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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Feeding Inmates' Tots Is Constant Fight

MOZHAISK, Central Russia -- It is lunch time in the children's quarters at the women's prison colony here, and 10 little pale faces are bent over bowls of gray mush, a blend of watery potatoes with a dash of meat. The meal is not a big hit with the scruffy 2-year-olds, but for the women who are trying to coax spoonfuls into their mouths, the fact that there is anything on the table at all is a small victory.

By their calculations, the government has practically stopped paying a daily food allowance for the 64 children, all under age 3, who live in the compound where their mothers are imprisoned.

"This year, for the children, we received 185,000 rubles," said Lyudmila Yareva, the head of the children's house. "After salaries and taxes, 47,000 goes to food, which as you understand is nothing at all."

Four months ago, 47,000 rubles was worth roughly $7,000. Today, as the value of the currency continues its downward drift, it is worth one-third that amount, or roughly $36 per child a year.

In this women's prison, the official daily food allowance for the 1,600 women is 65 kopeks, about 3 cents at current exchange rates.

But official sums in Russia these days are usually not worth much more than the paper they are written on. In fact, here in Mozhaisk, 60 miles southwest of Moscow, the women's prison actually spends almost four times more on its children than its budget allows.

How Yareva manages to clothe and feed her charges is another one of those baffling puzzles that explains how this country and its people are able to survive. The answer is, as usual, a mishmash - involving both the kindness of strangers and a dash of native ingenuity.

The potatoes, for instance, come from a local farm that now relies on women prisoners to help dig up its crop. Milk is also "free," after the prison, unable to dig its way out of a mountain of unpaid bills, agreed to provide milk maids to the local dairy. Soap comes from a local store owner who agreed to throw in a donation together with regular purchases.

But mostly, these wards of the Russian state survive on gumanitarka, the Russian nickname for the humanitarian aid that in the last years has been sent to institutions like this one. In this case, toys, blankets, medicine and mattresses come from all over - from Norway, from Germany, but also from sources close to home: from the grandmother who shows up at the prison gates with a pile of neatly stacked baby clothes, to the Association of Russian Aristocrats.

"We run around, we ask, we beg, we do what we can," Yareva said, a bitterness creeping into her voice as she remembers the days when the prison got more money from the state than it was able to spend. The last normal year, she recalls, was 1990, when Russia was still communist, before "democratism, or whatever it is you call this."

Even with help, the diet for these children is not what it should be. By Yareva's reckoning, they actually live on 16 rubles (about 80 cents) a day, when the "norm'' should be 20 rubles ($1).

But for mothers like Yanna Strukova, 27, who is serving seven years for armed robbery, having her son, Seryozha, close by, where she can spend two hours a day with him, is better than the alternative.

When he turns 3 next month, she faces a choice: either he goes to a state orphanage, or she has to persuade her mother-in-law, who already looks after her older daughter, to take him in.