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Impact of COVID-19 on Poverty in RussiaThe impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Russia is quite significant. Like many other nations worldwide, the pandemic has proven to be a sizable obstacle in the fight against poverty. Measures meant to limit the spread of COVID-19 within Russia have resulted in the Russian economy shrinking overall. With this economic shrinkage, more people within Russia are at the brink of falling into poverty.

Unemployment and Poverty Rates

The economic decline due to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a spike in unemployment within Russia. By October 2020, the unemployment rate had climbed to 6.3% — the highest unemployment rate Russia has seen in eight years. Many of these job losses mainly occurred in the “manufacturing, construction and retail and hospitality” sectors. Additionally, this increase in unemployment led to a spike in poverty. In the first quarter of 2020, the poverty rate stood at 12.65, rising to 13.2% in the second quarter of 2020.

Impact on Minor Cities

Some wealthy Russian cities, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, are better positioned to handle the economic impact of the pandemic. These larger Russian cities had more robust local economies before the pandemic. However, smaller cities have proven less capable of handling the impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Russia. These smaller cities were hit hard by the collapse of Soviet industries with the fall of the Soviet Union, struggling to combat unemployment and poverty long before the onset of the pandemic. These impoverished cities also have some of the weakest healthcare systems in all of Russia. The pandemic has compounded this by overwhelming already under-supported healthcare systems.

Furthermore, sectors hit hard by the pandemic, such as construction and service, were previously a lifeline of employment for already impoverished cities. Many Russians within smaller cities face hard decisions of choosing between prioritizing health or income, with some opting to continue to work despite the dangers of COVID-19.

Impact on Migrant workers

The impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Russia is strongly felt among Russia’s sizable population of migrant Central Asian workers. Many of these migrant workers have remained within Russia during the pandemic, without jobs or income.

These Central Asia migrants were targets of discrimination before the onset of the pandemic and were already in a more vulnerable position within Russia before 2020. The pandemic has only compounded this vulnerability as many face unemployment and border closures have made it impossible for most to return to Central Asia to wait out the pandemic.

Statistics from December 2019 indicate that more than 1.6 million migrant workers reside in Moscow. The majority of these migrant workers are from Central Asia. Many work in sectors such as service or construction —  sectors that were especially hard-hit by COVID-19 restrictions in and around Moscow. The fees that migrant workers pay the city of Moscow for their work permits form a significant part of the city’s revenue. In 2016, the mayor stated that these permit payments brought the city “more revenue than oil companies.”

Intervention by NGOs

Throughout the pandemic, Russian NGOs have been providing Russians with varied forms of assistance to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Russia. Marginalized populations are often unintentionally overlooked in aid endeavors.

Nochlezhka is an NGO in St. Petersburg, Russia, focusing efforts on the often marginalized and excluded homeless population. The organization garnered the support of citizens to help distribute informational COVID-19 pamphlets to the homeless and encouraged donations of sanitizer and face masks. Nochlezhka also started the You Are Not Alone initiative, encouraging citizens to “leave plastic bags with food and hygiene products in places where homeless people could find them.”

NGOs have not limited their assistance to Russia’s homeless population though. Organizations have created services that are available to a wider array of people. For instance, the Agora International Human Rights Group is providing legal assistance to Russians on various legal issues during the pandemic, “such as fighting fines issued for breaching lockdown.”

Trends for the Future

Despite these troubling examples of COVID-19’s impact on Russian poverty and predictions indicating that the poverty level in Russia will remain above 10% for some time, there is hope for the future. Government policies meant to combat the economic impacts of the pandemic have had some recent success. With the implementation of these support policies, estimates indicate that by the end of 2021, the Russian poverty level should fall below pre-pandemic levels.

The impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Russia is substantial. The pandemic has witnessed a spike in unemployment and poverty overall. Additionally, the pandemic disproportionately impacts vulnerable populations within Russia, such as already impoverished citizens and migrant workers. Despite these hardships, Russian NGOs have stepped in to assist Russians. Predictions indicate that government support policies will largely reverse COVID-19’s impact on Russian poverty during 2021.

Coulter Layden
Photo: Flickr

Homelessness in RussiaLike many social issues, the homelessness crises around the world has a multitude of underlying factors. To be homeless is not just about having no physical home. Being homeless is about economic, social, familial, poverty, mental health and community factors. Like many countries, homelessness in Russia has been perpetuated for decades by the historical stigma which has prevented transitional change since Russia’s move to a market economy.

Historical Ties

Homelessness in the Russian Federation dates back centuries, but the inception of its modern homelessness can be traced back to the fall of the Soviet Union in December of 1991. After this, the Russian Federation was formed and communism was replaced with a market economy. Five years after the transition, roughly 1.5 million of Russia’s 147.2 million population found themselves homeless.

In communist Russia, vagrancy and begging were punished with a minimum two-year prison sentence so many homeless were classified as felons. In addition, the state government would aggravate the problem by revoking residency permits, so many felons would assume transient lifestyles after leaving prison. After Soviet-era vagrancy laws were repealed in 1992, major cities experienced an influx of homeless populations. The new market economy saw major disparities in wealth, driving people from their traditional roles and into the streets.

The implementation of the registration system in Russia worsened the homeless crisis. The registration system required those without housing to either acquire sponsorship from a relative who already had adequate living space or to purchase real estate. This system, coupled with the new market economy, lead to widespread real estate crime. Individuals with little to no knowledge of the real estate market were easily manipulated and scammed out of affordable long-term housing.

Homelessness Today

Today, homelessness in the Russian Federation is the problem everyone knows about but no one wants to address. According to Rosstat, the government organization responsible for tracking homelessness in the Russian Federation, there are 64,000 homeless people in Russia. However, the organization has not compiled new data since 2010.  The real number is estimated to be roughly 5 million, approximately 3.5 percent of Russia’s population.  These estimates correspond with reported numbers on Russians living below the poverty line. Out of Russia’s 144.5 million population, 13.3% live below the poverty line.

One of the most common issues that the homeless in Russia face is the loss of legal documents, such as passports and residency permits. Once Russian citizens lose these documents, they are no longer eligible to receive free social or medical care and have no path to recovering these benefits.  Compounding the problem is the widespread exploitation of those without legal documents. Companies who rely on homeless populations for inexpensive labor often do not follow through on paying wages. When homeless workers are paid, they face scrutiny and exploitation from the police who are at liberty to take advantage of undocumented people.

Social Stigma

The unofficial mantra of the Russian Federation in regard to homelessness is, “out of sight, out of mind”. Although there are more homeless shelters in Russia today than in the past, they are sparse and inaccessible, many times located in the outskirts of districts. The Lyublino shelter has served as the primary center tackling the homelessness crisis for the last ten years. The shelter provides much-needed aid such as food, shelter, clothing, legal and medical services to its patrons. There are currently six shelters on the outskirts of Moscow including the largest, Lyublino, and five smaller ones. Plans for a homeless shelter in the city center were scrapped after widespread backlash from city residents. Instead, 30 vans patrol the city, picking up homeless and driving them to shelters nearly 15 kilometers outside the city center. Although these shelters are proof of progress, the societal response to ignore the issue prevents a head-on approach to tackling homelessness.

Other cities in the Russian Federation are addressing both the issue of homelessness and social stigma. In St. Petersburg, the Nochlezhka NGO feeds, counsels and shelters homeless populations. Funded mostly by donations, the crown jewel of the organization is a four-story rehabilitation center that houses roughly 50 people.  In 2017, The Moscow Times reported that 145 people passed through the shelter and 51% now live in permanent homes. In 2018, in addition to their rehabilitation program, the organization provided food, shelter and legal services to 9,000 homeless in St. Petersburg. The organization also helps to educate Russian citizens on how people become homeless and what can be done to help. Through educational efforts, they hope to eliminate the decades-old stigma of homelessness. The organization’s work has been largely successful in St. Petersburg; however, the homeless stigma still persists in Moscow where an estimated 100,000 people are homeless. Nochlezhka hopes to employ the same measures that worked in St. Petersburg to Moscow.

Unraveling the decades-long homeless crisis in the Russian Federation cannot be done overnight. The largest challenge is not just overcoming homelessness itself by providing more shelters, but eliminating the stigma associated with it. As mindsets change, organizations educate and the Russian state government stops pushing homelessness out of sight, the state can ultimately overcome one of its most trying challenges.

– Max Lang
Photo: Flickr