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Suboptimal optimization Cutbacks to Russia's social spending are erasing jobs and childcare in remote towns

Meduza
The old school in the town of Syoeki. There used to be a kindergarten here, too. November 20, 2018
The old school in the town of Syoeki. There used to be a kindergarten here, too. November 20, 2018

On November 20, the website 7x7 published online correspondence between Anna Vlasova, a woman living in the town of Suoeki, and Artur Parfenchikov, the governor of the Republic of Karelia. Vlasova wrote to her governor to complain that her town has no kindergarten, explaining that she has no one to care for her children, while she’s at work. Parfenchikov's response was harsh: he told the woman to “work something out with the grandmothers” or “hire a nanny, like everyone does.” When these messages found their way to Russia's news media, the governor rushed to Suoeki to meet Vlasova in person and “solve the problem.” Vlasova’s situation isn’t unusual, however. Thanks to the “optimization” initiative underway in Karelia and other regions across the country, officials are shutting down kindergartens, schools, and hospital wards, and laying off staff. In a special report for Meduza, Petrozavodsk Govorit correspondent Georgy Chentemirov takes a closer look at the fallout from these budget cuts.

The problem in Suoeki goes beyond daycare: because of bad roads and poor snow plowing, the bus that takes the local kids to school (almost 19 miles away) sometimes never shows up, and parents who bus their children out of town often have to navigate their way to bus stops before dawn.

The “aggressive phase” of social-spending cutbacks began in earnest in 2018, when the federal government raised the minimum pay for many state employees, and local governments responded by reducing work hours and laying off staff. “Optimization” hit not only kindergartens but also higher education, like Suoyarvi’s Technology and Entrepreneurship College, where students were told mid-semester that they could continue their learning in Petrozavodsk, three hours away. (As a result, Suoyarvi teens have been marooned in the town with nothing to do.)

Governor Parfenchikov told Meduza that the government doesn’t have the resources to build and sustain a kindergarten in every small town, but he does think the Republic of Karelia should aspire to a better transportation infrastructure (like Finland's) that would allow children in remote settlements to reach more populated areas.

Maternity ward closures have also strained the lives of new families in Karelia. Expectant mothers in Pitkyaranta now have to drive almost 44 miles to the nearest ward, or they can make the 125-mile trek to Petrozavodsk. Meduza spoke to one woman who says it took her eight and a half hours to get to the hospital, because of road-work delays.

Anna Vlasova and Governor Artur Parfenchikov meet in person in Suoeki, November 21, 2018

Many of the reductions and demotions followed President Putin’s “May Orders,” which raised the pay for various social workers. To keep spending under control, however, local governments simply started demoting people (for example, reassigning nurses en masse to work as cleaners and janitors), reducing work hours, or laying them off outright. Local officials determine these cutbacks, apparently under pressure from Russia’s Finance Ministry, a public servant in Karelia’s Loukhsky District told Meduza. (The Finance Ministry denies issuing any such demands.)

And what happened with Anna Vlasova and Artur Parfenchikov? After the media caught wind of his insensitivity, the governor hurried to Suoeki and put a plan in motion to open a daycare center by March 2019, and Vlasova will even get a tutoring position there. Meeting with locals to announce the initiative, Parfenchikov said he isn’t a wizard and joked that they “need to bring the men” to the town, implying that a baby boom would be enough to reopen the kindergarten.

Georgy Chentemirov reporting from Petrozovodsk

Summary by Kevin Rothrock