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Tuesday, 13 June, 2000, 15:43 GMT 16:43 UK
A dying population
boris yeltsin and memorial
The dead of the Great Patriotic War are remembered every year
By Sue Lloyd-Roberts

To be old and living in Russia today is a misfortune. To be old and destined to die in the northern polar regions is unfortunate in the extreme.

Trapped by ice for six months of the year, the city of Archangel was considered a hardship posting during the Soviet era.

Workers and their families were tempted here by extra money but now the state-controlled timber industry has collapsed and the young and healthy have fled south - leaving the old.

The old part of the city conjures up scenes from Dr Zhivago. British, that is mainly Scottish, timber merchants, lived alongside the Russian aristocracy before the revolution and still some handsome, painted wooden villas line the streets.

Two thirds of the population in the city are over 50 and there are eight deaths to every birth

But today it is the old proletariat who trudge along the muddy sidewalks which once carried elegant carriages.

Two thirds of the city's population is over 50 and there are eight deaths to every birth.

Seventy seven-year-old Elena has invited Natasha - who is an incredible 99 - over for tea.

"It's time I died," shouts Natasha. "Yes, it's taking a long time," Elena yells back.

Tough breeding

The cruel irony is the region where temperatures in winter plummet to 20 degrees below freezing breeds them tough.

If you have seen off the revolution, the civil war between the Bolsheviks and Imperial troops which in these parts went on into the 1920s, World War II and Stalin, then you are a survivor regardless of whether your appetite for life has long since disappeared.

World War II - what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War - killed 20 million Soviets, mostly men, and the women of that generation have learned to cope alone.

The Second World War, what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War, killed 20m Soviets

They were the ones we would remark on when we visited Russia in the 1960s and 1970s - they were collecting the rubbish, bringing in the harvest and building bridges.

They had to. There was no one else to do it and at the time they thought that things could only get better.

"During the war," Elena remembers, "people were starving. They ate grass, but life now is much worse - a thousand times worse."

The old here talk about the Great Betrayal. Valery and Galena live in a block down the road.

The Great Betrayal

During the war...people were starving. They ate grass

Between them, they worked nearly 100 years for the Soviet state. Galena started work digging trenches during the war when she was 14 and so destroyed her health that she was unable to have children.

Throughout their lives they saved for a comfortable old age but when Valery called on the bank two years ago to withdraw money to buy his wife some pain killing drugs, the money had gone. The rouble had crashed and they had nothing.

Today they survive on Red Cross soup kitchen handouts which Valery collects every day after an hour's tram journey across the city.


Without expensive medicines, Galena is resourceful. Taking me to the windowsill, she shows me how she twists her body so that the arthritic joints touch the indoor plants.

"It helps," she says, brightly. I suppose she has to believe it because there is no alternative.

Otherwise, the flat is bare. They had to take all their valuables down to the market to sell for food.

There is one collection they could not sell though, because there are no buyers.


Look - my medals...they mean nothing to me now

Valery reaches into the cupboard for a jacket: "Look - my medals - this one is for good work, this one means veteran of Labour, this one to mark the end of the Great Patriotic War," he laughs and says, "they mean nothing to me now."

Fobbed off with medals but without the means to buy bread, I begin to see what they mean by the great betrayal.

Without money and without children, Valery and Galena are in a panic about their funerals.

"I've packed everything up," says Galena, "the clean clothes and the cotton wool is ready for us both because if I die first, he won't know what to do."

But she doesn't know who is going to bury them. I am in a panic myself.

I remember reporting seven years ago, after the first collapse of the rouble, on how the economic situation in Russia had got so bad, that people were not able to bury their dead.

I shall never forget filming the piles of unburied bodies. I called on the local undertaker to ask.

"Oh we'll bury them," he told me. "There'll be no fancy headstones, but we'll bury them." Thank God for that.

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