With tiny Russian pensions, work for many never ends

ULAN-UDE, Russia - From Siberia to central Russia and elsewhere, elderly people are often forced to work past retirement age to supplement their miserly state pensions.

A new bill raising the state pension age by five years to 65 for men and 60 for women, which could be signed into law soon, has provoked a rare outburst of raw anger, as many Russian men do not live long enough to celebrate their sixtieth birthday.

Here are portraits of two Russian retirees who told AFP about their living and working arrangements.

Dancing through retirement 

On Revolution Square in the eastern Siberian city of Ulan-Ude a Latin dance lesson is in full swing -- Anastasia Aksayeva, a 61-year-old pensioner, is leading a dozen pupils as passers-by watch in amusement.

Twice a week the energetic retiree with a blonde bob teaches fellow pensioners dance routines. Her classes are very popular and one of her pupils has recently won a contest among seniors, she said.

Aksayeva has a dream: one day she would like to throw a street party that would see a hundred people dance together in the city's main square.

"We would set this place on fire and show the young that we exist, that we don't live out our days sitting on the benches outside our homes," she told AFP.

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Aksayeva, who also teaches gymnastics, is lucky to be able to do what she loves: before she retired she worked as a choreographer at a local arts college and travelled with her pupils abroad to take part in competitions.

"But today, with my income, that is no longer possible," she said.

Aksayeva draws a monthly pension of 15,000 rubles ($228) and her dance and gymnastics classes bring her an additional 10,000 rubles. 

A widow, she lives alone in an apartment in the centre of the city. Her only son does not have children.

"I think that if a person can continue working after retirement, they should do," she said. "Of course, it's easier for doctors and teachers."

As the exuberant dance teacher sees it, the life of a retired woman in Russia should not resemble the old cliches.

With her slender frame and painted lips, Aksayeva is anything but a traditional "babushka" who spends her days cooking, shopping and looking after her grandchildren. 

"We live in the 21st century. With a positive attitude and some time on our hands, we can do anything," said Aksayeva.

Her other dream is to travel to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower and dance with French seniors.

"I am sure there are like-minded people in France," she said. "I'd like to meet them, hug them and dance with them. I'd like that very much."

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From Arctic port to odd jobs

Around Igor Drovnikov's wooden cottage many houses have fallen into disrepair and weeds have invaded the gardens.

The 70-year-old is one of a handful of permanent residents of the nearly deserted village of Boboli some 150 kilometres southwest of Moscow.

There is no running water nor mains gas here and the nearest paved road is 12 kilometres away. Drovnikov, a tall, fit man who bought his house in 2005. His wife died three years later.

A former mechanic at the Arctic port of Severodvinsk, home to nuclear submarine shipyards, Drovnikov ekes out a threadbare living on a monthly pension of 14,000 rubles ($213).

"That's awfully little," said the blue-eyed, mustachioed pensioner who buys gas cylinders for cooking.

He said pensioners like himself have "enough for food" but cannot afford to travel or buy expensive things.

He draws water from nearby wells and grows his own tomatoes, potatoes and garlic.

"My neighbours also give me vegetables and fruit in exchange for odd jobs and a little money if I water their plants when they leave."

Drovnikov does not complain. "I like to work the land. Where I lived before, this was not possible," he said.

A year ago the pensioner suffered a stroke and the ambulance took four hours to arrive, with the nearest hospital some 30 kilometres away.

"It was a mini-stroke, everything is all right now," said the sprightly man.

To make ends meet, he makes wooden benches and chairs and then travels to Moscow to sell his wares in an underpass near a railway station. He also repairs his neighbours' roofs. 

"I am the only hard worker here," he said. "Apart from me, no one makes any money in our village. I make benches, the others don't do anything. I call them lazy and bourgeois!"


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