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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pensioner Relies on God and Tomatoes to Get By

MTA woman sitting in front of the Nativity Church of John the Baptist. The collection box is hanging on the window.
Editor's note: This is the second of three stories.

Stout, grim and bundled up against the cold, Marina Belolovskaya, 67, is almost a fixture outside the Begovaya metro station.

Early in the morning, she rides the metro north to Tushino, where an old grocer friend sells her a crate of tomatoes at cost. She then returns to sell them among a row of truck-bed kiosks.

"I'm a speculator on the free market, a middleman, you understand?" she said, looking up from her stool.

It seemed a weighty confession. A few decades ago, her tomato business could have gotten her branded a tenevik, a shadow merchant -- in other words, a capitalist. But today, committing this erstwhile crime is the only way she can get by.

Her pension of about 3,000 rubles ($115) per month does not go far in Moscow. "Perhaps," she said, "in some hollow of the Tver region, where people grow most of their food in private gardens, sure, you could live on that alone. But in Moscow, this sum is just a joke."

So almost every day, weather and health permitting, Belolovskaya sells her tomatoes to take home an extra 2,000 rubles in an average month. The additional income is barely enough to pay for food.

In Moscow, a monthly basket of the most basic foodstuffs, including bread, sugar, butter, vegetables and meat, costs 1,718 rubles, according to the latest figures from the State Statistics Service.

Belolovskaya and the other 10 percent of Russians living in poverty have little hope of moving beyond their hand-to-mouth existence, economists say. Furthermore, the 70 percent of Russians that make up the "potential" middle class are more likely slide into poverty than to advance into the 20 percent of Russians that form the comfortable "core" middle class. The upper class is so small that it is statistically insignificant.

"Poor or not poor, I know there are a lot of people worse off than me," Belolovskaya said. "You see the poor drunks sleeping on the street or in the metro. At least I have an apartment to go back to."

The apartment, around the corner from her makeshift stand, belongs to her sister, who gained ownership by privatizing it shortly after the Soviet collapse. The two live together and share the cost of utilities, garbage collection and building maintenance -- which amount to about 1,000 rubles per month.

It is not a trifling sum for them. Government housing allowances, at least on paper, are supposed to help pay it. The money set aside for these subsidies amounted to about 4 percent of gross domestic product in 2005, or nearly $30 billion. But only 17 percent of that money actually reaches the poorest 20 percent of the population, according to a World Bank study released the same year. None of it has reached Belolovskaya.

"We don't know where or to whom it goes," said Lilia Ovcharova, research director at the Independent Institute for Social Policy.

Whether because of corruption, inaccuracies in the census or a lumbering bureaucracy, Russia has the worst targeted social welfare of all the countries the World Bank surveyed. Aid in Colombia and Kazakhstan was two times more likely to reach the needy than it was in Russia.

The main social benefit Belolovskaya enjoys is from Russia's system of lgoty, a broad array of subsidies and discounts on things like public transportation and health care. But these benefits are not geared toward helping the poor, and, paradoxically, the World Bank found that Russians with higher incomes are more likely to enjoy them.

Pensions, nevertheless, have grown significantly since 2002. In the past year alone, pensions climbed by about 12 percent.

But in some ways, pension reforms have been self-defeating. The increase in pensions, combined with a parallel growth in official wages, has prompted the state to print billions of extra rubles. This, in turn, helps drive up inflation, so that when the money reaches pensioners, its buying power is notably dented.

Social benefits have done a lot to help offset inflation, explained Peter Westin, chief economist at MDM Bank. But by Western standards, he added, Russian pensions remain "extremely low."

Belolovskaya does not see it in such terms. The past seven years have been fairly stable for her, and she remembers only the period immediately after the 1998 financial crisis as a "terrible time."

"In those days, everyone was feeling the crunch, and even the most basic things were hard to get, to afford," she said.

Nearly half of the population considered itself poor after the crisis, according to a study put out by the Levada Center in 1999.

"Now it is more than three times less, with 15 percent instead of 49," said Marina Krasilnikova, the author of the study.

But even after the crisis, Belolovskaya did not count herself among the poor, and she refuses to do so. Rather, she said, she belongs to the working class.

Krasilnikova said this was a common perspective for those who have never experienced wealth. "Poverty is a generally shameful state, so in subjective studies, people will almost always place themselves in the middle class," she said.

But in real terms, the upward mobility of the poor has been significant in the last eight years, as booming oil and gas revenues trickle down to the needy.

"Of course with so many positive economic developments, it can always be said that we should be giving more to the poor," Krasilnikova said. "But really a lot is being done."

The growth of consumer credit, she added, has also helped.

The total number of loans granted to individuals has almost doubled compared to last year, reaching about 1.2 trillion rubles ($43.5 billion) in September.

But Ovcharova of the Independent Institute for Social Policy said the poor had little to gain from this growth. "Sure, you could go buy a refrigerator, and they would write you out a loan," she said.

But as for getting a loan to buy a car or an apartment, "this is not our standard," she said. "Here, poor people are just not supposed to have a car and an apartment. These are European understandings of the question."

Belolovskaya's main financial worries are about paying for the menu of medications and treatments that come with age. "My joints give me trouble, my blood pressure is high. But that's old age," she said. "What can you do?"

Belolovskaya said that to get attention from doctors, who are overworked and underpaid, patients have to pay extra, and in cash.

A few years ago, all of her savings went to paying for her sister's knee operation. "Otherwise, what?" she said, throwing up her hands. "She would have sat out her life waiting for the operation. Of course we paid."

Public health care workers are to see their salaries double this year, and with that, their dependence on payments under the table should diminish.

Better health care, then, is one thing Belolovskaya may have to look forward to, but she said she would rather avoid doctors altogether.

"These guys are so overworked, they want to go at you with an ax instead of a scalpel," she said.

The main relief she has found in post-Soviet Russia is not financial at all, but spiritual. "They have brought the beautiful churches back," Belolovskaya said. "I'll give them that."

Every Sunday she worships at the Nativity Church of John the Baptist, a short ride from the Begovaya station. Even after all of the constraints on her budget -- medicine and treatments (2,250 rubles), food (1,800 rubles) and utilities (500 rubles) -- she manages to spare 100 rubles per month for the collection box.

"The soul comes before the stomach," she said.