STERLITAMAK, Russia -- During a visit to the annexed Ukrainian region of Crimea in 2016, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was waylaid by a group of angry retirees complaining about inflation and begging for their pensions to be raised. "There is no money," Medvedev famously replied. "You hang in there. Best wishes, cheers! Take care!"
This spring, Dara Goldberg, a 29-year-old teacher from the city of Sterlitamak in Bashkortostan, decided to learn how people "hang in there" on the official government subsistence minimum of 9,142 rubles ($158) per month. In late March, she launched a six-month experiment during which she vowed to spend only that amount, plus any money that she would be able to earn on the side. She has been documenting her experiment on her YouTube channel.
"The point is to get people to think seriously about this problem," Goldberg told RFE/RL. "This is the amount on which, according to the government, people are supposed to be able to live for a whole month. But in reality, this amount bears little relation to the real level of prices for food and services. Lowering prices isn't realistic. That means the subsistence minimum needs to be raised. And we need to speak about this all the time so that the leviathan will hear us."
The Russian government calculates the subsistence minimum according to a strict formula. A citizen is supposed to be able to survive each year on 100 kilograms of potatoes; 126.5 kilograms of bread, pasta, and grains; 60 kilograms of fruit; 58 kilograms of meat; 210 eggs; and so on. The minimum also includes an allowance for nonfood goods equal to one-half the cost of groceries and an identical allowance for utilities and other services.
It is also indexed for three categories of people, with working-age people getting the most, followed by children and then retirees. And, finally, it is indexed by region.
In March 2016, the government reduced the monthly subsistence minimum by 200 rubles (approximately $3.40), which economist Natalya Zubarevich of the Independent Social Policy Institute described as a ploy to reduce state expenditures on social benefits.
"Reducing social benefits is politically unacceptable," Zubarevich told Deutsche Welle. "So they found this sly trick -- reducing the subsistence minimum so that fewer people will be below the poverty line. So the benefits will be the same, but fewer people will qualify for them."
Other economists interviewed by Deutsche Welle estimated that the official subsistence minimum was less than half of what it should be in reality.
According to the Labor Ministry the number of Russians living below the poverty line in 2016 was 19 million, up 3 million from the previous year.
Living On A Budget
The experiment was difficult for Goldberg, who says she normally earns about 25,000 rubles per month and, of that, is lucky to save 1,000-2,000. In order to motivate herself, Goldberg pledged to give 1,000 rubles to the presidential campaign of her favorite would-be candidate, opposition politician and anticorruption activist Aleksei Navalny, for each month she manages to stick to the limit. If she goes over the budget, she says she'll give 1,000 rubles to Medvedev, so "he can buy some new curtains or something." For the first five months, Navalny took the prize.
"The first month was very difficult for me to discipline myself because I did not really understand how much money I would have to spend on groceries," she told RFE/RL. "In the first days I would just go into the supermarket and grab what I normally eat and I saw that it amounted to almost my entire monthly budget. I realized this wouldn't work."
After consultation with acquaintances (both real and virtual) who regularly live on such an income, Goldberg learned which stores in town were cheapest and how to find whatever items were on sale. "Since then, I have been pretty successful," she said. "I don't even look at normally priced items. I only take what is on sale."
The budget restrictions were not just about food. After several less-than-ideal attempts to have friends style and color her hair, Goldberg ended up shaving her head, which had the additional advantage of saving money on shampoo. She wears a scarf to work "to avoid terrorizing the children."
An 'Ideal Citizen'
The budget, she realized, does not allow for entertainment or extraordinary medical expenses. You can't buy shoes or clothes. If your refrigerator or television breaks, you are out of luck. You can't buy one or even qualify for a payment plan. Of course, people who smoke or drink alcohol have additional difficulties.
Goldberg acknowledges that as a healthy, single person conducting such an experiment for a limited time, she is certainly not getting the full experience of someone who is forced to get by on such a miserly sum. Moreover, she gratefully accepted in-kind donations and meal invitations from friends and relatives during the experiment. In fact, she used her social-media accounts to solicit such contributions.
Nonetheless, she has learned a lot from the experience. She found herself slipping into what she called "the philosophy or the mind-set of the impoverished," in which "you begin to think all the time about how to save money."
"You think about every single day," she said.
"You realize that you are an 'ideal' citizen for the current government," she continued. "You go to work, you eat some, you sleep, and that's it. No activity. You don't allow yourself any amusement. Any cultural or intellectual component disappears from your life and without that, life is very hard. You really turn into a sort of vegetable who works constantly just to earn enough to eat. You eat, you sleep, and that is all. That is the hardest psychological moment. And the scariest thing of all is that you get used to it."
After a while, she said, you don't even want any more than that.
According to a Levada Center poll released on August 31, Russians are most worried about inflation, poverty, unemployment, and corruption.