Where are all the old people?

A friend of mine brought up a really interesting point the other day. I had mentioned the fact that veterans of Germany’s Wehrmacht and apparently the Waffen SS receive government pensions from the German government, and that these pensions are far higher than those of Russia’s Great Patriotic War veterans. Add to that their top-of-the-line healthcare and we’ve got a goddamn whale of an injustice on our hands. But my friend’s point hit on something I never noticed before. Where are Russia’s old people?

That might sound like a stupid question because you can see old people, mostly women almost everywhere. What my friend hit upon, however, is where you don’t see them. In America you can often witness old people congregating in restaurants such as Denny’s or Country Buffet. Their attendance is so crucial to business that restaurants long ago devised “early bird specials” just to attract their business.  These old people can be seen sometimes in large groups, without the presence of under-50 people, seeking the protection of numbers from potential threats such as “those teenagers.” Because of their experience in the Great Depression they tend to seek bargains, but if you’re eating out several times a week and basically doing nothing but shopping at swap meets, playing golf, fishing, etc. it’s clear you have a decent amount of disposable income.  And if they think they have too much there’s always Laughlin, Nevada, where they can feed it all into a one-armed bandit.

That’s not what you see old people doing in Russia. Here the ones that aren’t begging on the street are in parks, a free activity, or selling things on the street such as vegetables from their garden. And when I say selling things from their garden I don’t mean they have this farmer’s market-style fruit and vegetable stand either. I mean they may be sitting next to a milk crate with a couple buckets of cucumbers sitting on it.  Now one could surmise that these people actually are taken care of by their families and they are doing this for a little extra money but that doesn’t really sound too good. I can understand an old woman in the US knitting socks and selling them on eBay or something, but it appears to me that some of these old women are dragging their meager crops into Moscow on a daily basis because it is potentially a matter of survival.

This is one of the things that drives me up the wall about Russia’s phony “patriotism,” so much of which revolves around WWII. The same people who literally destroyed the Soviet Union demand credit for its accomplishment. Meanwhile the veterans themselves are denied dignified pensions and high quality medical care, for what, exactly? Oh right, because some bureaucrats want to drive their German Mercedes and send spoiled little ‘Dimon’ to some American university. Thanks for the victory, Grandpa!

I’ve known about this shit for years, even before I returned here, but in the past I always thought that Russians were actually as upset about this as me if not more so. I’ve certainly seen the question raised by Russians before. But wouldn’t you know, someone just has to wave a flag and make references to a utopian Russian empire which never existed, and overnight everyone just closes their eyes to the injustices they see every single day. Giving back to the generation which made this one possible doesn’t interest them. We just get a holiday every 9th of May, where young people pretend to give a shit. We get films made by “patriotic” Russian filmmakers, at taxpayer expense, which malign, slander, and distort the war and insult the veterans. Worse still, the horrendously idiotic portrayal seen in post-Soviet Russian films totally puts off the youth, some of whom come away with the idea that the whole Great Patriotic War was a stupid mess, a big joke, and in some unfortunate cases they come away believing that the Germans were better and that the whole mess was really just a misunderstanding between two empires.

This is why, incidentally, I don’t discuss or read much about the Great Patriotic War these days. In fact other than a lecture I gave on the topic earlier this year, I haven’t dealt with the war at all since some time back in 2013. It had been a topic of great interest to me since I was 15. When I arrived in Russia I dove into this world of new sources which were unpublished in the West and untranslated. My bookshelf is still filled with the works of David M. Glantz, John Erickson, Overy, and Bellamy, not to mention the memoirs of Chuikov, Zaitsev, Abdulin, and even Josef Stalin. I have not cracked one of those books for almost a year now.

Do you know what it’s like to have the subject you love so profaned and distorted that you can’t even discuss it without becoming enraged or horribly depressed? Could you imagine a talented painter who one day destroys all his canvas and can’t pick up a brush? Could you imagine a master pianist who cringes at the sound of keys? That’s me, and I feel totally alone in this because the flag-waving patriot, as is the case with self-proclaimed patriots the world over, is more offended hearing about injustices like the one I describe here than they are at the injustice itself. It is always easier to shout people down rather than solve problems and right wrongs, and if there is one thing patriots love, it’s easy. Everything’s got to be easy for them.

I wonder if the veterans who live to see this ever feel that way. I think that even if they do, they are probably good at suppressing those feelings, unlike me. For who could claim to have that endurance which these people had? What few can say they knew anything close to the suffering they experienced? But Russia’s younger generations don’t care. They have Starbucks and iPads,  and now they think they have Crimea.  Who cares if you don’t see groups of elderly retirees gathering in restaurants and laughing it up? Who cares if they are reduced to selling homemade pickles by the metro? The elderly aren’t glamorous. They don’t appreciate the wonders of Lacoste, Louis Vuitton, or Apple.  See you on 9th May. Till then, stay out of our way, sell your vegetables, and don’t disturb the fashionable young people on their way to club B2.  And like, yeah, thanks for the victory or something.

2 thoughts on “Where are all the old people?

  1. Pat

    Wait a minute. There are several problems with this diatribe. First off, the average life expectancy for men is only 64. So that WWII generation died off long ago. You don’t see old men of any generation in Russia because the men don’t get old. Even for the women who live almost ten years longer, they are still long dead from WWII. Those old women that you see selling things, they were babies and very young children during the war. They don’t remember it and they didn’t fight. At this point you have to be in your 90s or very close to, to have been old enough to serve.

    Second, give Putin his due for trying to solve this problem. The Russian government bought apartments (and not cheap ones) for war veterans to help support them in their old age if their living conditions were bad. Yes, mid-level government officials made off with plenty of money that should have been spent on those apartments, but that’s a different problem to solve. And some people really did get the apartments promised (like the grandmother of a friend of mine. They replaced her little village house with a really nice city apartment, just like the program was supposed to do for everyone. And she made a pension that was 3x higher than her daughter, a retired school teacher, because she was a war veteran.) So, as strange as it is to hear myself defending Putin/the Russian government they did try to solve this problem and they have noticed.

    To me, the problem you’re seeing is that women in Russia, unlike other parts of the world, don’t get their husband’s pensions after their husbands die. Given the aforementioned massive gap in life expectancy, and the fact that women are/were almost always relegated to much lower paying work, they are condemned to dire poverty the minute their husbands die. That’s why women in their 60-70s are busy selling veggies on the street. It has nothing to do with the war…

  2. Big Bill Haywood Post author

    While their numbers are dwindling, there are indeed plenty of WWII veterans living in Russia and the former Soviet Union today. Remember that’s an average life expectancy you quoted. Also I wasn’t necessarily tying the women selling vegetables on the street to the war itself, just pointing out that in general, German pensioners are better off, and that is seriously fucked up.

    Yes I’m aware the government did grant some people apartments, but when you look at any top dollar project like that in Russia you’ve got to ask yourself how much must have been stolen, and what could have been done with that money. Apartments help, obviously, but elderly people also require medical care.

    It also doesn’t change the fact that pensioners of any age aren’t able to live a lifestyle anything like that of American, British, or European counterparts. WWII notwithstanding, Russia makes a big deal about traditions and family.


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