Inheriting the wind

International | For most Russians, there is no silver lining inside the country's failed economic policies

Issue: "Exodus from Disney," Nov. 7, 1998

in Moscow - Since Russia devalued its currency on Aug. 17, the news has grown more dismal by the day. The Russian economy has plunged into a full-fledged depression and is expected to shrink five percent this year. Church and other ministry leaders see both bad news and good news in the crisis. As any other consumer, churches feel the financial crunch. But in spiritual matters there's an optimism that the economic crisis will strengthen the walk of Christians and bring nonbelievers into the church. Igor Nikitin, president of the St. Petersburg-based Association of Christian Churches of Russia, says churches were hit economically in two ways: Costs. Most evangelical churches in Russia still must depend on rented facilities to hold services. Rent is typically calculated in dollars, even though most churches receive income in rubles. So as the value of the ruble drops, the amount of rubles required to pay rent escalates; additionally, churches and their rent-holders find the cost of utilities and other purchases skyrocketing. Revenues. At the same time, offerings given in rubles decline because church members themselves, hit by inflation or unemployment, cannot or are hesitant to give. Moscow Bible Church has seen offerings decline already by $300 (about 35 percent) a week since the beginning of the crisis. Although the makeup of Moscow Bible Church differs from a more typical Russian church, the church's situation illustrates the effects of the crisis. The congregation divides almost equally among Russian students, foreign missionaries and business people, and Russian-educated, middle-class workers. Assistant pastor Vitali Petrov estimates that, among Russian working people, at least 80 percent suffered pay cuts, layoffs, or job losses. An undetermined number of foreign business people attending the church lost jobs and left the country. However, Mr. Petrov believes there is a spiritual benefit to those whose "foundations were shaken." He reports that attendance is up at his church by about 20 percent, and says he has talked with people who point to the crisis as the event that providentially led them to Christ. Unemployed members volunteer more time to ministering in the church. Volodia Sapegin, pastor of a 180-member Baptist church southwest of Moscow, has watched his church's offering decline since the crisis began, creating a difficult situation for the ministry. The majority of the church's members are middle-aged or pensioners. As the cost of food and basic necessities increases, members are left with less to give. If the trend continues, the church will face more serious problems, he said. But Mr. Sapegin sees no change in the spiritual climate among his older Russian congregation. "Russian believers aren't worried about these situations," he said. "We already lived through wars, famines, and repression, and God blessed us. We believe that he will bless us now." Since the currency devaluation in August, its value has slid from six rubles to the dollar to around 17. That is a double whammy for Russian consumers: escalating prices and evaporating real income. Prices have risen by 67 percent since August and, according to Central Bank forecasts, could climb by 200 percent before year's end. Beginning Aug. 17, Russians have scrambled to invest their shrinking rubles, buying either scarce big-ticket items or more stable dollars. They have stocked up on staple items like flour, sugar, cooking oil, and macaroni. Banks inundated by customers wanting to withdraw their money moved quickly to limit the amount of withdrawals. Most froze accounts altogether. Even in cases where frozen savings are guaranteed by the government, their value may equal only a fraction of their pre-crisis value once they become available. Russia depends largely on imports (48 percent of all consumer goods) to feed and care for its population. But imports and distribution in general are grinding to a halt. Suppliers refuse to deliver goods because they don't know what to charge and fear that frozen bank accounts mean they won't get paid. As the weeks go by and the government remains in limbo, store shelves grow bare and the situation more dire. The economic disaster has required disaster relief. Two weeks ago, the International Red Cross appealed for $15 million in international aid to help more than 1.4 million people in 12 Russian regions expected to be hardest hit this winter. The Moscow office warned of "mass starvation" in a country where malnutrition is an increasing and unexpected problem. Red Cross workers will distribute aid among large families, orphans, and homeless, jobless, elderly, or disabled people. Already food distribution has begun in some provinces. In the ancient city of Vladimir, about 120 miles east Moscow, residents stand in line for bread. Yevdakia Bogaslovskaya, 78, exemplifies the plight of many her age. Her 400-ruble monthly pension, which falls in the average range, equals about $24. After she pays rent for her Moscow apartment, utilities, and telephone, she's left with 300 rubles-about $18. "What can you buy with 300 rubles?" she asks. "The government has lost its mind. We will die of starvation." Mrs. Bogaslovskaya buys several kilos of potatoes in the fall and cans pint after pint of sauerkraut. Her winter diet will consist of sauerkraut, potatoes, bread, and tea. An increasing number of elderly people can be spotted on Moscow's streets begging for small change to help buy food. Others pick up empty beer bottles off the sidewalks or from trash containers to trade them in for refunds that supplement their food budgets. Russians survive off the produce from their country gardens-even the city dwellers-and from gathering berries and mushrooms from the forests. Cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbage, and other vegetables are canned or pickled. Preserved mushrooms take the place of meat, showing up alongside potatoes or in soup. Last year dacha gardens owned by city dwellers and private plots of the rural population provided more than 80 percent of all the potatoes and vegetables grown in Russia and about a third of all meat and milk. Because of a drought, Russia's crop harvest this year is expected to be the worst in more than 30 years. The grain harvest is expected to be down by 40 percent-the smallest harvest since 1957. Potatoes, an important staple food in the Russian diet, grew poorly, producing a yield low in both number and quality. The sugar beet harvest dipped only slightly from last year, which was the worst in 30 years. Medical care is no better under these circumstances. Hospitals now ask patients to bring their own syringes and drugs. The country imports 82 percent of its medicines. There are shortages in pharmacies, clinics, and hospitals. Diabetics soon may be without insulin. A shortage of film means doctors will limit X-rays. Dr. Bill Becknell heads up Agape Medical Center based in Moscow. It serves in rural and remote areas of the country. For Dr. Becknell's staff the crisis means they work harder and longer hours as increasing numbers turn to him for medicines and humanitarian aid. "The more we help the more the word spreads. We help as many as we can," he said. But Dr. Becknell stressed that Russians living in remote areas were already accustomed to poverty, so the situation for them changed little: "Zero from zero is still zero." In cities, many of the sick, including children, walk up and down the aisles of subway cars begging passengers for money for medical care. One young mother recently carried her swaddled infant and a sign that read, "Please help. My baby needs Western medicine." A middle class consisting largely of 35- to 45-year-olds working mainly in management or business and financial fields began to emerge in 1995-97. This new middle class grew accustomed to quality and variety in products and various comforts. For them, the hardships they face are more along the lines of choice and convenience. Now they face the reality of a decline in their newly won standard of living and level of security, including medical care and educational prospects for their families. Statistics range from 200,000 to 500,000 white-collar workers in Moscow alone who have lost their jobs in the last two months. Others are being placed on unpaid leave in anticipation of unemployment. Businesses across the board face unemployment spikes and layoffs because they cannot operate with frozen bank accounts. Alexander Zaichenko, a middle-class Christian business owner, faces his own crisis-produced dilemma. Mr. Zaichenko leads a Bible club ministry for Russian business and professional people. In October he organized an outreach called "Revival of the Russian People," which drew 150 white-collar workers-three times the expected attendance. In the past invitations to similar events received responses of "too busy." When the economic crisis began, however, Mr. Zaichenko's training and consulting business lost all of its customers and went bankrupt. Now he may be forced to abandon the white-collar world and the ministry in order to find work to support his family. One of the few businesses currently thriving in Russia is emigration services. Canada emerged as the favorite destination for the disillusioned middle class, university-age students, and others concerned about Russia's political and economic future. Several embassies in Moscow reported a steep increase in applications for emigration since mid-August. Even Russian television offered advice on which countries were best to enter. Millions of workers in both public- and private-sector jobs are owed months of back wages. Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov promised to make payment of back wages his top priority. But he will likely need to print new money to keep his promises. These additional rubles, in turn, could fuel inflation and erode the value of what few wages are being paid. These economic and political catastrophes, along with destructive weather conditions, give old-timers reason to believe living conditions this winter will be the worst they've experienced in a generation. In the last half of 1998 it seems the legendary long-suffering character of the Russian people has been pushed to the limit.

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