MOSCOW – At the Russian Orthodox Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian in central Moscow, attendance has almost doubled in the past year alone. At most churches, this would be a blessing.
But for this church, the spike in attendees is not attributed to successful preaching or newfound faith. Instead, it's due to the soup kitchen that serves up free meals four times a week in the midst of the ongoing financial crisis.
"Last year our biggest meals would have around 300 people," said Boris Kleparsky, a volunteer who led prayers before serving soup, potatoes and sausages to rows of people sitting at long tables running the length of the church. "But this winter we were already routinely getting over 500 people a meal. And it's all because of the crisis."
|Oxana Onipko / AFP - Getty Images|
|Unemployed Russians read classifieds while waiting in line at a job fair in Moscow on March 18, 2009.|
Kleparksy and other volunteers say the majority of the new faces they are seeing at the soup kitchen are not the customary pensioners or homeless clients, but newly unemployed who can't make ends meet in an expensive city like Moscow.
"They came here from all over Russia, even Ukraine and Kazakhstan looking for work, and now those jobs have dried up," said Kleparsky.
Yura Petrushan was one of those people suddenly looking for work. The 25-year-old construction worker waited in line for the second shift at the soup kitchen, a place he started coming to a few weeks ago.
"I used to be able to buy bread or cook some macaroni at my apartment when I had work," said Petrushan, who also supports his wife and four-year-old daughter who live 125 miles outside Moscow. "Since the crisis hit, I rarely get paid. I'm hired for a job, but then the bosses disappear with the money after the job is done," he lamented. "But now there aren't even jobs anymore."
Petrushan is one of the estimated 7.5 million unemployed Russians, already 1.5 million more than the government had predicted for 2009. And those numbers don't include people who have been put on forced furloughs or shortened work weeks.
Kremlin addressing the crisis 'openly'
The Kremlin is trying to reassure the public that the government is strong enough to help the country weather the economic storm.
"We have sufficient reserves in the budget to deal with most important issues, in particular unemployment and support to families," said Arkady Dvorkovich, economic advisor to President Medvedev.
|VIDEO: Kremlin says it's tackling the financial crisis|
Even as other indicators such as GDP loss and the drop in industrial output are larger than the government's forecast, Dvorkovich stressed that the decline was slowing down – a possible sign that the worst has already passed.
He also emphasized that the government makes its economic decisions "as openly as possible" and welcomes input from outside the government.
But sometimes it is hard to reconcile the government's claims of openness with its actions.
Fewer statistics released
Last fall, as the crisis began to take its toll, the St. Petersburg Times claimed that the Kremlin was instructing television channels to soften their tone when reporting financial news and avoid using words like "financial crisis" or "collapse."
And last month the Kommersant, a business daily, reported that Russia's Federal State Statistic Service had stopped releasing monthly unemployment statistics and would only publish the numbers quarterly. Some Russian analysts say the move allows the government to avoid a continuous flow of negative news.
Media reports and statistics don't make a difference, though, to the hundreds of new clients arriving at the church's soup kitchen.
"I hope someone is working to make things better for us," said Yura Ivanov, a 50-year-old builder who came with Petrushan. "But I don't know – I have my doubts."