Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Elderly hide shame to earn living

Maria Yaitseva has a secret life. Every morning, the 75-year-old pensioner takes the metro downtown to a busy railway station, far from her neighbors and any acquaintances who might see what she is doing. Bundled in a ragged wool coat, she parks herself on a wide sidewalk and peddles cigarettes for a marked-up price that will give her a few more rubles for food.

"I travel so that nobody sees me. Nobody knows I do this, even my granddaughters", Yaitseva said, nervously clutching an orange nylon bag filled with Cosmos cigarettes. "If I saw anyone I knew, I'd run and hide. I'm so embarrassed".

In a city bustling with overnight sidewalk entrepreneurs hawking everything from Lithuanian cheese, to freshly purchased milk, and newly arrived food aid from the West, the most unwilling of the new middlemen are senior citizens, turning to the streets to supplement a measly government pension. For many pensioners, the shame of being dependent on the whims of strangers is almost as painful as their lack of money.

"Look at me. I'm dressed like a beggar", said Nina, a 57-year-old pensioner with packets of cigarettes tucked into the folds of her thin flannel coat. Like Yaitseva, Nina spends an hour traveling to her usual spot across from the Kievsky Vokzal to make sure nobody she knows sees her.

"My son doesn't know I do this", said Nina, who receives a monthly pension of 400 rubles. "I told my daughter and she tried to talk me out of it. She said 'don't do it. I'm embarrassed for you'. But I told her I had to do something to get by".

Nina was standing in a kiosk line at 7 a. m. Thursday to buy her alloted ten packs of cigarettes. By 9 a. m. , she was offering them to passers-by for three to five rubles more than the kiosk rate. If business is brisk, she may earn 70 rubles by the end of the day. She'll use the money for bread and milk.

Cigarettes, which are relatively easy to purchase, are a popular item for pensioners to sell. But many senior citizens sell whatever they can get their hands on.

Outside Barrikadnaya metro station, 83-year-old Yevdokiya Korolyeva sat on a crate in front of a bottle of vodka, two bottles of champagne, and a tube of toothpaste. The vodka was purchased with coupons; the champagne was a gift from her son. "And that", she said, pointing to the tube of toothpaste, "has been lying around the house for about a year".

A few feet away, a 60-year-old pensioner named Tatiana held two pairs of children's brown knitted stockings. "My grandchildren are growing up and these are too small for them", she said. "It's not really in my character to be doing this, but that's the physical reality we have to deal with right now".

The economic and psychological hardships are apparently taking their

toll on society's seniors. According to a recent article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the number of suicides among those aged 55 to 59 is growing and people aged 70 or older are 3. 5 times more likely to commit suicide than others.

But most of Moscow's pensioners are a hardy lot.

Near Barrikadnaya, 65-year-old Igor Tretyakov said he didn't mind selling cigarettes a few times a week.

"My pension is only enough to buy fish for my three cats", be said. "So what I earn here is to buy food for myself. But this isn't so bad -- I did the same thing during the war. I was 15 or 16 and had to survive, so I sold books, notebooks, whatever I could get my hands on".

Tretyakov said he takes the long view. "Maybe in 10, 20 or 30 years, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will live better".