‘They’ve Stolen Everything’: In Russia’s Far East, Dreams Deferred Amid Grim Mood Over Pension Reform

Cash, Calculator, Pen

(Article ©2018 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – rferl.org – Matthew Luxmoore – October 14, 2018 – also appeared at rferl.org/a/in-russia-s-far-east-dreams-deferred-amid-grim-mood-over-pension-reform/29542683.html)

USSURIYSK, Russia — An unusually warm spell in early October filled this Far Eastern city’s central square with couples and schoolkids enjoying the last bright evenings before the onset of winter. Steps from the main landmark, a monument honoring locals who fought for Soviet power a century ago, 54-year-old construction worker Aleksandr Pavlenko strolled among the benches.

Pavlenko would soon bid farewell to his family and travel many hours north, to join colleagues on a building site he’s toiled at for years. Hard physical labor that’s taken a toll on his health, he says, more than justifies a monthly salary that, at 50,000 rubles ($750), exceeds the regional average by a third. Away two or three months at a time, he returns to Ussuriysk to spend his earnings on renovating his home and to savor the company of his wife and two sons. In six years, when he hopes to finally retire, he plans to make up for lost time with his family.

Now, he says, he may not live to see those days.

On October 3, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law raising the retirement age by five years, to 65 for men and 60 for women. The move culminated a months-long controversy that has fueled protests across Russia and plunged the government’s approval rating to levels not seen since before the 2014 annexation of Crimea elevated Putin’s standing upon a wave of patriotic fervor.

In a country where few men live beyond 70, and where pensions are seen as supplementary income into retirement, the reform has elicited a backlash against official corruption and vocal anger toward a president Russians rarely criticize in public.

“They’re telling us our kids should work for us, that they should finance our pensions. Why, if we’ve worked all our lives to save for retirement?” Pavlenko says. “I’ve worked 35 years, and where has that money gone? They’ve stolen everything.”

Such views in Ussuriysk, a placid city seven time zones and more than 8,000 kilometers from Moscow, are representative of a broader trend. Across Primorsky Krai, a region bordering North Korea and China where Ussuriysk is the third-largest city, resentment about the pension-age hike and rising living costs has spilled over into protests against Putin and United Russia, the political party that backs him. A runoff election for the region’s governor on September 16 saw obscure Communist Party candidate Andrei Ishchenko sail into an unexpected lead before a suspect 11th-hour surge handed victory to his ruling party rival. The vote will now be rerun amid allegations of fraud, a decision unprecedented since Putin took power.

While the Communist Party is loyal to the Kremlin and dependent on its patronage, its success in Primorsky Krai reflects a pattern in several regions where United Russia has labored to narrow victories or been forced into runoff votes against its rivals.

The results themselves pose little threat to the system established under Putin, but they serve as a barometer of a marked shift in public opinion. Surveys by the independent pollster Levada Center show that public trust in Putin has dropped by 20 percent in the past 10 months to 39 percent, and the figures align with a general drop in support for his government. In June, 90 percent of respondents expressed disapproval of the planned pension reform.

Levada Director Lev Gudkov calls this “the threshold level of consolidation.” A similar proportion backed Russia’s annexation of Crimea four years ago, but this time, Gudkov notes, the consolidation is “negative” — an expensive military campaign in Syria and grand vanity projects such as the FIFA World Cup have fueled a sense that domestic issues are being ignored. On top of that, the timing of the pension reform — it was announced on the tournament’s opening day, with Russians distracted by the national team’s emphatic victory over Saudi Arabia — only drove popular sentiment that the move is unjust.

The situation represents a challenge for the Kremlin. In August, 53 percent of respondents to a nationwide Levada poll professed an intent to join local protests against the pension reform, the highest figure since mass demonstrations against election fraud in 2011 rocked the Kremlin and prompted a sweeping clampdown on opposition. Thousands have carried through on that pledge.

Nonetheless, Gudkov believes the government will weather this storm — most people are unwilling to risk arrest to attend unsanctioned protests and few Russian cities have an organized opposition movement capable of exploiting the discontent. The government knows this well, he adds.

In Ussuriysk, a city of 160,000, a protest rally on July 28 attracted only 250 people. Activists called that a victory.

“Even 50 people is a good result here,” says Aleksei Shishkin, who heads a local Marxist discussion club and co-organized the rally.

Most people in Ussuriysk, he says, remain skeptical about their ability to influence decisions made thousands of kilometers away in Moscow and are wary of confronting an entrenched elite that has presided over their livelihoods for two decades.

Andrei Artemenko, a worn-looking factory worker in his late 40s, sees little sense in protest.

“United Russia wins everywhere anyway,” he says.

He collects a 10,000 ruble ($150) monthly paycheck, tries not to think about the size of his pension when he finally gets to retire, and generally keeps his head down.

Fatalistic Mind-Set

With male life expectancy at 64 years, Primorsky Krai is in the lowest 25th percentile among Russia’s regions. In Ussuriysk, many men have a fatalistic mind-set, expecting to die before retirement even before recent reforms were announced.

On a small side street a few minutes’ walk from the main square, one hears the unceasing clink of glass traveling along a conveyor belt at the city’s famed alcohol distillery, which churns out 360,000 bottles of hard spirits per year. The sharp smell of ethanol wafts through the windows.

“I’m 48 and almost none of my peers are left. They’re all dead,” Artemenko says, citing Russia’s drinking culture. “We drink vodka. What else is there to do?”

Others blame the environment.

Across Primorsky Krai, cancer rates are high — locals cite radiation emitted from the nuclear submarines of Russia’s Pacific Fleet, which are docked along the ocean shoreline and manufactured in a sprawling plant near Vladivostok, the regional capital. In recent years, atomic tests in North Korea and fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in nearby Japan have compounded the problem.

Anna Marinets, a journalist at local news site Ussurmedia, recently lost her father-in-law to cancer. He was 56.

“There are few men above 60 among my friends,” she says. “People just don’t tend to live that long.”

While only 39, Marinets has been spurred on by the pension reform to make contingency plans for retirement. With her husband, Konstantin, she is planning to launch a TV channel for kids and hopes the project will ensure a decent salary into old age.

Sometime in the future, they plan to move next door to China, where the average Russian pension of 13,500 rubles ($200) stretches further than it does at home. Ussuriysk pensioners often take this step, Marinets says, relying on their children to wire them their pensions and the income from apartments they rent out in their absence.

Elections, Take Two

A date is yet to be set for the rerun election for governor of Primorsky Krai. When it takes place, there’s unlikely to be a repeat of scenes witnessed in Ussuriysk overnight into September 17, when a dozen police officers cordoned off the city administration, provoking a standoff with election monitors demanding entrance to witness the vote count.

Ishchenko, the Communist Party upstart who derailed United Russia’s seemingly assured victory, plans to run again and believes anger about the pension reform and corruption within the ruling party will ensure his triumph.

“United Russia has turned into the Communist Party in the U.S.S.R.,” he said in an interview in Vladivostok. “This policy of all-permissiveness needs to end.”

As Ishchenko enjoys his moment in the sun, Moscow has launched a personnel reshuffle in Primorsky Krai and dispatched veteran Governor Oleg Kozhemyako to bring order to the region in advance of the new vote.

In the meantime, the tide of opinion in Ussuriysk, it seems, continues to turn. And while United Russia has traditionally borne the brunt of public anger, with Putin sitting comfortably above the fray, it is the president who, increasingly, is now personally taking the flak.

“I used to think, ‘Things are tough for him. There are enemies from all sides.’ I used to hope that perhaps — perhaps — he is not corrupt,” Leonid Derevyashko, a 52-year-old security guard, says of Putin. “But I now have had it up to here with all the stealing.”

Standing outside his post next to the city’s main hotel, Derevyashko clicked a remote control and raised a barrier to let cars pass, as he does hundreds of times each day.

He didn’t attend the recent protest in Ussuriysk. He sees little point and expects no change. “But neither United Russia nor Putin,” he says, “will ever again get my vote.”