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Image: DW/E. Burrows

Russian crisis

Emma Burrows, Moscow
September 7, 2015

Charities are concerned about a rise in the number of people falling into poverty in Russia as its currency devalues and the economy contracts. Emma Burrows reports from Moscow.


In a car park near three of Moscow's busiest train stations a group of people forms at the entrance to a small compound. On one side of a fence they stand in old, tattered clothing, clutching bags of belongings, waiting. On the other side, volunteers unpack sandwiches, rice dishes and tea onto tables.

When a volunteer gives the signal to open the gates the group starts to push and jostle, trying to get in first. The first wave of people heads straight for a table where sandwiches are being handed out. The wrapping is quickly stripped off and the food pushed into hungry mouths.

man eating copyright: Emma Burrows
For some, this may be their only meal of the dayImage: DW/E. Burrows

Back at the gate, volunteers are holding people back, warning them to not to push in order to avoid a rush on the food.

This is a scene that is repeated every weekend at the site of a makeshift help center for homeless people in Moscow. The Russian economy contracted by 4.6 percent in the second quarter of this year and the ruble is in freefall once again. Volunteers are now concerned that as the economic situation worsens more people will be forced to turn to them for help.

Alexander, a 35-year-old builder, said, "I came here to eat. If I worked, I wouldn't come here but at the moment I don't have anything."

'There is no work'

It is not just Alexander who is having trouble feeding himself. Sergei, who is 49 and lives on the street near the station, said, "Now in Russia it has become very hard to live under Putin's leadership." This is, he said, because "there is no work. The situation is twice as bad as last year: before I could get work around here and for two weeks now there has been nothing. It's too hard to make money."

man in kitchen copyright: Emma Burrows
Sergei says it's almost impossible to find a jobImage: DW/E. Burrows

Last year Russia was put under economic sanctions by the European Union and the United States following the country's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March. Since then, fuelled by a low oil price, the Russian ruble has crashed. Recently it hit a seven-month low against the dollar, losing almost half its value. Food prices have also risen, putting the squeeze on many ordinary Russians, forcing them to rely on free food handouts.

At the help center, several people have come to Moscow from other Russian regions in search of work. Natalia Markova from the organization Friends on the Streets which helps homeless people in partnership with the Moscow city government says internal migration is putting pressure on an already difficult job market. Many people, she said, come to Moscow from poorer regions but cannot find work and, when their money runs out, they have to find somewhere to eat for free.

Also caught up in the economic downturn are Russians who are not even homeless - just poor.

Economic freeze

"We have noticed that there are more people who live at home but who come to us to get free food because it has become harder for them to live," Natalia Markova said.

"People email us, whole families, who have fallen on tough times because they've got a mortgage or other loan and now they are on the brink of becoming homeless. This is increasing."

Earlier this year a group of Russians appealed directly to President Vladimir Putin to help them keep their homes because they had taken out mortgages in foreign currency before the ruble fell in value, pushing up the cost of the repayments. Putin said around $70.5 million had been allocated from the state budget to help people who had taken out mortgages in rubles but insisted that those who had taken out loans in foreign currency should get no special treatment.

At a time when many Russians are grappling with repaying loans, high food prices and increased living costs, Friends on the Streets says it is concerned what will happen to people teetering on the brink of poverty with the onset of autumn. As it turns colder, and as another economic winter approaches, volunteers worry more people will be forced to turn to charity to survive.

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