The ‘prisoners’ of Vladimir Putin’s pension reform above Russia’s Arctic Circle
Russian president wants to raise men’s pension age to 60 in the far north, but in one of the small mining towns the life expectancy is only 56
Russian railway worker Andrey Bugera had one goal: get to pension age so he can leave the polluted, freezing coal mining town above the Arctic Circle and move south to live out even a brief bit of retirement in comfort.
But with President Vladimir Putin’s moves to raise the retirement age by five years, Bugera fears this will never happen.
In his city of Vorkuta, a place so isolated it cannot be reached by road, temperatures dip below minus 40 degrees Celsius in the winter and clouds of coal dust turn the snow black.
Thin, polluted air, scarce sunlight and winters lasting up to 10 months weigh heavily on the average life expectancy in the city.
In two weeks in June, three of Bugera’s friends died before turning 50.
“One of my colleagues came home from his night shift and just didn’t wake up. Left his family, three kids. He was 47 years old. It was his heart, a blood clot … So how can they even think about us retiring at 60?” Bugera said.
Though one long-time concession in the far north has been early retirement, to help attract workers to its harsh environment, the government’s planned changes will raise the pension age by five years to 60 for men and 55 for women.
Yet males born in 2005 in Komi Republic, where Vorkuta is located, on average are expected to live to 56, government data shows.
In the rest of Russia, the retirement age is set to rise to 65 for men and 60 for women, making matters little better as the nationwide life expectancy for men was 66 in 2015.
Two years ago, Bugera and his wife used their savings to buy a flat in Sokol, a small town in central Russia. They spend their holidays there renovating the flat. Now, Bugera said he has given up thinking about ever leaving Vorkuta.
“With this pension reform, with everything pushed back, I feel like I’ll never get out,” he said.
The government’s decision to raise the retirement age is part of efforts to balance Russia’s creaking finances after four years of weak growth made worse by sanctions, but it is proving to be an unpopular move.
Putin’s power is not directly threatened because he has no real challengers, but his popularity has slipped and once loyal voters are starting to express scorn.
Around 200,000 people lived in Vorkuta in the 1980s, most coming in search of the high wages miners in the desolate city used to earn.
Now, just four of its 13 mines remain, and the population has fallen to about 70,000.
Districts of empty, blackened blocks of flats with collapsed roofs and gardens littered with rubble surround central Vorkuta.
With no roads leading out of the city, it is too expensive for most people to take their belongings with them when they leave. In abandoned flats, furniture rots while clothes and books lie strewn across the floor.
“When I leave, I’ll take my guns and my guitar – that’s it. People drop everything and go,” said Sergei, a coal miner.
A doctor at a district hospital, speaking on condition of anonymity, said she did not want to stay in a town where everything was closing. She is scheduled to retire next year, and also plans to move to a home in the south.
“Probably none of that is going to happen. I don’t know. But I have no more strength, will, anything, to live in a town like this,” she said. “You walk around like a zombie.”
Bugera attended protests in Vorkuta against the pension changes. The events were relatively small, attracting around 1,000 people in July, and are expected to dwindle as the snows set in next month.
“If we don’t manage to change anything with our protests … at least I’ll leave some sort of base for my children,” Bugera said.
A muted anger was registered in regional elections on September 9, however. Vorkuta saw a turnout of just 7 per cent, election commission data showed.
The presidential election in March, before the pension overhaul was announced, saw a turnout of 50 per cent.
“People have summed everything up and understood that this is the final straw for them,” said former miner and security guard Alexander Golyanchuk, 37, referring to the low election turnout. “We live in tough conditions and we don’t live for very long. Now they’re taking away our pensions as well?”
Olga Lebedeva, 47, said she previously had four years to go until her pension.
“Now they’ve added five. So now it’s nine. I’ll grin and bear it,” she said, before pausing. “No … I’ll drink.”