The Belly Button Window Details

About Belly Button Window

The Semi-Regular Newsletter

Travels in Russia

KLM Rocks Across Europe!
Santa Claus in Moscow
Television Is a Time Suck
The Reality of Irrelevance
Salute Mayor Luzhkov
Impeachment Happens
I Am Not The Only One...
I'm Back! Did Ya Miss Me?
Chechnya Burning
Weddings in Winter
The Jews Are Here!
Gailyn Goes to Town
Is There a Central Bank?
Santa Barbara is Real
Nick's Thanksgiving in Russia
Den' Rozhdeniya = Birthdays
Those Crazy Expats
It's Just a Few Drops of Vodka...
Elections Are Always Rigged
The Blind Leading the Blind
Good Russian Grooms
You Say 'Boris Berezovskiy' Fast
Too Cold to Care!
Russian Oil Towns
Sneaky Siberian Tigers
Which Way is St Peterburg?
Where am I again? Oh, yeah...
I Love Me Some Vodka
It's a Gosorg Halloween
Why Don't They Just Learn English?!
Post-Crisis, Life Goes On
Is Yeltsin 'The Man'?
Murmansk - Brrrr!
Taganka Hides Her Secrects
These are Communists
It's a Power Vaccum
The Commies are Back
Propaganda is Good for You
You Better Buy Russian!
Sex Ed Soviet Style
Party over, oops outta time!
Russian Healthcare in Moscow
What Russian Financial Crisis?
YE Prices in Russia
The Hungry Duck
Russian Caviar Mafia
Magical Mushrooms
Shhhh! We're Bear Hunting
Soviet Street Scams
Bez Dollarov
A Koshka Konspiracy
On The Dacha
The Banking Implosion
Surviving Army Life
Shashleek is Steak on Steroids
Dacha Thinking
Beach Weekend
Dos Vedanya
Hello from Vladivostok
Equality Means Only She Works
Jogging is an Extreme Sport
Russians Have Reunions Too
My Folks in Massive Moscow
Better than Fireworks
Miners Are Real Men
The Russian Mafia is the Roof
No One Smiles in the CIS
One Year Anniversary
Russian Brides Rock
Laura is My St Pete Connection
Change is in the Wind
Chuck Norris' Beverly Hills Casino
The Expat Woman's Predicament
Street Food is Yummy!
Spring Flowers Make June Leavers
The Provinces Are Provincial
Ever Take an Elektrichka?
The English Invasion
Nuttin Like New Money
Rules Are Made to Break
All Black is Russian Fashion
Easter Memories = Easter Dinner
Politics, Russian Style
Theresa Tries to Russify
I Go to Gay Clubs Worldwide
I Hide on Women's Day
New & Shiny: Nizhny Novgorod
Psst! Wanna job in Moscow?
Fili Park Has All the Bootlegs
Web Page Reactions
Take a Break at Dom Odaha
Expat Living in Moscow is Swank
Why Are You Remonting?
They Look Like Telephones...
In Need of a Decent Hairstylist
Smashing Bottles in Red Square


Russia, October 20, 1998

Hunger Comes to Us All

Every winter everybody is scared of famine!

Los Angeles Times October 20, 1998

Hunger in Russia's Heartland Devastating summer drought caused worst grain harvest since 1953.
Despite official reassurances, many in impoverished regions fear winter will bring starvation.

By John-Thor Dahlburg

PALLASOVKA, Russia--In July the wheat crop failed, roasted alive in the dust as the sun baked the hard earth of Russia's southern steppe to 160 degrees. Soviet-era collective farms around here lie in ruins, the livestock killed and butchered, barns and dwellings pillaged by scavengers. The local administration of this isolated, semidesert area has run out of cash, and in the largest town, half of the adult population is jobless.

On the threshold of winter, when temperatures on the wind-scoured plains near the Kazakhstan frontier can drop to nearly 40 below, many families have no money and virtually nothing to eat. Some have resorted to making gruel from cattle fodder, or expect to perish from hunger or lack of fuel. In a macabre coincidence, the movie theater in Pallasovka is featuring a Stephen King horror film, "Thinner."

"Maybe we'll all die in the winter," said Svetlana Karakusheva, a 44-year-old mother raising five children in a rural settlement. Her kitchen garden has become an infertile dust bowl. Hunger and cold, ancient Russian fears that were supposed to be banished by capitalist abundance, are back to haunt many.

This year's harvest of wheat, rye, barley and other grains, withered by prolonged and fierce drought, was 49.7 million tons, the State Statistics Committee reported Monday. That was the smallest harvest nationwide since 1953, the last year of dictator Josef Stalin's reign. The committee also reported that more than 44 million Russians--30% of the population--last month were living below the poverty line of a meager $37 a month in income. Government officials have been reassuring a population already jittery because of economic turmoil that the situation is under control and that there is plenty of wheat and other food in storage to feed the nation.

That may well be the macro picture. But the harsh facts of life in the Pallasovka region, 600 miles southeast of Moscow, show that the stomachs of some Russians are far from full and that many fear they will have little or nothing with which to nourish themselves and their families in the months to come. "If you have money, you won't starve; if you don't, you will have problems, even in Moscow," predicted Andrei Y. Sizov, who runs a think tank in the capital that tracks the country's agricultural output. "To escape social shocks--hunger marches, hunger riots--we've got to take care of matters now."

Late last month, the Russian Red Cross and its international affiliate launched an appeal for $15 million in emergency aid. Millions across Russia--especially the elderly, the disabled, single-parent families, families with many children and rural dwellers--face the most trying winter in a generation, the Red Cross said. To avert "human catastrophe," the Red Cross targeted 1.4 million people in a dozen regions, from the republic of Buryatia in central Siberia to Kaliningrad on the Baltic coast, as urgent recipients of food parcels, soup kitchen meals, warm clothes and shoes.

'You Can't Exclude Mass Starvation'

"With the indicators we have seen now, the crop failure and the financial crisis, you can't exclude mass starvation," said Borje Sjokvist, head of the Moscow delegation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Those predictions are much more dire than most, and forecasts of cataclysm in Russia have been made before without coming true. But few doubt that nearly seven years after the world's largest country abandoned communism for what was supposed to be the general prosperity of the free market, many people will have to suffer grimly through winter--an ordeal that may well further sap support for post-Soviet changes.

Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov said Wednesday that the government had allocated the sum of $600 million for the purchase of emergency food supplies--enough to feed a third of the population. Earlier this month, he had said he was counting on the private vegetable plots doled out to workers in Soviet times to help feed the populace through the long winter. The Defense Ministry has suggested that military units forage for berries and mushrooms, so soldiers who have not been paid for months don't go hungry.

How miserable life is for some is instantly visible here on the now- defunct Khutor Yesino farm, where 10,000 sheep once grazed. "There is no coal, no firewood, no work, no money," said Aiman Zukieva, a 41-year-old shepherd's widow frantically trying to raise her two children and a nephew.

The petite Chechen-born woman heats her small brick house by burning sheep dung, and a sympathetic neighbor regularly donates a pail of watery whey--sour milk strained through a sieve--to nourish the youngsters. But it is not enough. Zukieva keeps 15 chickens and trades eggs for other food. However, she has no feed to tide her fowl through the winter. Her children receive a single slice of bread each for breakfast, and one other scant meal a day. They suffer spells of dizziness.

"I don't like this life," said spindly Rakhmat, Zukieva's 10-year-old daughter, who nonetheless can manage a dazzling smile. "Mother says all the time we'll die in the winter. I don't want to die."

Anatoly I. Galichkin, head of government administration in Pallasovka, a rude border town whose 20,000 inhabitants have to fetch drinking water in buckets from tanker trucks, said he would not be surprised if mobs from the countryside arrive to loot shops and drag him from his office. "Crowds of 200, 250 people come to me, and I try to feed all of them with a single loaf of bread, like Jesus Christ," he said gloomily.

More than a month ago, Galichkin and his counterparts in five other regions east of the Volga River, where drought singed an area the size of Belgium, sent an open appeal to President Boris N. Yeltsin, warning that the situation was now "a state of emergency." To date, officials here say, they have received no reply from Moscow.

Authorities in Volgograd, about 120 miles to the southwest, have sent 200 tons of flour--a sixth of what Galichkin said he needs for the winter. Meanwhile, the government official said, people are dying because they are not eating enough and cannot buy medicines. "If there is absolutely no help from the government, then there is really just one option left for us--most people will simply starve," Galichkin said.

The food situation in Russia is a complicated good-news, bad-news story. According to Sizov and his SovEkon think tank, crop losses reached 68% in the important wheat-growing Orenburg region south of the Urals in what has been described as the worst drought in half a century. Outside Pallasovka, one kolkhoz, or collective farm, sowed 1,400 tons of seed and reaped a wheat crop of only 400 tons.

But this tableau is not as bleak as it appears, because roughly half of Russia's cattle, sheep, goats and chickens have been killed over the last five years. They were butchered for meat because increases in the prices of fuel and fodder, and the end of government subsidies for animal husbandry, have significantly raised the cost of meat and dairy farming.

So with fewer livestock, Russia now needs less grain. The country, which enjoyed an 88.5-million-ton harvest in 1997, also claims reserves of 20 million tons. The official in charge of coping with disasters, natural and human-made, has given his assurance that Russians will have plenty to eat for the winter. "I am totally sure that there will be no sort of famine at all, since there are sufficient reserves in the country," Maj. Gen. Sergei K. Shoigu, minister of emergency situations, said this month.

That may be true, one Western agriculture attache in Moscow said. On the other hand, "no one has seen these grain stocks they talk about," said the attache, who estimated that the reserves total no more than 10 million tons. Already strapped for hard cash, Russia will be forced to buy millions of tons of wheat abroad, the Western diplomat said.

Unpaid Salaries Worsen the Suffering Whatever the reserves, Tamara Redin, 38, knows her five children are hungry and too thin. Her 36-year-old husband, a diesel locomotive engineer's assistant in Pallasovka, has not been paid for four months. For want of anything else, Redin has had to give her children, ages 7 to 16, a porridge made from low-quality grain intended for use as animal fodder. They each get half an egg a day, along with a glass of milk mixed with water.

Day after day, the family, which lives along a dirt road near the town's grain elevator, has eaten an unsavory soup made from unripe tomatoes and boiled potatoes. It's been a month and a half since they've had meat. Redin digs her hand into a half-empty sack to show what's left in her larder--potatoes the size of big marbles.

The Redins are hardly an exception. Galina M. Milyokhina, head of family services for Pallasovka district, estimates that 70% of families in town are in similar straits. Local officials say a good share of the suffering could be alleviated if payment resumes of salaries, retirement pensions and child support, frozen for months because the Russian government has been unable to collect taxes. Although this is one of Prime Minister Primakov's avowed priorities, people in Pallasovka have seen few results. The top local government official has not been paid since April.

Some specialists contend that the new Russian government also has been recklessly slow to purchase the grain needed to feed armed forces members, Interior Ministry troops, prison inmates and patients in state hospitals. "The state needs to buy 4 million tons. It's only bought 1.3 million so far," Sizov of the think tank said. "Patients in hospitals can't feed themselves." When the Russian market was opened to consumer goods from outside, imported food products--from French yogurt to Danish salami--flooded in. Annual sales reached an estimated $11 billion. For most Russians, frozen U.S.-produced chicken legs became the cheapest meat. Foreign suppliers were meeting 70% of the meat and dairy needs of the 10 million inhabitants of the Moscow region.

Now, deliveries of U.S. chicken, which had been running at a yearly clip of $800 million, have ground to a virtual halt. Along with other imports, they stopped in mid-August after Russia effectively defaulted on treasury bills, and the banks used for most commercial transactions shut their doors.

A simultaneous tumble in the value of the ruble means that, even if imports resume, U.S. chicken legs will be twice as expensive for anyone paying in Russian currency. "We can do without animal products, but we can't do without bread," Dmitri F. Vermel, a senior member of the All-Russian Research Institute of Rural Economy in Moscow, said bravely. "We are not Americans, who cannot survive if they don't get their 300 grams [about 10 1/2 ounces] of meat a day."

To ensure basic sustenance for their people, at least 28 of Russia's 89 regions and republics have slapped embargoes on the shipment of grain and other foodstuffs. In the Volgograd region, which encompasses Pallasovka, officials have effectively banned outside sales of sunflower oil, wheat and 12 other commodities grown by their farmers.

In other parts of Russia, that could make it even harder this winter for people shopping for food. And, with the drop in availability of other foodstuffs, bread should be in even greater demand. "The grain harvest should be enough to meet food demands," Sizov summed up. "It's another matter how we distribute it. Winter will be difficult for Russia--very difficult."

Meanwhile, people already suffering from privations are struggling to get by, sometimes in circumstances that have more in common with Third World countries than the superpower that Russia once was.

Once-Thriving Farm Now a Shambles

Twenty miles outside Pallasovka, 38 extended families, totaling 200 people, are hunkering down amid the shambles of what was once a farm that had 500 cows. When state financial support for raising livestock stopped, the animals of Khutor Novy were slaughtered or stolen. Farm managers, residents and vandals ransacked the place for anything they could use or resell.

As a cold wind blew from the east, Safkulu Guseinov, 61, wheeled a rickety wheelbarrow containing pumpkins, red beets and carrots down a road to his house. The small load, the grizzled man said, was all he was able to harvest from his drought-stricken garden. Winter is shaping up as a time of hunger for the Khutor Novy man and the 10 members of his household. "They all come to me and say, 'Give me bread,' or 'Give me milk,' but how can I?" Guseinov asked. "I have no money."

During the drought, a woman from a nearby village hanged herself and her 3-year-old daughter with clothesline after being jilted by her husband and then by a live-in lover. "I can't live like this anymore," Olga Korobova, 22, said in a suicide note written with a mascara pencil. "I've got no way out."

State prosecutor Yuri A. Vlasov said that the single mother's troubles were personal but that the backdrop to her act of despair was depressingly common: no food, no income, no job, suspension of benefits for her daughter, Nina, because no government funds were arriving from Moscow.

"I'm frankly amazed that people are putting up with all of this," the prosecutor said. "We should have had an uprising a long time ago."

Emergency Appeal

These are the regions and republics in Russia for which the Russian Red Cross and its international affiliate have requested $15 million in emergency aid to help them get through winter.

  1. Kaliningrad

  2. Murmansk

  3. Ivanovo

  4. Kostroma

  5. Perm

  6. Bashkir Republic

  7. Orenburg

  8. Chelyabinsk

  9. Kemerovo

  10. Khakassia Republic

  11. Irkutsk

  12. Buryatia Republic

The Independent November 29, 1998

Russian red tape halts US aid to hungry Arctic

From Phil Reeves in Moscow

Farcial and outdated Russian laws are thwarting efforts to provide desperately needed aid to stranded inhabitants of the Arctic north, who risk starvation as winter tightens its grip.

Information gathered by Red Cross officials in Alaska, which has strong ethnic connections with the inhabitants of Russia's far north-east, has produced an exasperating picture of frustration and red tape. Concerned about the fate of their indigenous counterparts in Russia, Alaskans have been eager to send humanitarian aid across the Bering Strait, the sea which divides the prosperous far north-west of the United States from Russia's crisis-hit, perilously poor Chukotka region.

Finding out about the scale of the crisis in the most threatened parts of Arctic Russia is difficult, because of their extreme remoteness, but alarming information has been reaching international aid organisations about villages dotted along the Chukotka's coastline, some less than 100 miles from Alaska's shores. The most remote and harsh parts of the country are worst affected by Russia's economic maelstrom, which has severed fragile Soviet-era supply lines from Moscow.

The Independent on Sunday has learnt that reports gleaned by the US Red Cross include the following complaints:

Medical supplies offered to Chukotka by US hospitals have repeatedly been turned back by the authorities on the grounds that they were "outdated" - a clause that even applied to bandages and plaster.

Although some of the most beleaguered Arctic villages in Russia have received no new clothes supplies for three years, and are without heating, Russian officials insist that aid packages of clothing come with a certificate showing that they have been dry-cleaned. This is said to be a measure to prevent the spread of vermin, although the Alaskans say there is no risk of this. They also point out that Nome - the nearest sizeable Alaskan town to the Russian coastline - has no dry-cleaners.

Humanitarian food supplies over the value of $10,000 cannot be cleared locally but must be referred to officials in Moscow, more than 5,000 miles away. Yet, as shipping the aid from the US West Coast to Russia's far north- east is expensive, consignments worth less than $10,000 are not cost- effective.

The Red Cross has been told there is an "imminent risk" of starvation among a "large proportion" of the inhabitants of some villages in Chukotka, whose population of about 65,000 faces nine-month winters in which temperatures can fall below minus 50C.

Conditions have been worsened by a poor hunting and fishing season, the cancellation of one of three shipping lines between Alaska and the Russian far north-east, and the non-arrival of ships carrying supplies. Last week a Finnish-owned tanker carrying 13,400 tons of fuel finally made it to Chukotka's port of Pevek - on the peninsula's north coast - but only after spending a fortnight struggling through thick ice in the Arctic Sea.

Electricity in Provideniya, a regional centre on the coast, is off for 20 hours a day because of a coal shortage, a problem which is likely to be worse in the more remote areas. Among the villages known to be struggling for survival as the Arctic winter deepens are Lorino, Uelen, Inchoun, and Yanrakynnot. Most at risk are the elderly - who have not received pensions for up to a year - and the young.

Last week the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Moscow warned that Chukotka was facing "unprecedented hardship", which "could threaten the very survival of some indigenous minorities". Some officials say that life expectancy in the region has fallen as low as 40; others say it could be as little as 34. Cardiovascular problems, tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases are rife, but there is a dire shortage of medicines. The Red Cross has dispatched a five-member team to Russia's east and north on an assessment mission for a relief effort.

Komsomolskaya Pravda 12 November 1998

"Shall We Eat, Then?"

Feature comprising report by Yevgeniy Umerenkov, entitled "Agent 007 Counts All Our Potatoes...," and commentary by economic observer Yevgeniy Anisimov, "...But We Have Worked Out Where the Roots of This Fable Lie"; followed by "Incidentally" postscript

[Umerenkov report] A real Russian without his spuds is a goner. Staple No. 2, in other words. So British intelligence zeroed in when Her Majesty's Government received information through secret channels: In a cold winter Russia will not have enough of either staple No. 1 (grain) or staple No. 2.Obviously the government could not keep that secret for long. So an alarmed Robin Cook, British foreign secretary, informed the West that the trouble Russia has had with the grain and potato harvest is spine-chilling.

It is all a question of time: We have enough grain and potatoes to last either for several weeks or until spring. The only conclusion is Moscow must get urgent assistance or mobs of hungry Russians will first cause disturbances at home and then flood prosperous West European countries in search of grub, thus threatening their security.

This warning came when the Primakov government's negotiations with the European Union on food and humanitarian aid were in full swing: Concerning what we need and what we can do without and in what amounts, at what prices, and on what terms food imports will be supplied. And against the background of statements by Russian officials to the effect that we do not face the threat of famine, except for the odd interruption in the supply of "Bush's chicken legs." But, apparently, by spring there will be nothing to bake jacket potatoes with!

The reference to British and U.S. intelligence data is a serious matter. We asked our "competent organs' to explain. They confirm that specialists actually can estimate pretty accurately on the basis of photographs taken from space what kind of grain harvest Russia has grown. But it is a bit harder calculating how many tubers have ripened in the soil beneath the tops. And in fact how you can view from space all our plots, private, vegetable gardens, and dacha grounds where around 80 percent of Russia's potatoes are grown is a mystery. And we cannot see how they managed to count the sacks of potatoes stored in cellars in the countryside and apartments in the city.

In this case Western intelligence services have clearly stolen a march on their Russian counterparts.

The West's desire not to leave us in the lurch is a noble one, of course, and deserves gratitude. But there is certainly another motive behind their anxiety. Because of our crisis the Western countries could lose the Russian food market they have conquered. The question of continuing supplies to Russia is just as important to them as the problem of survival this winter is to us. And if you sound the alarm by predicting food riots in Siberia, you put a little pressure on Moscow to make it more amenable at the negotiations on the terms for providing it with aid. So a piece of bread and a potato become politicians' small change.

So do we have enough food or not? Who will answer this question? Why does our government say nothing? So if the Western intelligence assessment is true, perhaps we should also ask their James Bonds to calculate whether we have enough pickled cucumbers and sauerkraut to last until spring?

[Anisimov commentary] We were writing about the threat of famine in September. In October we had stopped. Perhaps British intelligence, which gets most of its information from open sources, based its calculations on pieces published in September?

We may face the threat of famine if Russia refuses to pay its state debt. Then all food imports would be sure to collapse. But the signs are that we will manage to avoid defaulting on the state foreign debt this year and will draw on Central Bank and Finance Ministry reserves to pay the $3 billion we are required to pay. It will be worse next year, when we have to repay $17-19 billion, but that will be in a year's time....

What has happen to the food market this year? People have stopped buying expensive imported food, producers of Russian sausage and other food have taken heart, have started producing as much as they can, have raised prices, and have been dashing all over the country in search of Russian raw materials. Prices of meat, milk, and grain have started to rise, which has pleased the peasants no end -- they were hoping for further price rises so that they themselves would not be operating at a loss. If this situation persists for a while longer, the countryside will be able to stand on its own two feet and provide the country with home-produced food. Not 100-percent provision perhaps, but provision nonetheless. Will Western agricultural producers then have to do without the Russian market? Where would they send their food, which, I would point out, they have already been paid for by their own governments, through subsidies?

The recovery of the Russian countryside is bad for the West both economically and politically: Not only does it lose a means of pressurizing Russia, but its own farmers, deprived of markets, will also start to rebel. So U.S. and European states benefit (!) from even giving us free food! It is a way of beating down prices on the Russian domestic market and not allowing Russian agricultural producers to find their feet.

Then, when the situation returns to normal, we will be offered food imports again, but for money. And we will have no option but to buy it, because we will have finished off our own peasants.

In conclusion, a few figures. In a year we consume 20-21 million tonnes of grain; next year we will consume a little more, because the food consumption structure will change and we will eat more cheap bread and less expansive meat. So we need 22-23 million tonnes of food grain. The harvest of this grain was not particularly good in 1998 -- 19-20 million tonnes. But there are stocks of around 10 million tonnes left over from past good years. In addition, past years have shown that peasants hide one-tenth of the harvest from officials' prying eyes for various kinds of barter transactions. So there is plenty of grain, for sure.

Personal plots provide 80-90 percent of people's potatoes. It is impossible to estimate the stocks, but there are no grounds for panic in this case either -- it was a good harvest, on average. OK, so if we have bread and potatoes, we are not going to starve to death.

[postscript] "Rumors of a probable famine in Russia are obviously exaggerated and they benefit only the food importers, who put them about in order to make money," Viktor Semenov, Russian Federation minister of agriculture and food, said yesterday.

Enter your email for Belly Button Window updates: