Hard Times: Five Russians’ Hopes, Fears For 2016

Map of Russia and Russian Flag adapted from images at state.gov

(RFE/RL – Tom Balmforth – MOSCOW, January 3, 2016)

2015 has been a tough year for many Russians. The economy has been mired in recession. Dragged down by oil prices, the ruble has languished near record lows. The cost of a typical trip abroad has doubled in ruble terms, and U.S. and EU sanctions over Moscow’s interference in Ukraine have increased Russia’s isolation. The Kremlin’s retaliatory ban has swept many Western foods off the shelves and driven inflation up, while salaries are down.

RFE/RL spoke to five Muscovites from different walks of life about their experiences this year, and their hopes and fears for 2016. Here’s what they said:

Tatyana Zaugolnova, 29

Owns and runs an online cosmetics shop, My Green Style, with a staff of six

“On a day-to-day level, I’ve noticed of course that groceries are much more expensive, especially fish, which now costs two times more than I was used to. Traveling has also gotten twice as expensive. If a year ago I could take my rucksack and head off to Europe for the weekend, nowadays I sit here toting up the costs and then don’t go because everything has become really expensive.

“Business has gotten harder. The cost of European cosmetics has doubled — and more than doubled in the case of some producers. Demand, correspondingly, has fallen. It’s been a bit easier with Russian cosmetics, which have gotten 20-30 percent more expensive and therefore seem like a better deal in comparison with European brands. In general, though, of course, sales are falling.

“I’ve decided to try and bring down expenses — to rent less office space and have staff work remotely. Let’s see what happens. I hope there will be a result and we’ll survive this crisis, as we did the others.

“I have the feeling that we’ve passed the peak of the crisis and that the economy has been restructured with an orientation toward domestic producers. Russian producers have received good stimulus because of the sanctions and the rate of the dollar. The example of cosmetics has shown me this — Russian cosmetics haven’t risen in cost as fast as foreign ones, so they remain popular.

“I hope, of course, that the coming year will be easier than this one and that everything stabilizes. At the very least, I would like there to be stability. These jumps in the dollar and euro really affect prices. It’s really difficult to predict how much I will spend in the next month.

“What are my fears? My biggest fear is that I’ll have to close my shop. The situation at the moment is quite difficult. I really hope that my strategy of lowering costs will work and I won’t have to close. My biggest fear is that I’ll have to close the shop.”

Vladimir Skiba, 65

Pensioner, teaches music

“I think anyone who has a profession of some sort can work in addition to their pension. Especially people who are musicians or work in culture and can do something like play, write, compose — these people can find use for themselves.

“I wouldn’t say [the economic downturn] has had a big effect or been very noticeable. I find out about it more from the media. I hadn’t been planning in the near future to improve my living standards, to buy an expensive car. As for daily life, I haven’t noticed a big impact on grocery prices.

“I remember the 1990s well. It was much more difficult and much worse. I remember the default and even remember when I was really small, under [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev, when there were awful queues for basic products like bread and butter. The 1990s were also a difficult time.

“In contrast, I am aware of this crisis more through the media, the television and the newspaper, and in conversations. There are times when people come up to you and ask for money, but in those years, it was all a lot more evident right in front of your eyes.

“I think we’ve already passed [the peak of Russia’s economic troubles] and that prices have stabilized.

“My hope is that everyone’s life will really get better — that people won’t have to count the kopeks and that they will be able to buy what they want. Not all pensioners are able to work to supplement their pension.

“It’s not like in some Western countries. I have a lot of friends abroad and I’ve often noticed that things are a lot better thought out for people [there], especially people of a pension age. As for fears, there isn’t anything — I’m sure that everything will become normal.”

Svyat Kozlov, 52

Former furniture restorer, on disability pension

“The economic crisis has really had an effect on my life as a pensioner. One or two years ago, my pension was the equivalent of $300 or $400. Now, because of the crisis and all this, our pensions have become a hundred and something dollars. That’s like in China. It is very hard, in practice, to live on a hundred and something dollars. Groceries are getting more espensive.

“The sanctions were declared against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. They were not imposed against the people of Russia, but against the friends of Putin. But so that we could all live happily, Putin made it so that we can’t buy food from other countries. We don’t have our own products in Russia. So now we are rejecting Turkish products and soon we will reject some other countries’ products. As a result, we’ll soon be given ration cards for food, like at the beginning of perestroika.

“How can we say that the peak of the crisis is past us when in the last few years, small business in this country has practically been totally destroyed? In the last two years, small enterprises have been closing on a massive scale. Around 100,000 or 200,000 small businesses have closed in the past year. Only big oligarchs can survive, thanks to stealing our gas and oil. It’s enough to drive 100 kilometers outside Moscow and it’s evident immediately that this is a poor country. This crisis will continue for a long, long time.

“My hope is that the Western countries will remove their [sanctions]. My fear is that we will end up in another war. Russia has been fighting in Ukraine. Russia is fighting in Syria. Russia in effect declared war on the Islamic State — we declared war on them, not them on us. So there is the fear that the war could come to our territory.”

Yekaterina Kondratyeva, 28

TV journalist

“I’ve had to take out a loan with an elevated rate to buy a car. Before, I could buy the car with a loan at a 15 percent interest rate, but now it’s practically 20 percent. There’s travel, as well. If I fly to Europe and pay in euros and dollars, then effectively I have half as much money as I did before. With groceries, I haven’t really felt this crisis much. Yes, they’ve got a bit more expensive, but I don’t really feel it that much.

“Overall, I’ve felt the crisis here and there, but this is the first time I’ve noticed financial changes in my life. Maybe that’s because this is the first time I’ve had loans to pay off. In past crises, I’ve never felt them because I haven’t had a loan before. I don’t think we’ve reached the peak of the crisis. I don’t know if it’s going to be better or worse, but I don’t think the crisis is going anywhere.

“I don’t have any fears [about 2016]. I don’t think it will be very scary. Something could happen in broad terms in the country, but I don’t worry about myself very much. I think I’ll be just fine.

“My hopes — I hope things get better, of course, that the crisis will end in the next year or two and that everything will be like it was before, or even better. I’m an optimist in life!”

Dmitry Klimanov, 29

Self-employed insurance salesman

“The insurance business is currently in quite a difficult situation. I work in car insurance and insurance for construction equipment. The situation is that car sales have fallen and the cost of spare parts has risen. It’s gotten harder to find clients. That’s the first thing.

“The second is that companies have started to feel bad. As a result there have been some problems with settling insurance claims. It has a negative impact. Clients are losing trust in insurers a bit. In short, this is a negative environment. But there is also an opposite trend — people have started to fear losing their property. A car crash will cost 2 1/2 to three times more than before. Spare parts cost more, and people want to insure themselves.

“I don’t work in a company. Since I work for myself, I don’t have a fixed salary, so there is a certain fear about what’s going to happen in the future. Another thing is that travel has become significantly more expensive. Before the crisis, I was in the Maldives, but this time I went to the Dominican Republic because it’s cheaper. Next year, I don’t even know where it’s worth going because everything’s more expensive. Maybe it would be easier to build another ‘banya’ [bathhouse] at the dacha and take a vacation out there.

“The [economic problems] are still growing. I see this at work. That companies are closing is a fact, and they will continue to close. There is no growth. Many held on until the end. Many of my colleagues are leaving the market to work in an office because they want stability.

“Things are simpler for me. In professional terms, I have hope. My friends have fears that their companies will close or cut their salaries and so on. My fears stem from the fact that it’s not clear what will happen in the future. There are fears that there will be a rise in crime. There have been cases, for instance, of car theft, and of headlights or wing mirrors getting stolen. The biggest fear, I suppose, is that someone will hit you over the head to take your phone.”

Article from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – rferl.org – ©2015 RFE/RL, Inc. Article also appeared at rferl.org/content/russia-people-discuss-hard-times-affect-of-sanctions/27465306.html