t pretend it’s okay, that everyone lives like this. I have caught myself sizing up how people are dressed on public transport, and at the store I look into their baskets. What fruits, meat, and wines they buy! We are always eating buckwheat groats with bits of chicken and meatless soups. I hate the dacha, but it really does put food on our table.

“I have no prospects. I won’t live long enough to be promoted to head librarian, because our head librarian is my age. I lack the strength for side jobs. My real job is not easy: there is lots of scribbling involved. Plus, we divvied up the jobs of the cleaning woman and  janitors, so we either mop the floor or chop ice on the pavement. I crawl home barely alive. Frankly, I don’t see how my life could change, and I’m used to it. What worries me is my sons’ future. I’m horrified when I think that soon they will be applying to university. What if they don’t get full scholarships? We definitely don’t have the money to pay for their educations. So it turns out we have doomed our boys to the same poverty.”

It’s Shameful to Admit
Nearly everyone with whom I spoke when writing this article asked me not to use their real names and places of work. They all made the same argument. First, it is shameful to admit you work for mere kopecks. Second, their bosses would be unhappy and punish them for “disclosing information discrediting the organization.” Many of my interviewees actually had signed such non-disclosure agreements, entitled “Code of Ethics,” at work.

All illustrations courtesy of the artist, Natalia Gulay, and Takie Dela. Translated by the Russian Reader

________________________________

Labor ministry: about 13% of Russian population live below poverty line
TASS
December 28, 2017

The number of citizens with incomes below the minimum cost of living is around 20 million people, according to the Russian labor minister

The incomes of about 13% of Russia’s population are lower than the minimum cost of living, Labor Minister Maxim Topilin said in an interview with Rossiya 24 TV channel.

“According to current estimates, the number of citizens with incomes below the minimum cost of living is still around 20 million people, which is 13–13.5% of the country’s total population,” Topilin said.

He noted this is “at least an unpleasant indicator.” The minister attributed this figure to price increases in the last two years and, as a result, the growth of the subsistence minimum.

Topilin stressed the government has already taken the first steps to reducing the number of people with incomes below the subsistence minimum. He recalled that under a law that was adopted recently and would come into effect on January 1, 2018, the minimum wage would rise to 85% of the minimum subsistence level, and to 100% on January 2019.

“For the first time in the history of the Russian Federation, we have managed to bring the minimum monthly wage to the minimum subsistence level,” Topilin said.

NB. This article was lightly edited to make it more readable—TRR.

Life on the Installment Plan, Part Two

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
“Sovkombank. Are you a pensioner? Your loan is approved!” Photo by the Russian Reader

Russians Borrowing More before Payday
The average microloan’s amount has increased by 14% on the year
Lyudmila Koval
Vedomosti
November 23, 2017

On the year, the average so-called payday loan has increased by 14.1% to 10,500 rubles [approx. 150 euros], according the National Credit History Bureau, who have compared people’s borrowing from microfinance institutions in the third quarters of 2017 and 2016.

The National Credit History Bureau arrived at its findings after analyzing data submitted to it by 3,000 microfinance institutions.

Young people have experienced the most trouble with their personal budgets. The average microloan in the under-twenty-five segment of borrowers grew by 23.6%. In the third quarter of 2017, it amounted to 8,100 rubles. The average microloan also grew considerably in the segment of borrowers aged between 25 and 29—by 18.7% to 10,300 rubles.

In turn, over the last year, the average microloan has increased the least among pension-age borrowers. Among borrowers between 60 and 65, it grew by 4.1% to 9,200 rubles, while among people over 65, it grew by 7.9% to 8,800 rubles.

The average amounts of microloans has been growing among all age groups of borrowers, but it has increased most of all in the under-thirty segment, emphasizes Alexander Vikulin, the National Credit History Bureau’s director general. According to Vikulin, microfinance organizations have always been attractive to young people, despite the fact this segment of borrowers is quite risky.

Although microfinance loans are considerably more expensive than bank loans, Russians continue to apply for them enthusiastically, often for quite original purposes. In approximately 59% of cases, Russians take out microloans for urgent needs or conceal why they are borrowing, the company Domashnie Dengi (Home Money) discovered. 15% of borrowers take out loans for home repairs, while 6% borrow money to buy appliances.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Poor Russians Up to Their Necks in Debt

ruble coin 2This one-ruble coin, minted in 2014 and sporting the newish symbol for the ruble, adopted in 2013, won’t buy you love or much anything else. 

Poor Russians Go into Debt
Tatyana Lomskaya
Vedomosti
October 11, 2017

Low-income Russians have been unable to wait for an uptick in incomes and have turned to loans to meet their consumer needs. Experts, including the Central Bank, believe such borrowers are a danger to the economy.

The demand of Russians for loans has been growing. In August, their arrears to banks rose to levels not seen since the spring of 2014. Ruble-denominated loans reached their maximum historic high, according to RANEPA’s monthly newsletter Monitoring the Economic Situation in Russia. Banks have been vigourously issuing loans. In July, they provided Russians with 23% more loans than at the same time last year. Consumer loans have been the fastest growing. According to the National Credit History Bureau, such loans increased by 27% over the past eight months.

Loans have been playing a growing role in the budgets of Russian families, notes the newsletter. In the first six months of the year, new loans made up 21% of household final consumption expenditures. This is significantly higher than the crisis levels of the last two years (15–18%), although it is still below the peak levels of 25–27% in 2013–2014. With virtually no increase in the real incomes of individuals, this generates additional risks to their financial circumstances, noted RANEPA’s analysts.

Residents of poor and distant regions are the biggest borrowers of consumer loans at the moment, along with the poorest segments of the populace, notes Natalya Zubarevich, director of the regional program at the Independent Institute for Social Policy. This is how they offset falling incomes. Wages in Russia have been growing since August 2016, but real incomes have continued to fall.

People cannot skimp and save forever. People turn to loans to meet their needs, says Zubarevich. What matters is that banks not issue too many loans, which would raise the specter of a huge number of defaults.

The debt burden has been growing more quickly in regions with the highest poverty levels, according to the FR Group, although the situation varies from region to region, notes project manager Anastasia Zyurkalova.

Russians have been spending more and more of their income on consumption. According to some indications, they have abandoned the savings model of financial behavior, acknowledges Yelena Grishina, head of RANEPA’s research laboratory on pension systems and social sector actuarial forecasting. One of the ways they survive is by taking out loans. Certain segments of the populace have outlived the means they once had for limiting consumption. In the first six months of 2017, a linear dependence bwtween increases in the volume of loans and poverty levels in the regions was observed, says Grishina. Russians are now more positive than a year ago: they have assessed the changes in their welfare, and the percentage of those who skimp on food and clothing has decreased, note RANEPA’s analysts [sic].

The burden of non-mortgage loans is highest in regions with high unemployment and a poorer populace, Alfabank’s chief economist Natalya Orlova wrote last autumn. The middle class [sic] would be unlikely to emerge as the main source of the growth in demand for retail loans, she noted. The average borrower is more likely to be someone with a limited income. Judging by the numbers for the first six months of 2017, nothing has changed, says Orlova. It is still less well-off Russians who want to bring their consumption up to average levels. The increase in retail loans in the poorest regions is likely due to people’s tapping out their savings and and trying to maintain a certain level of consumption, agrees Karen Vartapetov, an analyst at S&P.

A significant portion of the demand for consumer loans comes from people whose incomes are less than the median income in Russia. Often, their incomes are unstable as well, and their debt burdens are high, noted analysts in the Central Bank’s research and forecasting department. (Their opinions may differ from the financial regulator’s official stance.)  Yet banks currently do not really have the capacity for an increase in lending, and so even a moderate uptick in consumer loans is fraught with risks no less serious than during the 2010–2012 loan boom. To limit these risks, the Central Bank has been working out individual debt burden indicators, notes a source at the regulator. The share of an individual’s expenditures on repaying loans should be such she could continue to pay back the loan even if negative events were to occur.

For the time being, the largest banks surveyed by the Central Bank have reported that the percentage of borrowers with increased levels of debt burdens has not grown, and the number of people with monthly incomes of less than 20,000 rubles [approx. 290 euros] who have taken out cash loans has fallen, says the source at the regulator. The banks have been forced to behave more conservatively. Everyone well remembers the wave of late payments in 2012–2013, says Yuri Gribanov, CEO of Frank RG.

After the crisis of 2015, the quality of loan applicants has not improved considerably, notes Sergei Kapustin, deputy board chair of OTP Bank. There are still many people with problematic debts that have not been managed and refinanced at another bank. According to certain channels, the share of such debts is ten percent, and banks have been forced to lower the number of loans they issue. In addition, a number of bankers issue unsubstantially large loans to people who have borrowed money at other banks in amounts disproportionate to their incomes.

The demand for consumer loans is currently quite high, says Mikhail Matovnikov, Sberbank’s chief analyst, and there are still a lot of extant bad loans at high interest rates, especially among low-income Russians. This not at all what the economy needs, and it is bad for borrowers, too, he argues.

The banks’ fight against such loans has pushed borrowers into the arms of microfinance institutions, where the circumstances can be even worse. This year, the microlending market has grown from 186 billion rubles to 242 billion rubles [approx. 3.5 billion euros]. The banks have not met the steadily growing demand for loans, according to research by microlender Home Money.

home money

A screenshot from Russian microlender Home Money’s website. “It’s simpler to make a phone call than to borrow from somebody! Call if you need to! New services: personal legal consultant; home protection; credit history.”

Measures to limit interest rates cooled the consumer lending market in 2015–2016, notes Dmitry Vasilyev, an analyst with Fitch. Currently, the portfolio’s growth matches the nominal growth in incomes of Russians (2–3% during the first sixth months of 2017) and the percentage of risky and unsecured loans has lowered. Some borrowers have drifted to the microlenders, while some banks have been weeded out due to noncompliance with tougher standards, says Vasilyev.

Orlova points out the banking sector is at a crossroads. Maintaining quality lending means not taking on as clients people working in the informal sector and incapable of confirming how much they make and microlenders currently lending at very high rates. Or banks could increase their appetite for risk and take on inferior borrowers to increase their market shares and loan portfolios. Banks have to earn money. If there are no borrowers willing to pay (for example, the government, which would have to become much more active in the state debt market), the issue would become particularly critical. Prospects for income growth in the coming year are worsening, and the risk that not very well-off people would not be able to service their loans is growing, warns Orlova. Poverty will not seriously decline in Russia in the coming year, if we believe the government’s three-year macro forecast, as submitted to the State Duma. It will drop from 12.8% of the populace this year to 11.2% in 2020, i.e., it will not drop to the levels of  2012–2013 (lower than 11%).

Translation and image of the ruble coin by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up. The original article, as published yesterday by Vedomosti on the front page of its paper edition, was behind a paywall. Thanks to Press Reader for providing me with the text of the article.

This Is Russia

DSCN0810

“This is Russia. This is the Russia that Americans are so scared of.”

In the background of this photo, you can make out the Galeria Shopping Center, located in downtown Petersburg. It’s gigantic, covering the land once occupied by five or six graceful tenement buildings and a cultural center and cinema. They were demolished in the mid 1990s, not to make way for the shopping mall, but so a new train station could be built there, jeek by jowl with the existing Moscow Station, because federal and regional officials wanted to build a high-speed train line between Petersburg and Moscow. Millions of dollars were allocated for the project, but ultimately, the train line was never built nor was the new station erected. No one knows what happened to the millions of dollars allocated for the project. They simply vanished into thin air.

The site of the former-future high-speed train station sat vacant for many years behind a tall, ugly construction-site fence. No one could figure out what do to with all that wasteland, which was in the very heart of the city, not in some forgotten outskirts. However, before the money had vanished, and the project was abandoned, construction workers had managed not only to demolish all the tenement buildings on the site but had also dug a foundation pit. Over the long years, this pit filled up with water. Some time after Google Maps had become all the rage, I took a look at our neighborhood via satellite, as it were, and discovered to my great surprise it now had a small lake in it. It was the foundation pit of the former-future high-speed train station, filled to the brim with water.

Good times came to Petersburg in the 2000s, when the country was flush with cash, generated by high oil prices, a flat tax rate of 13%, and runaway corruption. It was then the city’s mothers and fathers (I’m not being ironic: most of Petersburg’s “revival” was presided over by Governor Valentina Matviyenko, a former Communist Youth League functionary who had converted to the gospel of what she herself called “aggressive development”) decided that Petersburg, one of the world’s most beautiful, haunting, enchanting cities, should be extensively redeveloped, despite its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, into a mecca of consumerism that would give pride of place to cars and new highways, since cars had become the new status symbol among the city’s rich and poor alike. They also decided that, since other big cities in the world had lots of high-rise buildings, their city, which did not have almost any high-rise buildings, should have lots of them, too.

Basically, they decided to demolish as much of the inner and outer city as they could get away with—and they could get away with a lot, because they had nearly unlimited political power and lots of the country’s money at their disposal—and redevelop it with high-rise apartment buildings, superhighways, big box stores, and shopping and entertainment centers, each one uglier and bigger than the last. Thanks to their efforts, in a mere fifteen years or so they have gone a long way toward turning a Unesco World Heritage Site into an impossible, unsightly mess.

But let’s get back to our miniature inner-city lake. Finally, developers came up with a plan to convert the site into a giant shopping mall. Even better, the architects who designed the mall were clearly inspired by Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect and a leading Nazi Party member, to turn a rather oversized mall into a celebration of kitsch faux-neoclassicism, precisely the sort of thing Speer had championed in his projects. This, indeed, was a bit ironic, because Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, had survived a 900-day siege by the German army during the Second World War. Considered the longest and most destructive siege in history, it killed at least 800,000 civilians, that is, it killed the grandparents and great-grandparents of many of the people who now enjoy visiting this mall, with its distinctly neo-fascist aesthetic.

Along the sides of the street running down towards the photographer from the Albert Speer Memorial Shopping Center, you see lots of shiny new, fairly expensive cars, parked bumper to bumper. In fact, the Albert Speer has a huge underground car park where you can park your car relatively inexpensively (our neighbor lady, a sensible woman, does it), but most Petersburg car owners actually think parking their cars wherever they want—especially either right next to their residential buildings or, worse, in the tiny, labyrinthine, incredibly charming inner courtyards of these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings—is their legal right. It isn’t, but they don’t know it or don’t want to know it. I know they think this way because many Petersburg car owners have told me so.

To my mind, the precipitous rise in personal car ownership in Petersburg has done more to degrade the city’s beauty than all the underinspired colossal high-rises put together, because the city was purposely designed by its original builders, beginning with Peter the Great, to have a good number of intersecting and radiating, awe-inspiring, long and clear sightlines or “perspectives.” Hence, many of the city’s longest avenues are called “prospects,” such as Nevsky Prospect (the title of one of Nikolai Gogol’s best stories) and Moskovsky Prospect. Nowadays, however, you gaze down these “perspectives” only to see traffic jams and hectares of other visual pollution in the shape of signs, billboards, banners, and marquees. It’s not a pretty sight.

On the right of the picture, somewhere near the middle, you should be able to spot a small shop sign with the letters “AM” emblazoned on it. It’s one of the dozens of liquor stores that have popped up in our neighborhood after the Kremlin introduced its countersanctions against US and EU sanctions, which were instituted in response to Russia’s occupation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine. The US and EU sanctions targeted individuals and companies closely allied with the regime. Putin’s countersanctions, in a manner that has come to seem typical of how the Russian president for life’s mind works, were targeted against Russian consumers by banning the import of most western produce into the country. An exception was made for western alcoholic beverages, especially wines and beers, and this meant it was suddenly profitable again to get into the liquor business. The upshot has been that you can exit our house, walk in any direction, even putting on a blindfold if you like, and you will find yourself in a liquor store in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.

Last summer, I tried painting a little verbal and photographic sketch of the effect this massive re-alcoholization has had on our neighborhood, along with other, mostly negative trends in the use and abuse of commercial space in the city.

Finally, there is one other thing you should know about all those new, mostly oversized cars parked on the street. Since the average monthly salary in Russia barely crawls above 600 or 700 euros a month, even in a seemingly wealthy city like Petersburg, most of those gas-guzzling, air-polluting status symbols were bought with borrowed money.

Just the other day, in fact, I translated and posted a tiny article, originally published in the business daily Kommersant, about how people in the Voronezh Region currently owed banks approximately two billion euros in outstanding loans. In 2015, the region’s estimated population was around 2,300,000, so, theoretically, each resident of Voronezh Region now owes the banks 870 euros, which I am sure is more than most people there earn in two or three months. Of course, not every single resident of Voronezh Region has taken out a loan, so the real damage incurred by real individual borrowers is a lot worse.

I could be wrong, but I think what I have just written gives you a rough idea of how you go about reading photographs of today’s Russian cities, their visible aspect in general, turning a snapshot into something meaningful, rather than assuming its meaning is obvious, right there on the surface. You don’t just tweet a photo of a new football stadium or fancy restaurant or street jammed with expensive cars and make that stand for progress, when progress, whether political, economic or social, really has not occurred yet in Russia, despite all the money that has been sloshing around here the last fifteen years. Instead, you talk about the real economic, political, and social relations, which are often quite oppressive, murky, and criminal, that have produced the visible reality you want to highlight.

Doing anything less is tantamount to engaging in boosterism, whataboutism, Russian Worldism, and crypto-Putinism, but certainly not in journalism. That so many journalists, western and Russian, have abandoned real journalism for one or all of the isms I have listed is the really scary thing. TRR

Photograph by the Russian Reader

 

 

 

The Russian Economic Miracle of 2017

fullsizeoutput_602
“Pilling from 499 rubles. Ultrasound cleaning from 599 rubles.” Photo by TRR

More Than Five Million Russians Have Trouble Paying Back Loans
Takie Dela
May 30, 2017

Around five and half million Russians have trouble servicing their debts. Their debut burden is more than 60% of their income, reports Gazeta.ru, quoting a statement by Vladimir Shikin, deputy marketing director at the National Credit History Bureau.

According to experts, this figure is regarded as a critical indicator. Among the main reasons for arrears are the unreliability of borrowers and the lack of means to finance current debts.

Residents of the Kemerovo, Tyumen, and Novosibirsk Regions are the most indebted. According to the National Credit History Bureau, three million people cannot make payments on loans, which is 8% of all borrowers. Their current debt load exceeds half of their monthly incomes.

According to Shikin, the share of overdue loans remains at 16%, even as the number of new loans grows. The majority of Russian borrowers have several loans, and the average economically active Russian owes creditors 146,000 rubles [approx. 2,300 euros].

Meanwhile, research done by RANEPA shows that the debt burden of Russians is not critical. As Natalya Orlova, chief economist at Alfa Bank, stressed, the debt of Russians is estimated at 12% of GDP.

“In developed countries, debt is 60% to 80% of GDP, so the market has potential for growth,” emphasized Orlova. However, she argues that Russia issues a relatively small percentage of mortgages, whereas in developed countries, mortgages account for nearly 90% of all loans.

Experts hope that the debt burden of Russians will not rise greatly. After the 2014–2015 crisis, banks were more way about issuing loans, so the debut burden of Russians will fall. In the near future, banks will be even more cautious. In particular, the Central Bank has planned to consolidate the data of major of credit history bureaus in a single data base to combat indebtedness.

Earlier, the United Credit reported that half of Russian borrowers had been applying for new loans to pay off old loans. According to its figures, 45 million Russians with old loans had taken new loans in banks. Over half of them had done this to pay off old loans.

The analysis shows that 53% of borrowers had taken new loans in cash to partially or fully pay off already existing loans. 27% of the borrowers had spent more than half of the new loans on paying debts.

________________________

Almost 60% of Russians Admit They Have No Savings
Takie Dela
May 29, 2017

Around 59% of Russian families have no savings, reports Rambler News Service, citing a report from the polling and market research firm inFOM.

According to a survey commissioned by the Central Bank, the figure has remained stable [sic] the last three months. In December 2016, 64% of those surveyed had no savings.

Yet a quarter of Russians believe that now is a good time to save money, while 44% hold the opposite opinion. According to experts, the tendency to save has grown noticeably since the beginning of the year. In February, fewer than 17% of respondents answered the question positively.

The majority of respondents replied that spare cash should be saved or put away for a rainy day, while a third of Russians would spend the money on expensive, major purchases.

The poll showed that 40% of respondents prefer to keep their savings in a bank account, 26%, in case, and 20%, partly in a bank, and partly in cash.

Two thousand respondents, aged eighteen and older, from fifty-five regions of Russia were involved in the survey.

According to research by RANEPA, the share of Russians who save money dropped by a third in 2016, from 55% to 40%. Moreover, in March, 40% of Russians claimed they had only enough money for food.

________________________

VTsIOM: 67% of Russians Skimped on Groceries during the Past Year 
Takie Dela
May 30, 2017

During the past year, 67% of Russian skimped on groceries in one way or another; 27% of them in a substantial way. Pensioners and residents of big cities had to skimp most of all. These figures were reported by pollsters VTsIOM.

The survey dealt with Russians’ attitudes to government regulation of the food market. 82% of respondents were against the idea of limiting supermarket opening hours on weekdays and weekends. According to 68% of them, if the government decided to do this, it would cause a number of problems. It would be hard to buy groceries in the evenings, and the selection would be reduced. Nearly 40% believed that limiting competition would generate price rises in small shops and produce markets.

Only 15% of Russians favored limiting competition, mostly pensioners aged sixty and older. When replying about what they thought about regulating prices for basic foodstuffs as a way of supporting the poor, Russians were divided in their opinions. Exactly half of them said such restrictions were ineffective, while 32% supported a combination of government and market measures, while 14% believed the government should solve the problem.

The VTsIOM survey showed that Russians were concerned about the government’s restricting prices for basic products. 55% said it would lead to the closure of stores, while 28% said it would lead to shortages, price gouging, and disruption of supplies. However, a quarter of respondents believed that prices would subsequently drop, and life would improve.

Russians see the government’s key role in regulating the produce market in support for domestic producers and developing farming, as well as in quality control. However, according to Yulia Baskakova, head of social modeling and forecasting at VTsIOM, “While worrying with all their heart for domestic producers, supporting improved food quality, and supporting the development of farming, Russians are not willing to sacrifice their comfort and put up with a reduction of the range of goods to which they are accustomed and its becoming less available. The survey showed that 88% of Russians are not willing to put up with a drop in their quality of lives to reduce the price of essential foodstuffs.”

The poll was occasioned by a suggestion, made by Federation Council member Sergei Lisovsky, that regional authorities could decide how large store chains should operate. Lisovky also suggested prohibiting supermarkets from opening at nights and on Sundays, and permitting them to work on Saturdays only until four o’clock in the afternoon. Lisovsky has argued that such measures would support small business and promote small-scale trade.

Translation and photo by the Russian Reader. Faithful readers might wonder why I have cited Russian opinion polls at such length after making a big effort, over the past couple of years to show that this pollocracy, while real enough as a practice, does not tell us much or anything at all about what actual Russians thinking or are planning to do.  I have made an exception in this case, however, because I think the three news items, above, show, between the lines, as it were, what really afflicts the Russian economy, and how the feigned populism of the political/economic elite rears its head, quite often in fact, to suggest impracticable solutions to the knotty problems their own mammoth corruption and instinctive hatred of small business and independent individuals generates the dead end they claim to want to alleviate by, among other thing, commissioning one “public opinion poll” after another while stubbornly failing to notice that their enthusiastic terrorizing of Krasnodar farmers, independent truckers, and Moscow street vendors show they have no interest whatsoever in small business, much less reducing the prices of basic foodstuffs for pensioners. The only thing that interests them is getting richer and making their power untouchable. TRR