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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Static Mounts Over Phone Tolls

Cradling the telephone receiver around her neck, her knitting in her lap, Yevgeniya Baranshkova, 67, settles down on her couch each day at 1:45 p.m. with her daughter, Olga, on the other end of the line. The two spend the hour watching and discussing their favorite soap opera, gasping in disbelief at each scandalous development.

For about two hours a day in her apartment, Baranshkova talks about "little things" -- recipes, grocery prices and health -- on the phone with her family and friends around Moscow. "I am an old woman, and it is hard enough for me to buy my bread when the elevator breaks down and I have to take the stairs," Baranshkova says. "How can I travel across town to have a chat with my friends or daughter?"

Her daily ritual might come to an abrupt halt, however, if the phone company starts billing Muscovites for local calls. "My life will become much more bleak," Baranshkova fears. Local calls in Moscow have always been free, facilitating a telephone culture by which pensioners like Baranshkova rely on the wires for their daily news and social chit-chat. But if the city government approves, the Moscow State Telephone Co. will begin charging about 10 kopeks (2 cents) a minute for local calls after the first 10 hours and 50 minutes each month.

"We think this limit is very generous, and that most households should be able to make all their local calls within the 650 minutes," says Anna Boiko, press secretary for the phone company. Research by the telephone company shows that the average household spends 560 minutes a month on the phone, or about 18 minutes per day.

But the possibility of a toll, no matter how low, on one of the few remaining pleasures among pensioners has caused an outcry from some quarters. "For much of the poorer population, especially the elderly, telephone communication is their only happiness and comfort," says psychiatrist Yevgeniya Konstantinova, who works at one of the city's emergency hotlines. "Taking that away from them is simply inhumane." Several psychologists at the hotline -- which receives about 300,000 calls per year, including 1,500 on suicide -- sent a letter to Mayor Yury Luzhkov last month warning that the a charge for local calls might drive poorer citizens to suicide. The telephone company says that calls to hospitals, churches and hotlines will continue to be free.

At home most of the day with her newborn baby, Irina Voronova, 27, is constantly on the phone gossiping with friends or getting advice from her mother. Her husband, Maxim Bunin, 25, spends several hours hooked up to the Internet. Their line is busy for at least five hours a day.

When the new bills arrive in their mailboxes, Voronova says, "we will just have to change our ways. But I don't really know how we'll do it." Bunin says the billing system is unfair considering the shabby quality of the phone lines, but believes people will find a way around it. "They will hook their phones up to the lines outside, so the phone company can't tell from where the calls are coming. Or maybe it will be cheaper to call from public phones," he says.

In the early 1970s, the Communications Ministry started charging for local calls in Moscow. But the effort failed to lower telephone traffic and raise government revenue, as people made most of their personal calls from work where the bills went to their employers, who in most cases were the government.

Pay-per-minute bills have already been introduced in 40 Russian cities, including Samara, Yaroslavl and Perm. If Moscow's billing plan is approved, residents will start getting itemized bills in April, but will not have to pay them at first.

"We will give a few months for people to get used to the charges, so that they can see how much time they are spending on the phone," Boiko says. "We understand this will be a big psychological step for some people."