Russian middle class slowly stirred to action by economic crisis

Fri Apr 10, 2015 7:24am EDT
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By Elizabeth Piper

MOSCOW (Reuters) - It was when her nine-year-old son said he wanted to be ill to keep her home that Ekaterina Chatskaya knew the cuts at her Moscow clinic had gone too far and she was working too many hours.

The 33-year-old Russian gynecologist said her work burden became unbearable when management announced new job losses in November. Unable to cope, she and dozens of other doctors in Moscow started a "work-to-rule" action - refusing to work beyond their official contract hours - to try to protect a health service they say is being driven to ruin.

Their action is a rare display of discontent in Russia, where resurgent patriotism over the annexation of Crimea last year has largely eclipsed frustration over job cuts, rising prices and lower wages in an economic crisis deepened by Western sanctions over Moscow's role in Ukraine and a weak oil price.

But despite feeling the squeeze more than most, Russia's nascent middle class is reluctant to blame President Vladimir Putin and his policies, scared of what they see as their individual battles against the system becoming "political".

"It was simply because of the increasing burden. At first it was more or less tolerable, then it snowballed," Chatskaya said, listing the rise in responsibilities and patients, and cuts in jobs, at her clinic on the outskirts of Moscow that accelerated over the last six months as the government cut spending.

When her own health suffered - she was diagnosed with high blood pressure due to stress - and her son clung to her one morning after not seeing her for days, Chatskaya did something out of character: she got in touch with a union and agreed to work to rule.

But sitting over a cup of tea in one of Moscow's identikit suburbs of row upon row of gray apartment blocks, Chatskaya is reluctant to be drawn on whether the economic crisis threatens the gains made by the people who became Russia's middle class after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Her wage, which averaged 40,000-47,000 rubles ($790-930 at the current rate) a month last year, is stretched by a food bill that has almost doubled to 10,000 rubles every one or two weeks. Still she sees herself as "far removed from politics".   Continued...

An activist wears a skull mask during a protest in support of Russian doctors and patients against reforms to the healthcare system in Moscow in this November 30, 2014 file photo.  REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin/Files