Surviving on a ‘Biological Norm’

24 October 2011, 16:27

Anatoliy Blyzniuk, ex-Chairman of Donetsk Oblast State Administration and current Minister of the Regional Construction and Utility System, recently claimed a monthly salary of UAH 2,500 (nearly $315, an average rate in Donetsk Oblast in spring 2011), was enough for a normal life.  He said this amount bought the whole consumer basket “entailed by the biological norm.” In fact though, Mr. Blyzniuk’s declared income exceeds this biological norm thirteen-fold! The statement obviously caused heated debate, proving yet again that a man with full belly thinks no one is hungry. According to sociologists at the National Academy of Sciences, today 25% of Ukrainians live below the poverty line. Every tenth family cannot afford enough food, while in most families food eats up almost half of their income. According to the Donetsk Oblast Statistics Committee, 52% of locals survive on a salary under the infamous UAH 2,500.


Anton*, a fifth-year student at one Donetsk-based university, is forced to work extra hours because he has no scholarship and does not want to be a financial burden on his parents. His monthly income is nearly UAH 1,500 ($190) compared to his expenses which reach UAH 2,300 ($290). This includes his rent and the costs of food, travelling, personal care products, his cell phone and Internet. As a result, Anton has to work extra hours in addition to his studies and main job. “I spend UAH 300 ($37) on food during the working week. University and work leave no time for cooking at home,” Anton says. “But anyway cooking at home is no cheaper than eating out. On the weekend I visit my parents or go on a diet if I have no time to cook anything. Luckily, I don’t smoke and can live without too much entertainment.”

Anton scrimps on food to buy clothes, books or a present for his girlfriend. For instance, he eats lunch daily at a cheap factory diner. The purchase of outdoor clothes and footwear are planned in advance thanks to sales and discounts. Still, Anton thinks he is lucky to earn money on his own. “Many people I know are students at Donetsk universities. They have no stable monthly salary, even though they are looking for one,” he says. “All expenses for food, transportation and dorms or rent are covered by their parents. Therefore, some of my friends are on tougher spending budgets than I am.” Getting married is a risk only some of his friends take, provided that they earn over UAH 4,000 ($500) per month, or their family can support them.


While politicians on silver screens call on people to take part in fighting shadow employment and salaries in envelopes, still received by nearly 5 mln Ukrainians according to the Sociology Institute at the National Academy of Sciences, Myroslava and Mykhailo, young researchers and university teachers in Donetsk, are grateful to their employers for giving them a chance to earn for living, even if it is unofficially. The university salary of about UAH 2,000 is just enough to pay for their dorm room, kindergarten and a very humble range of food.

“Life is over if you have no pasta,” Myroslava jokes. “We hardly cook or eat when our daughter is in kindergarten, nor do we eat breakfasts. Porridge or potatoes is our lunch and soup is for supper when Yasia, the daughter, is at home. Meat only comes once every two weeks thanks to our parents in the village. They also help us with money. We buy only the cheapest things, mostly during the sales.” Yasia has just turned four and another baby is on the way and the current state child benefit is only enough to cover their mobile phone bill and one visit to a doctor. When her husband is at work and her daughter is in kindergarten, Myroslava writes Internet articles free lance. As a result, the family can afford to pay for home appliances in installments, and sometimes buy medicines, books and clothes. Every month the family spends a total of UAH 4,000 including some cash given by their parents. Myroslava’s friends who have kids help her out with clothes for her daughter. The last time the couple bought clothes for themselves was five years ago, before their wedding. Luckily, they have relatives in the Crimea so they do not pay for hotels when they go there on holiday. “We’ve been saving money for the defense of my PhD thesis for over four years now,” Mykhailo says. “This takes all of my PhD scholarship of UAH 1,200.”

The family recently decided to apply for a state-funded apartment in order to improve their living conditions. However, the district office of the Assistance Foundation of Construction for Young Families warned the couple that they need to save UAH 150,000 as soon as possible for an apartment in a newly-built block, despite having some advantages over other applicants, such as research accomplishments and two children. “We won’t be able to save that much even in ten years,” Myroslava says.

The family estimates a salary that would cover all necessary expenses at UAH 5,000 ($625). “With that salary we could at least afford all the food, make sure our daughter develops properly and save for our future home,” the young parents state.


“I wish politicians tried to live on that money,” a retired Donetsk-based miner Vasyl suggests, as he watches the evening news dedicated to the shortage of affordable residential real estate and long-lasting promises of local authorities to build new apartments.

Vasyl thinks UAH 2,500 is far from enough even for one person, let alone a family or young people who rent rooms or apartments. He lives in a two-room apartment with his wife Svitlana who still works at a confectionary plant. Their two grown-up children are building their own lives. Vasyl retired from his job as a cutter loader operator after almost 35 years of coal extraction in Donbas mines. His current pension is UAH 3,500 ($437). Combined with his wife’s salary of UAH 1,500 ($187), they each have the ‘biological norm’. Vasyl says he can live on UAH 3,500 but planning big purchases and supporting his children is getting more and more burdensome. The family spends 64% of their income on food and utility bills.

“We have coffee and sandwiches for breakfast,” Svitlana says. “Then we eat soup for lunch and I can sometimes treat my husband to some sausages for supper. This year was only the second time in 30 years of married life that we went on holiday to the Crimean seaside.”

An average salary for a miner is UAH 4,500 but actual payments range from UAH 2-3,000 to 7-8,000 based on the extraction spot and the prospects of the coal mining company. However, young people in Donetsk are reluctant to work in mines. “It’s embarrassing to say you’re a miner these days,” a one-time miner explains. “Young people don’t go underground so mines are short of staff. New mines are not opened so miners have to dig deeper and deeper to reach the deposits. This makes the work more difficult and hazardous. The risk of accidents at work is high… No matter what anyone says, things will hardly get better. The rich are only interested in exhausting the mines, not developing them.”


The current Prime Minister, Mr. Azarov, once recommended Ukrainians “stop whining” and “pick up spades and feed their families.” Yet, a domestic vegetable plot and a small home farm alone cannot feed a family, say the Styrantsis, a family from Rozdolivka village in Artemivsk County, Donetsk Oblast. People in villages claim raising cattle today is an expensive luxury, and invite the government to come down to ground level from their Olympus for at least one week to taste real life.  

“We tried to live without a household farm just once and realized it was impossible,” says Mykhailo Styranets. “Our cow died this year and it’s been a total catastrophe. We now have to buy milk and sour cream. A new cow costs UAH 8-10,000 and we don’t have that sort of money. We decided to buy piglets instead, raise them and then sell them on, and feeding pigs and a cow is close to luxury these days as they eat quiet a lot. The only support comes from the land we rent out to farmers who give us grain in exchange.” The family survives on home-grown vegetables and their own poultry; and they are now laying big hopes on two calves they are raising. After his shift at the plant ends, Styranets Jr. takes care of the animals and the garden instead of resting. The family has only ever seen the sea on the silver screen. His mother Maria says jokingly that she has never seen the Siversky Donets, the river which provides water for the entire Donbas region.

The villagers say life is much harder for those who have no work in the village and have to earn their living from selling farm products alone. Reasons range from occasional poor harvests to no market for their animals. For instance, a suckling pig costs UAH 400 ($50) and it takes a ton of grain to raise it into a grown-up animal, which costs another UAH 1,700 ($213). In addition to that, the villagers invest nearly UAH 3,000 ($375) annually into planting, fertilizing and harvesting.

Young Olena treats her guests to borshch, a popular Ukrainian soup with meat, beetroot, potatoes, cabbage and beans, followed by mashed potatoes and chicken.  “We don’t want our MPs to measure the subsistence level for us. We have our own subsistence levels. I wish politicians visited our village just once,” the young lady says with a smile.  Her family includes three underage kids, two pensioners and only two working members. Olena is a teacher at a boarding school 20 km away from the village and her husband Mykhailo works as an electrician at an Artemivsk-based plant for ferrous metals. Together they earn UAH 4,500 monthly. Along with pension benefits of their parents, the total is UAH 6,300 ($780) or UAH 900 ($112) per each of the seven family members.  The family sacrifices holidays, clothes and footwear to cover food, daily travel to work (UAH 400 per month), and utility bills (UAH 150-600).  They buy clothes and shoes in the sales every 3 to 8 years. Their home has not been repaired for nine.

“I spend at least UAH 150 ($19) every month for my diabetes treatment. I can’t live without these medicines,” says grandfather Mykola. “Another UAH 100 goes for other necessary pills.”  Back in August, the whole family caught flu and ended up in debt. The treatment cost UAH 4,000. Now, the parents have no idea how to buy winter clothes for their children.

“Of course, we could survive on half the salary we have now,” says Styranets Jr. with a sad smile.  “And they know it up there at the top. But then we’d have to cut off the gas in our house, wear thick camisoles all winter, cut our spending as much as possible and eventually just degrade ourselves to such a level that nobody could return from.” The family is now fearfully monitoring the bill MPs are going to pass which will cancel most privileges.  

To survive these days, young people and pensioners, urban and rural citizens are forced to stay tied to each other and help one another. According to sociological surveys, over two thirds of Ukrainians expect no positive changes anytime soon.


*The student asked that his name be changed

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