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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Housing Shortages Dog the Military

MTUES chief Anatoly Chubais applauding as children release balloons Tuesday at a groundbreaking ceremony for a new turbine at the Shatura power station in the Moscow region. GE executive Rod Christie, to his left, and OGK-4 chief Andrei Kitashyov and Gama H
Retired naval officer Oleg Prokopyev spent 29 years defending his homeland. Now he says the country he would give his life for won't even give him a home.

With nary a registration stamp in his passport, Prokopyev, 50, is officially a homeless person. He rents a room for 4,000 rubles ($150) a month in a two-room apartment in the Moscow region. With a job as a video surveillance manager at a construction site and two young daughters to support, he can't afford much better.

Prokopyev's circumstances are no exception: He is among the tens of thousands of military men who by law are owed housing by the government for their service but instead are biding their time -- together with their families -- in dilapidated apartments and tiny hovels while waiting for bureaucrats to resolve their situations.

Some 139,000 military officers are currently in line for housing that by law the Defense Ministry is obligated to provide, according to the ministry's 2007 statistics.

Prokopyev said he had been waiting 10 years for the apartment he is entitled to upon retirement, but with no end in sight, he has joined up with some 300 fellow officers from various regions to press their demands.

Created in June, the Movement to Protect the Housing Rights of Military and Law Enforcement Officers now includes officers from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Smolensk and Voronezh, and more from other regions are asking to join, said the group's leader, Alexei Yeroshenko.

The group is planning a direct appeal to President Vladimir Putin to create a federal commission responsible for ensuring that soldiers receive the housing they've been promised.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
A veteran of 20 years of service in the Navy, Prokopyev has been waiting 10 years for the apartment he is due by law.

Around 30 law enforcement officers with the same problem have also joined the movement, Yeroshenko said.

Of the 69,500 officers currently entitled to ownership of free apartments, 53,800 are without permanent lodging, while the remaining 15,700 are entitled to improved living conditions, said Vasily Lavrenyuk, spokesman for the Defense Ministry department in charge of distributing housing to its officers.

Another 69,500 are currently in line for temporary housing that they are entitled to during their service, Lavrenyuk said.

According to 2005 ministry data cited by the officers' movement, 1,300 officers were living with their families in their offices, sports halls or barracks.

Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Kostyshin said the ministry was in full compliance with its responsibility to build housing for its officers, but that other government agencies, including local authorities, must also pull their weight.

"The Defense Ministry builds the housing it can, but it can't take care of all the officers," Kostyshin said. "We don't have the necessary resources, financial or otherwise."

Numerous amendments have been made over the past 15 years, ostensibly aimed at putting roofs over more soldiers' heads. A 1998 law, for example, allows officers to opt for housing certificates or take out mortgages for military housing.

But many soldiers say the certificates don't cover the entire cost of an apartment, while it can take up to 20 years of paying off the mortgage before they can truly call an apartment their own.

The ministry's housing crisis comes at a time when, despite scandals involving brutal hazing and widespread draft evasion, the government has been actively attempting to boost the prestige of a military career.

The ministry last year created a council of authoritative public figures -- including movie stars, businessmen and human rights activists -- to improve public oversight over the armed forces. One of the council's six committees has specifically been tasked with boosting the image of the military.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Ryumin and his wife sitting in the apartment they rent as they wait for the free accommodations they were promised.
Born in Poland into a family of Soviet military officers, Prokopyev knew all about the prestige of defending one's country and served in the Northern Fleet before moving to the Moscow region after his retirement in 1997.

After settling in the town of Lyubertsy, southeast of Moscow, Prokopyev said he tried to get on a waiting list for military housing but that local officials told him that only those who served in the Moscow region could get apartments.

His grave mistake, it seems, was returning his Murmansk apartment to the military when he moved from the northern city to Lyubertsy.

"Local officials told me to go back to the Murmansk region and ask officials there to give me an apartment," he said.

Only in 2005 did local authorities put his name on the waiting list -- two years after his wife, having lost hope that their living conditions would improve, ended their 16-year marriage, Prokopyev said. His daughters live with his ex-wife, though he provides child support.

Homeless military officers have been trying to get the government and public to pay attention to their plight for several years now, and Putin has allocated 30 billion rubles ($1.17 billion) for 2006-07 to alleviate the situation in the five regions with the most expensive real estate: Moscow, the Moscow region, St. Petersburg, the Leningrad region and the Kaliningrad region.

Lavrenyuk, the defense ministry spokesman, said 44,000 apartments would be provided this year for officers entitled to apartment ownership or service housing.

After 10 years of trying to obtain an apartment he's legally entitled to, Oleg Ryumin hopes he'll make the cut.

Unlike Prokopyev, Ryumin, a 41-year-old disabled Air Force officer, has not lost his family because of his housing issues. And that means things are tight at the tiny room he rents in a one-story wooden house -- without indoor plumbing -- in the town of Skhodnya, 30 kilometers northwest of Moscow.

Sitting on the corner of his bed, Ryumin, who lives in the hovel with his wife and their 17-year-old son, produced copy after copy of his useless appeals to officials in various positions of authority, including the local mayor's office, State Duma deputies, the country's human rights ombudsman and the presidential administration.

He has received official replies that he says essentially tell him to "kiss off."

"All the bureaucrats are sending me to other state agencies, and there's no end to it," Ryumin said. "Officials also say they don't have enough money."

Ryumin's financial situation is less dire than Prokopyev's, and though rent and real estate prices have skyrocketed in recent years, his $2,300 salary as a bank manager seems sufficient to get his family out of their current squalor.

But major expenses -- his son's university education, gas for the six hours he spends commuting daily, car loan payments and basic household expenses -- leave little left over to upgrade apartments or for real estate investments, Ryumin said. And because half of his salary is paid under the table, securing a mortgage isn't easy.

Regardless of his spending priorities, Ryumin and his wife, Yelena, say they will continue demanding their free apartment -- though Yelena says she's unsure how much longer she can fight.

"In the last three years we haven't moved up on the waiting list but have actually been moved down several spots," she said.

Despite his difficulties, including a fractured spine suffered in a parachuting accident during his service, Ryumin said he didn't regret choosing a military career.

Their son, Ilya, is even interested in following in his father's footsteps.

"When we ask him why, he says, 'I want to defend our motherland, not the state; these are two different things,'" Ryumin said.

"Ilya doesn't measure life by money and is still hoping that things will get better."