In rural Russia, plunge of the ruble still a remote concern

Marina Koreneva

Voskresenskoye (Russia) (AFP) - In a myriad of villages like Voskresenskoye, nestled deep in the Russian countryside, the monetary turmoil roiling the nation's large cities still seems a largely distant threat.

"This crisis is for the rich, for people who have dollars. We never had money here," said Tamara Boychenko, a 68-year-old retired resident of the village located in northwest Russia about 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Saint Petersburg.

"I can't afford much with my pension of 15,000 rubles (200 euros, $250). Luckily I have my vegetable garden," said Boychenko, smiling.

That rustic, phlegmatic attitude is far removed from Russia's big cities, whose residents watched in panicky dismay the plunge of the ruble -- which in the first two days of last week alone lost a quarter of its value.

Out in villages like Voskresenskoye, grim resignation is difficult to differentiate from stoic sang-froid.

"I don't expect anything at all from either the government or (President Vladimir) Putin" in this current crisis or in general, said Boychenko.

Her feelings were echoed by Stanislav Kushevich, a farmer who runs a small butcher's shop nearby.

"We can change nothing. We have no impact on anything," he said with a sigh.

Neither the turbulence of the markets nor measures taken by the government have done much to improve or worsen his lot, he believes.

"I have no savings, and I spend everything I make on my farm. I've never travelled abroad, nor bought imported goods," the bearded 46-year-old said.

- Fears over price hikes -

Still, the chaotic economic events raising alarms in Russia's cities are starting to resound in the nation's heartland.

The swift and sudden slide of the ruble, accelerated by declining oil prices and the impact of Western sanctions slapped on Moscow over its annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in Ukraine, have generated the first flushes of concern among a portion Russia's broader population.

At the top of the list of fears is the prospect of prices of all sorts of basic necessities spiking, and Russians expects the authorities to take strong action to keep a lid on price hikes.

Many food products and most consumer goods are imported in Russia, meaning the 50 percent drop in the value of the ruble will inevitably find its way onto price tags, although inflation is only running at 10 percent, according to government statistics.

But in his annual marathon press conference Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin remained rather vague on the burning questions lapping at Russia's economy. Instead, the Kremlin leader preferred to speak of an end of the spreading crisis "in two years, at worst".

As concerns about Russia's economic fate are slowly gravitating from cities to villages, reactions to how the Kremlin has responded still differ considerably.

"Putin is a good man, but what can he do? It's too complicated, the country is too big, and corruption is everywhere," said Kushevich, before confessing to "preparing for the worst, as usual".

That sense of fatalism was shared by Tatyana, who sells candles in the small church in the neighbouring village of Kobrino.

"It doesn't really matter, we're used to following along," she said.

"We survived the fall of the USSR, and the crisis of 1998. This isn't the first time, and things will work out," said Tatyana.

Less than 100 kilometres (62 miles) away in Saint Petersburg, listeners are more divided and concerned about Putin's comments on the crisis Thursday.

"I absolutely support Putin's stand on international (issues)," said Anna, who manages an advertising agency.

"But on the other hand, I didn't hear the answers to the economic problems I was waiting for. I saw no clear position on those," she added.

For his part, Sergei Antonov said that the government hasn't made its economic policy clear.

"I have the impression that Putin doesn't really know how to pull the country out of this economic slump," said a 30-year-old manager.

"If he'd have offered a clear and concrete plan, I'd feel a lot more at ease."