Stoical staff survive by growing vegetables

RUSSIA. Nick Holdsworth reports on how teachers in the regions are trying to overcome the effects of the continuing economic crisis

Teachers across Russia's impoverished regions plan to survive the harshest winter for 30 years by living off hoards of vegetables and fruit preserves harvested from their own allotments.

With Western intelligence services warning of the risk of political destabilisation from food shortages in remote parts of Russia, and the Kremlin accepting American and European offers of food aid, poorly paid teachers are ready to endure more hardships.

In Tula, a regional centre 100 miles south of Moscow, Larisa Klimenko, head of General State Secondary School Number 58 for the past 17 years, becomes animated when discussing the subsistence standard of living forced on her and the school's 70 staff.

Salaries, ranging from 300 to 600 roubles a month (Pounds 12 to Pounds 24), have more than halved in real value since the August banking crisis, and the regional education authority persistently pays three months in arrears.

"People are living off their garden plots," said Larisa Klimenko. "Evenings and weekends are spent working the soil to ensure we have enough vegetables and fruit to get through the Russian winter.Of course, if we had enough money to live on, we wouldn't bother doing so much hard work and we could pursue other interests outside work."

Although it is only a three-hour bus ride from Moscow, Tula's local economy has more in common with Russia's far east, where chronic budgetary problems in the Vladivostok region are currently keeping the heating switched off at schools.

Tula's teachers have to find their own ways to beat the crisis: giving private lessons in maths, physics, foreign languages and other popular subjects can bring in up to 100 roubles (Pounds 4) a week.

But tight purse-strings remain the best tools to survive a Russian crisis. Marina Mikhailova, 35, a senior history teacher, reckoned she had spent 100 roubles in the previous few days on shopping for essentials. Married with a 15-year-old son, her family income is about Pounds 50 a month.

"For the past six years, all teachers have been growing their own food to avoid spending money at the market," she said. "I don't worry about the future. We've all learned to take one step at a time. We have to remain optimistic for the children we teach - it's not their fault that today's Russia is so complicated."

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