Staunton, January 21 – For many, the face of poverty in Russia is to be found in the country’s dying countryside, but a new survey finds that more than half of the population of its largest cities is now poor, and predicts that ever more urban Russians are becoming poor, a development with potentially ominous political consequences.
Even in Moscow, 43 percent of the residents are poor, with nine percent of them critically poor, according to a study of 35 cities in the Russian Federation with more than 500,000 residents carried out by sociologists at the Russian government’s Finance University.
Those figures compare with an average of 54 poor for all the cities surveyed, with the situation in Toliatti, Astrakhan, Penza, Volgograd and Saratov being somewhat worse and that in St. Petersburg and Vladivostok somewhat better. The average for all such Russian cities was 54 percent.
Last month, Vice Prime Minister Olga Golodets said that there were 15.7 million poor people in Russia now, but she conceded that given inflation and the economic crisis, that number is going up, especially as the purchasing power of Russian incomes falls. The actual number is almost certainly higher, and it is increasingly urban rather than rural.
The study devoted particular attention to the possibility that rising unemployment might trigger protests. “The main moving force for social protests,” they said, consists of “poor and unemployed youth.” Given that unemployment among the young is still relatively low, it said, the situation is currently stable.
Yevgeny Gontmakher, deputy director of IMEMO, says that he is certain that mayors can address these problems successfully. But they are largely on their own because there is no central government program for the poor in cities, and the program for company towns is not being implemented in an effective way.
Elena Afanasyeva, a member of the Federation Council, says that she believes that region centers have the resources to relieve poverty, but that other cities do not. In the case of the latter, regional officials must intervene and make every effort to “reduce the level of poverty” in the cities of their regions.
Regional leaders have one resource that they are not using, she continues. They can speak directly to the Russian president, but they don’t about such problems because they “fear losing their high posts.” As a result, Afanasyeva says, Vladimir Putin does not know the full extent of the problem or has only a distorted idea about it.
But she notes that there is even more poverty in Russia’s smaller cities that are not company towns. They have been almost completely forgotten by the government and as a result, “they are dying out and degrading” with those who can leaving, their budgets falling, and poverty increasing. She called on Moscow to begin focusing on these cities as well.