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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pull Together, Cut Back to Make Ends Meet




Anya Plokhaya, 26, and her husband Alexei, 30, are not poor by Moscow standards. On the contrary, their income of $424 a month is relatively high.


But like many other Russians, Anya and Alexei are struggling to make ends meet. Low income levels, rising prices and cramped living quarters make family life hard.


Just getting by was a big enough challenge even before the ruble nose-dived and inflation set in last August. Now, with prices for many consumer goods nearly double last year's prices, 40 percent of Muscovites can no longer afford reasonable minimal expenses like a new blouse every two years or three aspirin tablets a month, according to the All-Russia Center for Living Standards, a group that works with the government to establish poverty levels.


"The majority of people have had to give up on a lot of necessary, daily expenses," said Marina Krasilnikova, who researches household incomes and expenses for the All-Russia Center of Public Opinion Studies. They "either had to start buying less expensive substitutes for what they used to buy or just buy less."


Anya and Alexei are used to scrimping, but not like this. Both work two jobs to make ends meet f she as a medical resident and medical center intake worker and he as a power station operator and printing shop errand boy. Before August, they could afford an occasional visit to the circus with their 2-year-old son, Sasha, or a new item of clothing. Now, once they pay for food, preschool and other fixed expenses, they have 4 rubles a day left f about 17 cents.


The couple is resigned to the situation. "Of course, we were upset," said Anya, as she and Alexei watched their slender budget shrink these past few months and their plans for their own apartment and maybe a second child fade into the future. "But there is no other way."


"Worse things happened here, you know," said Alexei, whose friendly manner and easy smile belie his grueling schedule. "It's not the worst thing that could happen."


The young couple lives on the southwestern edge of town, in a neighborhood of aging, concrete 10-story apartment buildings.


The entrance to building No. 26 on Ostrovityanova Ulitsa is smelly and dimly lit, but the seventh-floor apartment where the young couple lives is tidy, inviting and in good repair.


Anya and Alexei share the four-room apartment with Anya's parents, Olga and Anatoly Plokhoi. Luckily, given the tight quarters, they are a congenial family.


Anya's 58-year-old mother, a vivacious former products analyst, tries to stay on top of everyone's needs. Anya's father, 60, is a professor of anesthesiology who recently co-authored a medical textbook.


The family uses every inch of space efficiently. The young couple sleeps on a fold-out couch alongside Sasha's bed. A small clothes washer fits under the bathroom sink. Three stools slide under the table in a kitchen just big enough to turn around in.


The apartment is better equipped than the typical Moscow apartment, with a cordless phone, two television sets, a camera and a VCR. And in the corner of Anya and Alexei's bedroom is a computer terminal, an item only 3 percent of Russians can afford.


They do not own a car, and it takes Alexei about an hour and a half on public transportation to get to work. Olga is forced to shop for food nearly every day because she can only buy as much as she can carry from the outdoor market one metro stop away.


Thanks to a $20,000 gift from their parents and a $10,000 loan from Anya's uncle, Anya and Alexei own a one-bedroom apartment in a semi-industrial section of Moscow. But they can't afford to live in it yet. To repay Anya's uncle, they are forced to rent it out.


They were hoping to take over the apartment by the end of this year. But when the Russian economy collapsed, so did the Moscow real estate market, and they had to lower the rent from $550 to $280 a month. Now they figure it will be another two years before they can pay off the debt.


Their kitchen-table balance sheet shows just how tight their budget is. Anya receives a $9-a-month state stipend as a medical resident and $17 a month as an intake worker at a medical center. Alexei's two jobs pay no more than $118 a month.


Some of the family's expenses are similarly low, partly because of government subsidies. For instance, heat, electricity, water, telephone, street-cleaning and garbage collection for the entire household cost only $13 a month. Sasha's preschool is $8.50 a month. The couple's metro passes also cost about $8.50 a month.


As with most Russians, food and everyday household items like toothpaste eat up most of their income. The couple recently decided to give Olga $87 a month instead of $65 for household expenses. Even though Olga has crossed a number of items off her shopping list, including coffee and butter, she said she is spending three times as much for food as she did in August.


Anya carries no more than 50 rubles in her wallet at a time. For entertainment, Anya and Alexei visit friends' apartments, or watch a borrowed video.


For months, they've had their eye on a $43 child's climbing gym that would fit perfectly in a small corner opposite the apartment's front door.


Someday they hope to buy it for Sasha. Right now, though, they can't imagine when.