Putin's Russia: Icy Siberia reveals cracks in society

  • Published
Image caption,
Behind Irkutsk's winter beauty lies widespread poverty overlooked in Russia's capital

It takes hours for the morning steam to lift from the river in Irkutsk and for the temperature to creep up from around -20C.

This sprawling Siberian city feels like a place apart, its harsh realities overlooked by the decision-makers in Moscow, five time zones to the west.

Those realities are symbolised by an outside loo.

The "toilet of shame" stands outside an apartment block in one of Irkutsk's most depressed suburbs.

The wooden shack was installed in the frozen yard by the building's management firm when residents' debts reached record levels.

Image caption,
"Debtors' toilet" reads a notice on the outside loo

It's a warning of where they'll have to come, if they don't pay up.

"We tell people that we'll block the sewage pipes in their flats if they don't pay," the firm's boss Alexei Mikhailov explains beside the hut, his breath falling in frozen clouds.

He's been doing just that, at a rate of 40 toilets a month.

"People go on using the loo for a couple of days, then the drain backs up and water starts coming out," Alexei says. "By day three they come to us with big eyes and sign a payment agreement."

This tale of a toilet is a hint at new hardships in Irkutsk, after the boom years once fuelled by high oil prices.

There are others. Adverts for "cheap" credit are pasted all over town and, around the corner from the debtors' loo, lampposts and walls are covered in flyers offering help to the homeless and alcoholics.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

"Our wages aren't going up, but prices for everything are rising," says Natalia, one of the residents who owes Alexei money. "I've heard they're blocking toilets. But that will just make people angrier."

Another woman who admits she has no way to repay her debt says her own loo has been blocked for months. She has been forced to use bags.

Why Russia's reforms fuel discontent

Officially, 13% of Russians are now living in poverty, a figure that has been climbing for five years.

A recent survey by the well-connected Ranepa institute suggested the true statistic was 22%.

In Irkutsk, even officially, it's 20%.

President Vladimir Putin has pledged to halve those figures by 2024, but the economy is barely growing while the grumbles of discontent clearly are.

Rising fuel and communal service prices top the complaints list. Sales tax (VAT) will hit 20% in the New Year; then there's pension reform.

Vyacheslav Golovin has been driving the number 65 bus in Irkutsk for two decades, a route that now runs past the outside toilet.

Image caption,
Flyers are daubed on walls all over Irkutsk promising cheap credit

At 56, he had begun to look forward to his pension: not to retire and rest, but for extra cash. His salary some months is just 15,000 roubles (£200).

Then President Putin raised the pension age to 65.

"Our leaders don't listen," Vyacheslav complains, opening the doors of his bus for passengers to clamber in from the cold. "They didn't even let us hold a referendum."

Image caption,
Vyacheslav Golovin had been hoping to retire at 60, but now faces another five years

Vladimir Putin described the reform as a matter of national security. He argued the state could not go on paying so many pensions, with an ageing population.

But the way Vyacheslav sees it, Russia isn't ready for such a move.

"It's getting harder to get by. Groceries cost more; utilities; electricity. It's all going up," the bus driver says, perched on a sofa-bed in his one-room flat.

Image caption,
The monthly subsistence level is set officially at 10,444 roubles (£121) in Russia

"It's not like Europe, here. Pensioners can't relax. They have to keep working to survive."

Vyacheslav joined street protests in Irkutsk; they were held across the country.

"Putin said we needed the reform, but people here couldn't understand why - in this country of very rich resources," the driver says.

Nevertheless, far away in Moscow, pro-Kremlin MPs ultimately voted the change into law.

Those politicians earn more than 20 times what Vyacheslav makes, working the buses.

Is Irkutsk getting healthier?

There are cheerier stories here, too.

In the city centre, a group of pensioners wearing white gloves and their Sunday best prepare for an end-of-course show.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

Their new moves come courtesy of the city council - part of a programme of free activities to promote a healthy lifestyle.

That's been a theme in Russia ever since the near teetotal, judo-fighting Vladimir Putin took over from a rather less sober Boris Yeltsin.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The president's approval ratings, once sky-high, have started to slide

"There are sports clubs full of young people now," one dancer enthused during a break. "Or you can just go out in the yard, do some stretches and pull-ups and someone will join in. It's great!"

Even here, people are living longer, fitter lives compared to the desperate hardship of the post-Soviet years.

And yet one statistic remains stark: men in Irkutsk still only survive on average to 63.

That is two years shy of the new retirement age.

City's battle with alcohol

Irkutsk made international headlines two years ago when 78 people died from drinking cheap, bootleg alcohol.

But in Siberia, even licensed booze can be dangerous.

At a shelter caring for those who've fallen on hard times, a man named Sergei is last to the dining hall for lunch. He moves slowly down the corridor on legs amputated just below the knees.

"I got frostbite," he explains, waving an arm dismissively. "It's a long story."

Image caption,
Sergei is looked after at a shelter since he lost his legs to frostbite

Sergei's room-mate, who's 47, says his own wife died and makes a gesture to show that she was a drinker.

"Lots of the men we help are alcoholics, but we don't allow any drink in here," shelter director Elena Shevtsova explains.

"Once they're sober, many people start to remember their families and where they come from. Then they start to like it, and stay that way."

A set of prosthetic legs for Sergei is due to arrive any day.

Why mood may be changing

Life for some in Irkutsk actually looks pretty good now.

There are shopping centres filled with Western brands, new housing blocks and smart cars: all hallmarks of a middle class that grew rapidly in the early Putin years.

People's pride in their country has grown here too.

But bolstering Russian status and power and confrontation with the West both come at a cost.

Image caption,
"Victory will be ours," proclaims a Communist Party poster, complete with image of Josef Stalin

Irkutsk was the first region to oust a Putin appointee as governor, back in 2015.

Locals say they voted for the Communist candidate as a protest against the party of power. That move was repeated recently in several other spots.

Nationally, President Putin's own approval rating has also been on the slide.

According to a Levada-Center poll last month, 61% of Russians blame the president directly for the country's problems.

Are cracks emerging?

In Irkutsk some of his harshest critics are the Young Communists.

These students in Lenin hoodies, complete with their red flags and hammer-and-sickle symbols, campaigned against President Putin's pension reform.

Image caption,
Although Irkutsk ousted a Putin appointee as governor in 2015, protests here have been small

They also object to spending on military campaigns in Syria and Ukraine, rather than social issues at home. Now they are planning action against rising fuel prices.

"There was no talk of these reforms before the last elections," the group's leader Maxim points out. "So now it's happening, the president's rating has dropped."

"We really don't like our government," 21-year-old Evgeny puts it bluntly. "We have to change our president with his friends."

There is no revolution brewing in Irkutsk, whatever the Communist Youth might like. Even protests, so far, have been relatively small.

Vladimir Putin's talk of Great Russia did chime with a nation that felt strong and stable after the trauma of the post-Soviet years.

But here, in the freezing heart of Siberia, it seems the cracks in that message are starting to show.