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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Georgian Soup Kitchen Feeds Needy Pensioners

ReutersShavryrina, a former ballerina and now a pensioner, enjoying a hot meal at Taverna Sauza, where many retirees come to eat.
The Taverna Sauza, a bustling Georgian restaurant in the center of Moscow, is an unusual place for a soup kitchen, but the clientele is also unusual.

"You wouldn't think I was a dancer looking at me now," laughed Irina Shavryrina, a portly octogenerian with dyed-brown hair, makeup and old jewelry who in her prime danced at the Bolshoi Theater.

She still has the air of a ballerina about her, sitting bolt upright waiting to receive her free salad, fish and rice.

"I get a pension of 1,700 rubles [$57] a month. It's enough to buy essential food and medicine if I go to this canteen," said Shavryrina. "I've come here every day for seven years. I'm a widow and have no close family to help me.

"My husband was a musician, we lived modestly and worked hard, and when I stopped dancing I taught until I was 60. Now the pension is very small. I'm grateful for this place."

Soup kitchens are usually the last resort of the homeless and destitute, not somewhere for retired doctors, designers and ballerinas -- Moscow's pensioners.

But they are victims of the collapse of the Soviet system, which provided for the needy. Pensioners were guaranteed a modest but comfortable retirement, and the notion of a soup kitchen was unthinkable.

"People have been coming here every day for years. For some it is their only meal of the day," said Habib Khazali, the soup kitchen administrator.

"We are not bums," said Alexandra Stepanova, a feisty 79-year-old widow. "The man opposite, he was a great artist. I was a doctor for 50 years."

The artist is 65-year-old Yura, who was a designer and illustrator until his eyesight started to fail. He still likes to draw the people in the taverna. "I come here because my wife left me and I can't feed myself," he said, only half joking.

"Some of these people have families, but the children have thrown them out so they can sell their apartments," said Edith Abugi, a coordinator of the soup kitchen program.

The soup kitchen program was started in the early 1990s by the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy to help Africans stuck in Moscow. "Then we thought -- why not help Russians too," said Kifle Solomon, a program coordinator.

The chaplaincy has operated in Moscow since 1962 and currently runs three soup kitchens in Moscow, relying on donations. Several others are run by the Russian Orthodox Church and other charitable organizations.

Valentina is partially deaf and has a heart complaint, but she alone cares for her 75-year-old brother, who was paralyzed after a stroke.

"I come here every day. They are great people, always friendly -- they do everything for us," she said, visibly moved. "I get a small pension, 1,300 rubles [$43], my brother gets less. I bring him food from here. Yesterday I couldn't come because I was looking after my brother, but today I will stay and talk to people."

The chaplaincy pays 16 rubles per head to the Georgian-run taverna near the Kuznetsky Most metro station. The taverna staff buy and prepare the food.

"We have 71 clients at this soup kitchen, some of whom come every day, so it's good money for the owners," said Khazali.

"We check all the food ourselves and try to give our clients variety, so every day it's different. Sometimes meat, sometimes fish, today they have hot chocolate to drink."

A 1997 law regulating religious groups forced faiths without a long history of activity in Russia to undergo a complex registration process. The law recently has been used to threaten the Salvation Army and Jehovah's Witnesses with expulsion from Moscow.

The Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy, headed by the Reverend John Calhoun, has experienced no trouble.

"We're quite different from groups such as the Salvation Army. We're technically the church of the American Embassy, so fortunately in that way we're able to continue to operate," said Dr. Noel Calhoun, coordinator of social ministries.

"We don't make anyone come to church," Abugi stressed. "Most of our clients are not even religious. That doesn't interest us."

Although the soup kitchens rely on social centers to provide names and addresses of the needy, Khazali's main concern is that not all are being reached.

"We feel sometimes that not everyone is really poor -- really needy. Some of the people come here to meet friends, to chat. They talk about everything from politics to personal affairs.

"Many of the people here are very lonely. It's a kind of meeting place for them, but that is important in itself."