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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dim Hopes of Keeping Body and Soul Together

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My wife, Maria, and I love visiting our old friend Sergei Pavlovich. For years he was the chief engineer in a design bureau. Now he is 75 and retired. Not long ago he lost his wife. He has no children and lives alone in a two-room apartment typical of the Moscow intelligentsia: It contains far more books than furniture.

In the middle of his living room a round table stands beneath a large crystal chandelier whose bright light would dance on the gilded spines of his enormous book collection. Sergei took great pride in his library.

After a half-century on the job, Sergei receives a pension of 2,052 rubles ($65) per month, as well as a 500-ruble subsidy from the city government. He doesn't exactly live the high life. He tries to put a little something away for a rainy day, but there is never anything left over at the end of the month. Either he falls ill, or the cost of medicine goes up, or he has to pay for medical treatment that he once received for free.

Sergei once bit the bullet and tried to sell a few of his beloved books to raise money. He discovered to his chagrin that the collected works of Balzac, Turgenev and Zweig aren't exactly big sellers in the book stalls next to Leningradsky Market. As for Soviet writers, he couldn't even give them away.

Not long ago we began to notice that the light in Sergei's windows was gradually growing dimmer. Where once his small entrance hall had been illuminated by three bright lamps mounted on sconces, now a single bulb lit the way for his guests. Maria and I exchanged glances on a recent visit but didn't ask what had happened. The door into his bedroom/study, where Maria usually fixed her hair in front of the mirror, was shut. In the living room, just two bulbs burned in the chandelier. In their wan light, the gilded spines of the books were dull and lifeless.

Suddenly Sergei turned to Maria: "You're an intelligent, sensible person," he said. "Tell me how to make ends meet."

He slid a piece of paper and a pencil toward her. "Write this down. You know my income. My pension and the city subsidy make 2,550 rubles a month. I pay half-price for the telephone: 65 rubles. For light, gas, water and heat I pay 375 rubles. Apart from my one or two free prescriptions, I pay 1,400 rubles a month for essential medicines. That comes to 1,840 rubles.

"How can I make a budget that will allow me to have a little something to eat three times a day and to buy the necessary shoes and clothes once a year or so? And to cover unexpected expenses, like bribes for the plumber and the handyman? They won't lift a finger for what they get paid by the building management."

In this situation, even light bulbs are a luxury item.

Vladislav Schnitzer is a pensioner and journalist living in Moscow.