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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

10 Years of Serving Soup With a Smile

MTThe program was started in 1991 to help African refugees in Moscow. Many of them still volunteer at the soup kitchens.
Thousands of Soviet children used to come to Moscow's House of Pioneers for after-school sports and activities. Now, many of their gray-haired parents come for a free helping of hot food at a soup kitchen run by the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy.

The irony is not lost on Sophia Komarova.

"The future was going to be so bright," the 77-year-old said with a wan smile as she directed other pensioners toward the food. "But on 1,400 rubles [$47] a month, I can barely afford bread and vegetables."

For Komarova and others, who in Soviet days would have been guaranteed a stable, if not luxurious, retirement, soup kitchens like this one allow them to stretch their meager pensions to cover the rent and other basic necessities.

This week, the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy celebrated the 10th anniversary of its soup kitchen ministry, which it runs at the House of Pioneers and two other cafeterias in the city.

Nearly 300 people come to the House of Pioneers daily for a helping of meat or fish, rice, potatoes and borshch. Hundreds more show up at the two other soup kitchens. The ministry serves some 800 meals daily at all three. Those who can't make it every day can take extra portions to go.

"We don't make an effort to proselytize, and most of the people here don't come to the church," said coordinator Noel Calhoun. "Most think this is some sort of government program, and that's fine. We're not here to recruit."

The chaplaincy, established here in 1962 as the church of the American Embassy, pays 18 rubles per head to feed pensioners sent their way by the city's social services.

"We ask for the most needy people, generally the ones with children living far away, unable to help them, or without children at all," said the Reverend John Calhoun, Noel's husband and head of the chaplaincy.

The program was initially started to help African refugees stuck in Moscow, most of whom still volunteer at the kitchens.

"A lot of these folks had not seen black people when they started coming. Now we know nearly all of their names," said Adefers Dessu, 35, a refugee from Ethiopia, as he collected meal tickets and handed out Snickers bars to mark the anniversary.

Additional soup kitchens are run by other charities and religious groups, including the Russian Orthodox Church, but most are of the more traditional sort, offering a bowl of soup and some bread, and run on a shoestring budget.

The Salvation Army has also been active, taking buckets of soup to the homeless and destitute huddled inside railway stations or on street corners. But the program was suspended when the group ran foul of a law that requires "non-traditional" faiths to undergo a complicated registration process to operate in Russia.

"We are a little bit lower profile and we try to work within the existing structure, but that allows us to reach a lot of people," the Reverend Calhoun said.

Over the years, relationships have formed among the many familiar faces at the soup kitchens. For many, the chance for social contact is almost as important as the food.

"I come for the company, really," said Olga Nikolayevna, 72, sitting at a round table with two friends, her two food rations carefully packed in plastic containers. "I don't even eat here, I take the food home."

Many at the House of Pioneers kitchen are members of the city's intelligentsia -- doctors, scientists, journalists -- who live nearby in the Akademicheskaya-Profsoyuznaya area.

Noel Calhoun fondly recalls a British volunteer with the chaplaincy sitting across from an elderly, but proud, babushka, carefully painting her fingernails.

"Turns out she had been a ballerina in Soviet times and that night was going to a big reunion at the Bolshoi," she said. "It was very sweet."

Nikolai Artyomov, 75, was once a correspondent for a Central Committee newspaper and spent time at the paper's Washington and Chicago bureaus.

"My pension is not so much -- just enough to live, and not so comfortably," he said in formal-sounding English, carefully articulating each word. "We are very thankful to them for all their help to us."

To mark the anniversary Monday, organizers made speeches and Jimmy McKay, a 40-year-old refugee from Sierra Leone, delighted the crowd with a booming rendition of "Podmoskovniye Vechera."

"I learned it 13 years ago when I came to Moscow as a student," he said. "Russian friends have been very good to me, so I'm glad to give something back to people in need."