A Bleak Winter In Russia

It was a Thanksgiving that none us here in the Moscow Bureau can ever forget. That our dinner was a quick meal of over-cooked turkey late at night at the American Diner a few blocks away didn't matter. We were all too numb. Never have any of us had so much reason to be thankful, CBS News Correspondent Jeffrey Kofman reports.

We had just returned from Kostroma, 220 miles northeast of Moscow. We drove there the night before Thanksgiving and were up well before the sun on Thursday, in town to see first-hand the food-shortages we keep hearing about. Kostroma is the capital of province that bears the same name.

It sits on the banks of the Volga River, a major trading route. It was once one of the richest, most beautiful cities in Russia. Now it's once-beautiful buildings are crumbling. Of the 800,000 people who live in the region, two-thirds live below the poverty line (less than $50 per month).

Wet weather destroyed much of the harvest in the fields and the backyard plots, unemployment is chronic and what's expected to be the harshest winter in 30 years has already begun. It didn't take long to see the devastating consequences.

The local Red Cross, a rundown apartment on the edge of the old town, is one of the few places people can turn for help. The office is run by a handful of women, under the inspiring leadership of Irina Fadeyeva. Each week they scramble to assemble emergency food packages and bags of clothing.

As winter sets in, it is getting increasingly difficult to stay ahead. Irina is an extraordinary woman, she has run the Red Cross here for 15 years. For her long days and tireless devotion she is paid the handsome sum of 250 rubles a month, about $16 or 50 cents a day.

Russia has seen food shortages before - during two World Wars, a civil war and the worst of the Communist years. What's different this time is that there is food in the stores. The problem: Few have any money to pay for it. Russia'a economy collapsed last August. Employment in Kostroma Region is now just a third of what it was a decade ago.

Jeffrey Kofman / CBS
A well-stocked grocery store with prices too high for many consumers.

Yevgeny Trepov owns a chain of six well-stocked grocery stores. He has lost two-thirds of his business since August. Now people come in and stare at the food in the glass cases, as if they were looking at jewels in a museum. A loaf of bread, perhaps some milk or margarine, are all that many can afford. But even that is too much for some.

Within minutes of our arrival at the Red Cross, a bundled woman entered, speking in soft tones. Her name is Alla Alexandrovna. She used to work at the port, but had to stop two years ago because of severe heart condition. She is meant to receive a pension of 300 Rubles a month ($18).

Like most people in Russia who depend on pensions and disability payments, she rarely sees any money from the government. Her last disability check came in September. In tears, she told her story to Irina.

Irina gave Alla a cardboard box with oil, tins of meat and some grains. Alla agreed to talk with us and show us her home. We drove her across town, down a snowy street, into a back lane. Like so much in Russia, the tilted log cabin didn't look bad from a distance, but up close and inside it was nothing more than slum.

An old shed, with broken doors, dirty floors, cracked walls, a terrible draft and a horrible stench that was hard to stomach. Alla is clearly trying to keep it as neat as she can, but with frail health and no money there isn't much she can do.

Despite the freezing temperatures, the wood stove hasn't been used yet this winter. Alla can't afford to buy any wood. Her daughter, too embarrassed to even show her face to us, hid in the next room.

Alla showed me her food cupboard, a shelf of empty jars. The only food: a half empty package of stale macaroni that a neighbor had given her for the dogs. She and her daughter had planned to eat it. I asked Alla when she had last had a meal. She hadn't eaten for more than a day, and then it was just four little pancakes made with her last bits of flour and some water.

When we sat to chat, I asked her how she thinks she's going to get through the winter. "Ne Znayu" ("I don't know") she responded, wiping a tear from her eye.

The United States, Canada and Europe have promised food aid, but Alla doesn't think she'll ever see any of it. "It disappears somewhere," she told me in Russian, "somebody powerful must be getting it." And that is the chronic problem here, corruption is so entrenched that it's become almost impossible to ensure that the people who really need help are the ones who get it.

As young journalists, we always learned the importance of keeping a line between ourselves and our subjects. But this was different. The producer, crew and I had lunch and dinner supplies in our truck. What is pocket change to us is a vast fortune to someone like Alla. Before leaving we filled a bag with food. We also filled an envelope with Rubles. Alla didn't want to accept, but we insisted. How could we do anything less?

Any decent person would have done the same, but it was hard to feel a sense of satisfaction when we said goodbye. While winter may be easier for Alla because of our small gift, it is now estimated that there are 79 million Russians living below the poverty line.

[Editor's Note: The American Red Cross is accepting donations for its special "Russia Relief Fund. In North America, dial 1-800-HELP-NOW]

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