Prime Minister Vladimir Putin meets with WWII veterans in St Petersburg


“The war memorial programmes are always a priority because they are essential not so much for you as for future generations. People must know about the war, they must understand what happened, appreciate it and be proud of it.”

Transcript of the meeting:

Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon. I am glad to be with you, and it is good that we are meeting at the Piskaryovskoye Cemetery. It is a sacred place for all residents of Leningrad (now St Petersburg), not only for those who lived here during the war but also all those who live here today. I told my colleagues that yesterday I talked with a man who had moved to St Petersburg only recently. He told me: “I know that you are going to the Piskaryovskoye Cemetery. Thank you for doing this, it is very important to us.” I was pleased that even those who have no direct family ties with the city still feel part of Leningrad, part of St Petersburg, and honour the memory of the war and the heroism of the city's residents.

I also have… I don’t even know where my elder brother, whom I have never seen, is buried. My parents told me about him. I believe it was in 1942, when children were taken from their families to save them, that he was taken from my mother and he.… Unfortunately, he caught diphtheria and died. We were told that he died but not where he was buried, so it is possible that he is buried in this cemetery.

In general, everyone who lived through that difficult time, nearly all of them… I don’t think there is a family that did not lose someone. And I believe that it is very important to remember those difficult times, those years of heroism, to remember all of you and to feel grateful to you for everything you did for the country during that period. I think that today we can also talk about history and modern times. I don’t think I should make long speeches. Instead, I’d like to listen to you and we can talk freely about the issues you worry about and those that interest you. They can be about the past, our history, as well as the present and the future.

Who would like to speak first?

Boris Belyavsky (Hero of the Soviet Union, fought on the Leningrad Front during the Great Patriotic War, honorary chairman of the St Petersburg public Council of Heroes of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation and Full Cavaliers of the Order of Glory): Let me…

Vladimir Putin: Of course, Mr Belyavsky, but first let’s sit down, shall we? Otherwise I will have to stand up all the time. Please.

Boris Belyavsky: Let me introduce myself properly, since there are journalists in the room. I was a senior sergeant during the war and all of my other titles refer to the post-war period. Today Vladimir Moroz (Full Cavalier of the Order of Glory) and I represent the Leningrad public Council of Heroes of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation and Full Cavaliers of the Order of Glory. (Makes a pun with the name, Moroz, which means frost in Russian, saying that there is frost outside and inside, but the one inside is a good frost.) What would I like to tell you? Personally, I am a happy man for one simple reason: as a serviceman of the 19th Guards Brigade of the Katyusha Multiple Rocket Launchers, I fought at Rzhev, Stalingrad, the Kursk Bulge, on the Dnieper and Right-bank Ukraine. Our brigade arrived up here at the Leningrad Front at the close of the Battle of Leningrad. The siege had been lifted but the Finnish troops were stationed 32 km away from the Finland Station and up to the River Sestra. As you may know, the plan was to withdraw Finland from the war at that point. I had a chance to take part in those battles, and it was my first visit to St Petersburg after the siege on May 16, 1944. And then, it so happened that I worked for a long time at the Military Artillery Academy at the close of my military career.

Now I would like to say a few words about our Council of Heroes of the Soviet Union. First of all, there are only 16 living Heroes of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation and Full Cavaliers of the Order of Glory in our city and region. In 1991, there were over 250. But time is implacable. Since many of its members are no longer strong enough to contribute more to patriotic education, the Council of Heroes mainly focuses on publishing the memoirs of war veterans or stories about the heroic defenders of Leningrad.

A few years ago a book was published about all the Heroes of the Soviet Union who fought on the Leningrad Front. A second volume is being prepared, about the Heroes of the Volkhov Front and the Baltic Fleet. This, in brief, is what the council is doing.

Personally, I consider myself a lucky man because, after going all the way with my rocket brigade, nearly three years of fighting on the front, I am still here to meet with you. I want to emphasise that we are making every effort to memorialise the Great Patriotic War and commemorate the people who fought in that war. The only thing I must complain about… Unfortunately, our media cover this subject very sparsely, giving it less and less attention from one anniversary to the next.

There is something else about the media and especially television. I’m not sure the other veterans will support me, but I will just express my personal opinion. I am sick and tired of seeing the same faces every time I switch on my TV: the same actors and hosts, over and over again. When I see them, I immediately switch to the Planet Channel, that’s what I do. Who have the main channels been showing, lately? Alla Pugachyova and Maxim Galkin. Filipp Kirkorov and Ksenia Sobchak. Maybe there are people who want to see them all the time, but we don’t. What I mean is, when you meet with the media, and TV executives, could you please speak to them about this.

We have some specific questions Mr Putin.

Vladimir Putin: Go ahead please, Mr Belyavsky.

Boris Belyavsky: Here is my question: since Russia is joining the World Trade Organisation...

Vladimir Putin: Whoa! That’s quite unexpected.

Boris Belyavsky: What are the actual plans to ensure the nation's food security? We are worried about this for one simple reason: we remember the war, when our parents, including women, worked hard at collective farms to supply food to the army. We remember the land lease, but we don’t want to go back to those times. What I mean is, we don’t want to become recipients of food aid again. This is my first question for you.

My second question is about the Union state of Russia and Belarus. Is there any chance that war veterans will see this project materialise in our lifetime? Belarus is an important strategic ally for Russia, so we are very concerned about this.

It’s great that the government, including you, has found a way to raise salaries for active military officers and pensions for former service personnel. I know from my conversations with veterans and other servicemen that almost all of them got paid for two months in December. However, everyone is wondering what will happen to salaries after the March elections. I have one more question in this regard. As a result of numerous reforms military medicine has found itself in a predicament, almost no military doctors were left, in particular, at our military medical establishments in St Petersburg. Young graduates of medical schools don’t go off to work at military medical centres, because entry-level salaries there can be as low as 9,000 roubles. This is not the way it should be. Perhaps the salaries of medical and civilian personnel employed by the Defence Ministry should be reviewed. Those are my questions. I have another request on behalf of a group of Heroes of the Soviet Union. This is a specific issue concerning the status of the Mikhailovsky Military Artillery Academy. It's a fairly simple issue, but it still needs to be resolved. That’s all I have to say.

Vladimir Putin: Mr Belyavsky, you have raised quite a few issues. Frankly, almost all of them are unexpected to me. As usual, I did my homework before today’s meeting, and I have a general idea of the problems that veterans typically raise. The fact that you began with the WTO really came as a surprise. However, I’m pleased to hear it, because that tells me that the veterans are concerned about our current issues and think about them.

Boris Belyavsky: Yes, we are concerned.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, I understand. This is truly great and comforting to know. What can I say to you about the WTO? You are absolutely right when you say that we should think about the industries that may face stiff competition from foreign producers. Clearly among these industries is agriculture, which will be confronted with strong competition. Here's what I have to say about this. First, we are all aware of how agricultural issues were dealt with in the Soviet times, especially during the waning years of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, this is how things were. You are aware of my stance with regard to the collapse of the Soviet Union. I can reiterate it now for you, and I’m sure that you’ll agree: I believe that the demise of the Soviet Union was a tragedy for the nation, for the Russian and other peoples of the USSR. However, this is history, and we should be looking to the future now. 

As for agriculture, it was functional: huge amounts of money were spent on agriculture, but it was inefficient. This is a fact, because there were food shortages, and there was not enough domestic produce, even in large cities. There wasn’t enough meat, dairy or any other products for that matter. Everything was in short supply or even rationed. On the face of it, Russia is a major grain producer, having exported grain before the 1917 Revolution. Things turned around during Soviet times, and we began buying grain from abroad. Even our port facilities were designed for receiving cargo rather than shipping. I’m pleased to tell you that today Russia is the world’s third largest grain exporter. We produce enough to cover our own needs and sell abroad. Russia has a significant export potential of tens of millions of metric tonnes. There was a period of recession when we had to limit our exports and even shut them down completely when there was a drought for two consecutive years. However, we managed to restore our export capabilities in full this year. According to different estimates, our growth in agricultural output exceeds 40%.

There are branches in which we have made a huge leap forward and even set a record among farming industries of the leading countries, such as the poultry industry. We have never had such high volumes of domestic poultry production. We have almost covered in full Russia’s poultry requirements. The production of pork has grown many times over. Things are slightly more complicated with beef, but pork and beef are all red meat anyway. Pork producers are really concerned about Russia’s accession to the WTO, because Russia will have to cut import duties once it becomes a member. These duties protect domestic producers, but as soon as we begin receiving large quantities of cheaper pork on the domestic market, Russian producers may find themselves at a disadvantage. In the first place, this will benefit the consumers, above all those who live in large cities, because there will be more meat, including pork, at reasonable prices. However, this may create certain difficulties for domestic producers. Mr Belyavsky is right: if the domestic producer runs into problems, it could lead to stagnation in this sphere, and domestic pork production will slow down. Our goal is to support domestic producers so that we are able, as you have aptly put it, to ensure our food security.

Your concerns are absolutely well-founded. In this regard, we have a set of tools that we plan to use in order to support domestic producers – not all of them, but those who are using the latest production techniques. We don’t need to cling to outdated production methods. We need to help these people. I spoke with one such producer in Tomsk the other day. As a professional, he updated me on all existing concerns in this area. He listed all their worries and concerns, one by one. We maintain an ongoing dialogue with them. We are aware of the potential problems, and we’ll do our best to help them.

We are considering additional measures to support domestic producers. I’m confident that we’ll be able to find these tools. There are instruments aimed at supporting domestic producers under the WTO arrangements. In addition, back when we were negotiating our WTO membership, we agreed that we would retain the right to a certain amount of subsidies, i.e. support coming from the state budget. We managed to make such a deal, and we will have the right to do so even after our WTO accession. This is not an easy thing to do and it will require proper funding, but we are committed to doing this and will develop these measures along with the producers. I will not go into them now, but I want you to know that we are aware of this problem and are working on it together with the producers. Allow me to repeat: the advantage of joining the WTO lies in the fact that it will push us to rid ourselves of inefficient and obsolete production methods and move on to innovative and competitive ones. This is what I have to say about the WTO and agriculture.

With regard to Belarus, I can say that we are all for promoting these processes. I believe that our relationship with Belarus is among the key areas of our foreign policy. The issue is not about rebuilding the Soviet Union. This is neither necessary nor possible – unfortunately, there’s no longer the need for it – but I believe that preserving everything that is good, useful and promising, everything that we inherited from previous generations who built the great nation of the Soviet Union, is our historical mission.

We are prepared to establish deep forms of cooperation. I’m pleased to say that for the first time in post-Soviet history we managed to take an actual step forward in the creation of the Customs Union. This is the most meaningful step toward establishing true integration in the post-Soviet space since the 1990s, because it opens doors to make the transition to the Common Economic Space. We began working on this on January 1, 2012. I don’t want to overload you with information, but we managed to find compromises and agree on common procedures and rules of conduct within the economy, transport and communications. We managed to come to an agreement with our partners in Kazakhstan and Belarus on the next steps, with an eye toward establishing the Eurasian Union, where our integration in the area of economic policy and macroeconomics will be taken to a whole new level. We have also reached an understanding regarding currency issues, which are the lifeblood of any economy. The Eurasian Union will have no internal borders or travel restrictions. Choice of residence and social guarantees will be provided to all people residing within this union. In fact, this will secure the depth of our integration without violating the sovereignty of the member states. Much of what has already been accomplished in our relations with Belarus should be used to establish deep economic integration. Russia and Belarus have achieved significant progress in the social sphere as well, including pension coverage, residency, travel, etc.

Frankly, we failed to achieve the desired levels of economic integration with Belarus. For example, we were unable to reach an agreement on common currency with our Belarusian friends. I will not go into the reasons behind this, but I believe that it’s their turn to make a move now. They set forth conditions that are impracticable for our economy. The Belarusian economy accounts for as little as 3% of the Russian economy, and we can’t afford to run two mints. This is simply unrealistic; but we are moving in the right direction. I must admit that despite occasional disputes with our Belarusian colleagues, the Belarusian government and President Alexander Lukashenko consistently support the integration, and we greatly appreciate it. This is why we are supporting the Belarusian economy and its people regardless of occasional arguments or contradictions. Alexander Lukashenko has been a consistent supporter of the integration for many years now. I’m confident that with the support of President Nazarbayev, who is one of the originators of the idea to create the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space and a consistent proponent of integration processes, we will be able to do a lot for our nations.

Let’s move on to social issues and pensions for retired military personnel. Yes, we did promise to raise pensions. Despite all difficulties, we managed to arrange things in the economy in a way that would allow us to make good on our promise and raise pensions of former servicemen by 60%, or even double them in some instances. As you may know, we carried out a so-called valorisation in 2009, whereby we recalculated the retired civilian workers’ pension entitlements that were issued back in Soviet times. We did this because the way thing used to be before 2010 was an instance of blatant social injustice, where people who had worked all their lives for the benefit of their country were receiving absurdly small pensions. We went ahead and recalculated the numbers, raising the pensions of retired civilian workers by an average of 45%. I’d like to call your attention, dear veterans, to the fact that we accomplished this in the midst of a global economic crisis. No other country could afford to do anything like that. Even worse, all social benefits, including pensions, were frozen in almost all European countries. We haven’t raised the retirement age either, though other countries have. I believe the retirement age is 62 years in France now, both for men and women. The retirement age has been raised in Poland, Latvia and Greece as well. In some countries it is set at 65 years of age now. The decision will not go into effect immediately, but it has been made. We chose not to increase the retirement age, and on top of that we have raised the amounts of pensions as well.

I’m pointing this out because we made this leap in 2009, when we raised pensions for civilians by 45% making them equal to the pensions of former military servicemen. However, at all times and in every country, retired military servicemen have higher pensions, even if only slightly. We have raised military pay. In accordance with the law, military pensions have always been tied in with military pay. Since we have raised military pay rather steeply, we couldn’t raise military pensions accordingly. Even so, the gap between military and civilian pensions stands at 28% now. In the Soviet Union, the difference was about 22%-25%. Of course, we will need to lessen this difference through a steady increase in civilian pensions until we reach 22%-25%.

Therefore, we’ll adjust civilian pensions this year by more than just the rate of inflation. We planned to increase them by 6.1% on February 1, 2012 to compensate for inflation that stood at 6.1% last year, but reconsidered the figure during yesterday’s government meeting and made it 7%. We will gradually proceed to increase civilian pensions to make this difference 22%-25% again. We will adjust pensions again in April, including social pensions, which we will raise by over 14% in one go.

With regard to military doctors, you said there were no military medics, but I hope that the military medical service will become more attractive after we raise military pay, and our military doctors will forget about these 9,000 rouble salaries. As for civilian personnel, we will certainly do something for them as well. I just want to make it clear that we can’t improve the situation for both military and civilian personnel at once, but we are aware that there are many civilians working at military medical centres.

Boris Belyavsky: They are mostly of retirement age.

Vladimir Putin: My point is that there is a leading educational institution in St Petersburg, or Leningrad, which trains medical personnel for the Armed Forces and has a long history. I’m referring to the medical academy. We can’t complain about shortages of military medical personnel. This is a large centre, and I think now that military pay will be increased, military service in general and medical military service in particular will become more attractive.

Boris Belyavsky: Thank you.

Asyadula Nigmatulin (veteran of the Great Patriotic War, committee member of the public Council of Veterans of the 13th Air Force Army): Mr Putin, after the war I commanded one of these famous regiments that had defended Leningrad from beginning to end. This regiment existed before Serdyukov’s (Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov) reforms. I managed to make a photocopy of the regiment’s operations record book after it was declassified. It describes all the air battles in details, hour by hour. We were from the 103rd Guards Fighter Wing. The first officially registered ram attack in this book was made by Pyotr Kharitonov…

Vladimir Putin: You were a fighter pilot, weren’t you?

Asyadula Nigmatulin: I was a pilot overall for 32 years.

At this meeting I represent the Neva District. It will be 95 years old. Its administration asked me to present you with a souvenir from this district (hands over the souvenir).

Vladimir Putin: Thank you.

Asyadula Nigmatulin: All the more so since you took part in the opening ceremony for the cable bridge. This souvenir…

Vladimir Putin: I see. Thank you very much. Do you like the bridge? Do you use it?

Asyadula Nigmatulin: And, it will remind you of our Neva District…

Vladimir Putin: Thank you.

Asyadula Nigmatulin: I’d like to ask you a question…

Vladimir Putin: Please, go ahead.

Asyadula Nigmatulin: This is a short question. Before the elections to the State Duma the media were conducting what I think is not an entirely normal conversation on the topic “Russia-for-the-Russians.” I’m referring to Zhirinovsky’s programme. It was very unpleasant to listen to this. Recently the NTV television network had an hour-long programme of the same nature. Then they showed the recent movie “Zhukov” which is about the same thing. True, the majority of the population in Russia are Russians but before we had more than 170 ethnicities and now I even find it difficult to say how many…

Vladimir Putin: Yes, that’s right.

Asyadula Nigmatulin: And this evokes a negative attitude from our national republics. I’ve been to Tatarstan. I come from Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, from the Caucasus. I have toured many places there and flew over them as a pilot. This issue is worrying local people very much. I would like our media to pay attention to this. It is important for us to unite but some programmes are divisive.

Vladimir Putin: Yes.

Asyadula Nigmatulin: Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: Mr Nigmatulin, are you a Tatar?

Asyadula Nigmatulin: Yes, I’m a Tatar.

Vladimir Putin: And you were born in Grozny? You lived in Grozny, correct?

Asyadula Nigmatulin: Yes, in Grozny.

Vladimir Putin: So, you known what kind of diversity we have.

Asyadula Nigmatulin: Well, after the war I lost … I came under fire and lost my family there.

Vladimir Putin: We have such great ethnic diversity, and in this sense we have an enormous genetic advantage over other nations and countries because the broader the genetic pool, the more stable a nation is. This is a natural advantage.

I’d like to say something else on this score. Here are the veterans who know better than anyone else that when problems emerge, it is the unity of a large nation that leads to success. This has happened again and again in our history. I have cited this example many times and you know it, but today I’d like to repeat it again.

When foreign troops seized the Kremlin in 1612 during the Time of Troubles in the 17th century it was in the Volga area that two men – one Russian and the other an ethnic Tatar – rallied the people to rescue Russia and gave up everything they had to organise a popular movement of volunteers. They achieved success at what was one of the most critical moments in our national history. They managed to do this by pooling efforts. And nobody thought about ethnic origin at that time. They were thinking about their common country, its interests and all the ethnic groups that inhabited it.

What is happening today? First, after the Soviet Union’s disintegration, regrettably… Why do I call it a tragedy? All the people who found themselves outside their national territory were immediately declared foreigners. There appeared a host of problems for Russians, Tatars, Bashkirs and all others because nationalism started to manifest itself in everyday life. This is the first point. Second, in many republics economic and social conditions were rapidly deteriorating. Now many things are changing but in the 1990s and the early 2000s things were going from bad to worse.

As a result, this led to an enormous number of people moving to Russia or becoming temporary guest workers in Russia, especially in big cities. People without housing, normal jobs or access to social services began to accumulate in great numbers. This caused certain pressure on the social sphere in the places where they started moving. There appeared a lot of related problems and crimes either based on ethnic grounds or committed by these guest workers or immigrants. All this angered the local population. This is an obvious fact and there is nothing to hide here.

But instead of offering solutions to these issues that emerged naturally, some of our politicians started exploiting them in certain domestic conditions, primarily during elections. Exploitation of this critical and very sensitive issue only aggravates the problem. And for such a multi-ethnic country as Russia, this may be fatal because such actions are destroying the country. It is good that you are paying attention to this. I’m sure your views will make their way into the media and will influence the minds of millions. I’m not saying this issue does not exist – we must resolve it but it is unacceptable to exploit it for narrow political gain.

As you probably know, I published an article early this week and visited the Federal Migration Service yesterday. We also discussed this issue in the government. What is making things worse? Many immigrants have arrived and live here. But if we did not have corruption (unfortunately, I must mention it again), say, in law enforcement agencies, if they did not receive money from these communities but would treat all offenses in the same way, no matter who committed them, they would be trusted by the people and the situation would be quite different. We must work to improve the performance of our law enforcement. Hence, we must guarantee that all migrants and immigrants meet the requirements of the regions where they come to live. They must respect our laws, our rules, our culture and our language. But we should not do this with a stick. Rather, we must approach this issue wisely and reach agreements with our partners in CIS countries and Russian regions beforehand in terms of studying Russia's language, customs, culture and legislation. Lastly, we should introduce punishment for relevant violations. This is a major task on the agenda. This problem was not so acute before. It has only recently become acute due to the accumulation of related problems. However, we must prevent undue speculation on this issue. Next, please.

Asyadula Nigmatulin: Maybe we should introduce the term “Russian people” (meaning the people of Russia)?

Vladimir Putin: Yes, possibly. Although the term exists, perhaps we should use it more often. I always say that many ethnic groups live in Russia, but together they comprise the people of great Russia.

Asyadula Nigmatulin: Like in the past, when there was the “Soviet people”.

Vladimir Putin: It should be said that in the past… The Soviet Communist Party is often criticised today, but it invented a worthy phrase, a new community – the Soviet people. It was a good term.

Remark: It was Soviet then and it is Russian now.

Vladimir Putin: We should use it more frequently. Please, Mr Shishevilov.

Ivan Shishevilov (chairman of the public Council of Veterans of the 351st Air Defence Regiment): Mr Putin, I am the oldest veteran here at 93 years old. I’d like to say… I’m sorry if I seem too talkative, but I’d like to say that I joined the army in 1938. I fought in the Winter War against Finland and decided to stay in the army afterwards. On the first day of the Great Patriotic War, June 22, 1941, I was on duty at my battery and was the first to raise the alarm. I served in an air defence battery. On the first day of the war, our 194th Regiment downed its first German plane near Leningrad. What am I trying to say? I was conscripted in 1938. Serving in the army was an honourable duty for young men at the time. I’d like to say that when a girl… If her boyfriend was not conscripted into the army, she would not marry him. Everything is upside down now – girls are ready to do anything to stop their boyfriends from being conscripted. I’d like you to take note of this issue, to launch a programme so that young people…

Vladimir Putin: You mean girls.

Ivan Shishevilov: Young people, yes, so that our girls would be patriotic and not…

Vladimir Putin: Now, don’t blame the girls alone…

Ivan Shishevilov: They must wait for their boyfriends to return from the army, which would make the army stronger. I also want to say the following. The start of the Winter War and the Great Patriotic War took us by surprise. We were sent to the Finnish front in overcoats and boots, although it was wintertime, the cold reaching around minus 37-40 degrees Celsius.

When the Great Patriotic War began, the situation was the same in Leningrad where I had served since 1938 – the same autumn overcoats, hats and gloves, which made life more difficult. We used to exchange our daily 300-gram bread allowances for warm clothes whenever we found them. I’d like to thank you for changing the situation in the army, which now has better weapons and other supplies. I hope this policy will continue, so our army will be equipped and otherwise supplied not worse than the US army.

However, I think you should also pay more attention to training. During the Winter War, we had a platoon commander who commanded us to take off our uniforms and bathe in the snow during our leisure time. He also put us on skis. He trained us to fight the enemy under any conditions. I lifted four-stone weights and juggled them easily, although I am only 172 cm tall and weighed 65 kilograms. I studied sambo and made my men do the same. I will not speak at length here, but I can tell you that I was well prepared, which may be why I have not died yet. I hope the boys in our army are strong, so they do not yield to those who… They show military training in Africa where servicemen are well equipped, running and performing all kinds of stunts...  I don’t remember them showing such exercises in the Russian army.

What was the structure of the Leningrad Air Defence Army of the Order of the Red Banner? It has since been merged with an aviation group and now has another name. But back then, our army protected the skies over Leningrad and the north-western part of Russia on the whole. I am sure that modern air defence troops – both the artillery men and the fighter pilots of the Leningrad Air Defence Army – feel their responsibility in protecting the skies over Leningrad no less now than during the Great Patriotic War. It was thanks to our air defence units and fighter pilots who did their best, acting selflessly to prevent enemy aircraft from reaching Leningrad… I can tell you how many planes we downed. The artillery units and fighter pilots of the Leningrad Army downed 1,561 enemy planes. Of course, fighter pilots downed more planes – 1,000 – and artillery units downed the remaining 561. Interestingly, the first and the last planes were downed by artillery units, which is a notable fact.

I started the war as a senior sergeant… I commanded a squad section and was hungry for knowledge. I studied artillery and machine guns, reconnaissance methods, communications and radio. My commanders noticed my zeal and appointed me platoon commander and promoted me to junior lieutenant in early February. I was a good artillery man, which is why eight months later I was appointed the acting commander of an air defence battery. I finished the war in that capacity. In the meantime, though, I graduated from the air defence school that was evacuated from Yevpatoria to Orenburg – not the full 12-month, but rather a reduced four-month course. I then returned to my 351st Regiment where I continued to serve until retirement.

I did not retire. I remained in the Red Army. So my service continued. From late 1947 to late 1951, I was in the Group of Soviet Forces. We had an extremely important task there, too. That was during the Cold War… We had the same task as during the Great Patriotic War. If an airplane diverted from the corridor, we were to engage the target. In January 1953, I was appointed a missile battalion commander. I served for nine (about ten) years as a battalion commander… What else do I want to say? Some more time should be allotted for training; perhaps it is necessary to change something, because one year is not enough, Mr Putin. It is probably necessary to conduct a survey.  Maybe our experts, marshals and generals could make recommendations. It might be necessary to extend training. Because one year is not enough to train a good expert, in my view. On behalf of soldiers, sergeants, generals, officers, the Leningrad Air Defence Army, we, the retired reserve, support your policy, the right policy. And we assure you that we will help service members, we will help the youth learn how to operate the equipment in order to defend this country. I want our country to be powerful, strong, combat-ready, and we are sure that our army will ensure peace for our people. Thank you.

Vladimir Putin:  Thank you. I will comment briefly and answer your questions. As far as the Great Patriotic War is concerned, when it began the Soviet Union was not ready. That’s a fact. It is difficult to say now whether the Soviet Union was ready at the start of the Winter War. I do not want to make any historical assessment now, but the military and political leadership of the Soviet Union most likely made some miscalculations during the initial stage of the Finnish campaign because they probably wanted to conclude this campaign quickly, but they failed. Approximately half a year later, eight or nine months later, there came new commanders and new methods, and it became obvious that they reversed the situation on the front. But the first stage claimed many lives, and that was an obvious difficulty. As far as the current situation [in the army] is concerned, one year in the army is not enough to learn how to operate modern equipment, of course.  However, Mr Shishevilov, it is very difficult to learn to use high-tech weapons even in two years, especially for air defence troops. Therefore we will maintain the conscript army, a considerable part of it, for now, but it is necessary – especially for high-tech aspects of the Armed Forces, such as aviation, missile defence, the navy, missile equipment in general – to gradually transition to a volunteer military. It is an expensive army, but we need good experts, including graduates not only from military but also from civilian institutes. Of course, it is necessary to provide this education. That is clear. Prior to the early 2000s, the army stopped conducting exercises altogether. Currently, as you know, we are intensively providing combat training. We have relevant plans and practically all of them are being implemented. You are absolutely right concerning the physical training of young people: there are problems to be solved at school, on the state level, on the municipal and regional levels, it is necessary to attend to these problems everywhere. I want to draw your attention to the fact that we are doing everything to develop physical fitness and sport in general.

Ivan Shishevilov: This is well known.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, through my personal example, through how the work is organised, and through allocating the necessary funds. But it is not enough, unfortunately – I have to say, Mr Shishevilov is right – little has been done so far. If we compare how many Russians participate in physical fitness and sport per thousand people, we will see that in Finland the number of such people is approximately twice as high; and we should make progress in this area. Now, do we have well trained units, Mr Shishevilov? Yes, we have them. And I promise, I will even send you some videos, and you will enjoy watching the training in some branches of the Armed Forces. For example, I will send you videos of mountain troops training. This is special forces. They work in very difficult conditions. Just look at the training of the guys there and you will be overcome with pride. You will see their training level and technical equipment level of these units. Compared with the early 2000s, it is quite a different army. You will enjoy it. I will send it to you soon. I will ask the Ministry of Defence, they will make these videos and send them to you, we will send them to everybody. You’ll find it interesting. We are in the midst of changes in the Armed Forces. We want our weaponry and training level to be up to current challenges, so that our military personnel could use modern methods of warfare, if, God forbid, it happens. They are constantly changing in connection with the development of military equipment. To avoid the situation that our army faced at the beginning of the Great Patriotic War… Do you know what I just thought about? […] I have just published my second article, on the ethnic issue. But now I will definitely write (I didn't plan to write this, but I will) an article on the security and development of the Armed Forces. It's a short response that I've given you, but it's something.

Ivan Shishevilov: Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: You're welcome. Is there anything else? Go ahead, Ms Salnikova. Stay seated, for goodness sake. I'll stand up then, and you sit.

Aleksandra Salnikova (Secretary of the public Council of Veterans of the 62nd Guards Army commanded by Vasily Chuikov): Oh, please don’t. But then you're young, you can keep standing.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, I am young.

Aleksandra Salnikova: I lived at 134 Fontanka Street, in Leningrad. I went to school nearby, a Soviet vocational school of commerce. After class, I would attend a nurse training course. When I concluded the course, the Winter War started. And we went to work at a navy hospital, where I helped the doctors to look after the patients. But when I attended vocational school (I had not yet graduated, students were in the middle of their exams), I was told where I would work. Upon graduating, I was sent to the Siversky Sanatorium, and I worked then and was among the best […] I will never forget that! And I joined the Komsomol at the Kuibyshevsky District Committee of Komsomol. When I take a trolleybus, I look out the left-hand window (from Vosstaniya Square), I look at this building and I remember how we prepared and studied, how devoted we were, all the people we met. And when I took the oath, now I've forgotten… “I swear to the Red Army and the Soviet Government not to spare my blood, and if necessary, even my life”… [...] At that moment we had a lump in our throats, that's how much we loved our Motherland, and how much friendship meant to us!

The war began, we went to an army recruiting centre, there was a queue, no interest in women, only men… Meanwhile military units had contract employees, but they departed with children… We went out into the street – which street it is now? – Everything has been renamed. My friend and I went to this military unit and they took us. They said, just bring a small suitcase and a car will be there tomorrow by 8 a.m. to take you to Shlisselburg. I left Shlisselburg in early August, at night on a barge, and the barge was all camouflaged with green branches, it looked like a small island. Near that quay, people were standing on planking, there was no place to sit. And airplanes were flying around. People were arriving from Finland, by train, on train roofs. It was terrible. We arrived in Volkhov: an embankment, everything was on fire. We were accompanied by the Red Cross on the train, and by a military doctor, a senior lieutenant, he was a commander. And the four of us carried the wounded, I was nineteen, born in 1921. And the four of us, four girls carried the wounded and lifted them into the carriages. We went to the rear area to gather the wounded. And when we moved on to Kazakhstan, the hospital chief said: “Let the nurses remain here, we have nobody to look after the wounded.” The senior lieutenant registered us and left, and we were to be sent to the front line with the first train of troops. We wrote to the recruiting centre, but they did not sent us to the front line. The hospital chief (how wise those people had been, Mr Putin) summoned me and said: “You must complete the driving course. I have come to an agreement with the battalion commander that tomorrow will be your final duty and then you will help supply food to the hospital.” I completed the course in less than a month. I was driving a 1.5 tonne lorry… It was the steppe, so I drove wherever I wanted. Girls served in all branches of the Armed Forces, and when in April 1942 Stalin issued an order to mobilise girls… Earlier we had been sort of hired personnel. Then I worked in a military mobile hospital. It was hard work: all medical personnel are toilers, the heart aches, the work takes a toll, spiritually, morally and physically… The hospital chief said: “As soon as he can talk, put down his last name and his place of residence in short.”  And during the night we wrote this triangle letter. It was so wonderful when they received replies, letters, when they were recovering! And how we looked after them… Now they are crying, and we begin to cry in spite of ourselves, it is painful. We stroke them on the head, on the shoulder, so that they fall asleep. And some had no legs, we had to treat their whole body with solutions, to bind up their wounds; once a patient said: “I am ashamed.” “What are you ashamed of? Turn your head away.” “And you?” “This is my job.”  We wept when we left hospital rooms. Our superiors said to us: “Look after each other, be on alert, be careful not to fall asleep.” And there were some moments – what beautiful weather, what plants!.. And Stalingrad was on fire, the Volga was on fire: we could not see the sky. Bombs, airplanes… Mr Belyavsky, you were in Stalingrad. The Mamayev Kurgan mound was on fire. It was terrible! There was an order: not one step backward! And we were in basements, we dug trenches there. People were digging, they ran out of their houses, dug trenches, ran for cover, the bombs hit their houses and people were buried under the debris. When Stalingrad was on fire, it is impossible to forget… Mr Putin, when will Stalingrad be granted the status of a Hero of the Soviet Union? They invite me there every year. When Stalingrad celebrated the 60th anniversary [of the Stalingrad battle], we invited you and we expected you; when you say… The veterans continue to demand the status of a hero city for Stalingrad, all our heroes are buried there. There are only a few of us left. I am 91 years old, we have here an organisation, the Veterans of the Stalingrad 62nd (8th) Guards Army commanded by Vasily Chuikov. I happen to be the Secretary of the Council of Veterans. In 1988, we had 300 veterans, now only eight are left… 

Then my fate was tied up in the Far East. We were equals with the men, they called us by our last names or by rank, but it was friendly, there was such mutual understanding! I do not see anything like that now. From the Far East I was taken to the First Front, I forget the name now. I was a military driver, I wore a uniform, I always had all my papers. So I was taken to a military unit, I worked as a nurse, I was also a senior sergeant and drove a water lorry because it was a military unit, aviation, I served the 114th fighter regiment. I worked on the airdrome, in a small car. I will never forget the good people, my commanders. The regiment commander was Col. Kochergin. Once, after flights, he drove over to our unit to see me, I commanded that special platoon. So he came up, touched my arm in a fatherly manner and said: “Aleksandra, we have no flights tomorrow. Can you bring water from the waterworks? Because there is no water for cooking in our canteen.” I said: “Yes, sir, comrade colonel!” So I went. This is the life that I had. To get to the Far East, to Manchuria, it is necessary… We travelled on flat wagons, travelled by car, crossed the whole of Mongolia. And the Greater Khingan Range… I drove in the Greater Khingan. There was a thirty metre gap between cars, there was a cliff on my left and an abyss on my right. I saw only the car in front and a piece of sky… And such tension! And we did it! We finished the war against Germany, we won! That's the end of my story. But I say that I led a hapy life. I am happy that I have a military family: my husband is a colonel, and I have three sons…

Vladimir Putin: I will say only a couple of words concerning… Ms Salnikova, concerning Stalingrad. I just want to understand, what else do we need to do for the people who defended Stalingrad? I'm simply not familiar with this problem. But we will talk about it on our own, agreed?

Remark: Mr Putin, it is a hero-city!

Vladimir Putin: A hero-city is a hero-city anyway. But we'll come back [to this] and discuss it, agreed? We will consider it. I just don't quite understand what else needs to be done concerning Stalingrad and its defenders.

Aleksandra Salnikova: And when they were preparing free travel passes for these veterans…

Vladimir Putin: We will talk.

Aleksandra Salnikova: But they cannot walk anymore.

Vladimir Putin: Ms Salnikova, I will think about it, we will discuss it.

Zinaida Ashmarina (member of the committee of the public Council of Veterans of the 13th Air Force Army): I just want to say that our pilots were true heroes. I worked in the hospital of our 13th Air Force Army. Once we had a patient, completely burned, his hands and face were covered with burns, he was burned all over. We had a special ward for burn patients. Once a patient recovered a little, he would attend a therapeutic physical training room and work on his hands and arms in order to get back to the helm and attack the fascists. Those were the men that we had at that time! Of heroes our hospital had only Parshin and Zhidov, and Parshin was hospitalized even twice, he was such a mischief-maker! And I joined citizens-in-arms units on July 5, 1941. And in September we were sent to this hospital. This is how it happened. And we had people like that.  

Vladimir Putin: Do you know what I want to say?

Ivan Shishevilov: We have such people now, too.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, yes. That's just what I wanted to say, the same remark that Mr Shishevilov has inserted: we have them now, too, indeed. I remember the early 2000s, when we had a difficult situation in the Caucasus. You know, it was surprising, it was surprising for me. These young guys, boys, essentially young boys, they were not motivated in the same way as during the Great Patriotic War, when there was a common, national threat that was obvious to everybody. When there were intense battles in the Caucasus, people knew about it, but there was no internal motivation, you have to admit, there was no such internal motivation -- they were taken from their warm beds to the battlefield. And nevertheless there were many cases of mass heroism. And it is surprising even to me. There were people there from various ethnic groups! Pskov paratroopers who defended one of the heights -- their heroism was no different from the times of the Great Patriotic War. And when there were almost no servicemen alive (only four survived) the commander of the unit called down the artillery fire on himself. That was an unprecedented feat of heroism. And when our men, including the youth of today, come face to face with such extreme conditions, they reveal the very best qualities of the character of our people.

Remark: Mr Putin, thank you very much for meeting with us (it happens rarely) and for listening to us so attentively. And we, everybody here, guarantee that we are willing to sacrifice our lives for you, in order to ensure the very best for us. Thank you very much.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you. And I stand for you.

Irina Skripachyova (Chairwoman of the St Petersburg public organisation Residents of Blockade Leningrad): May I speak, Mr Putin?

Vladimir Putin: Go ahead, please, Ms Skripachyova.

Irina Skripachyova: I'd like to continue with what Mr Belyavsky began to say. This has to do primarily with pensions. Yes, we are all happy that we have lived to see the time when servicemen… Justice has triumphed at last and the people have gotten what they deserved. Not only they, we have seen it too, and those standing near us are thankful for that. But we see some beneficial categories in the range of pensions. There is more than one category now. Staring with the category of Great Patriotic War veterans with disabilities, participants in the Great Patriotic War, residents of blockade Leningrad, and currently imprisoned minors are seeking benefits… We support everything. Everything is worthy. These benefits, you see, they not only divide us, but they also lead to confrontations between us in our progressive age. Is it not high time for our state leadership to think of how to halt this process and choose a different way? We remember how you put a stop to the “parade of sovereignties”, our compliments to you, we remember that! Certainly, the law… First, very good laws are often adopted but their mechanism is very much failing.  What we end up with, therefore – finally you see that negative result. So we should think about decent wages for those who work. For our children and grandchildren. As a result, the pensions will also go up because people will have earned them.

Vladimir Putin: Absolutely right.

Irina Skripacheva: There are professionals, specialists. That’s what we should think about. As for us, the wartime generation… We remember the post-war years. At the time we took it with a bit of (amiable) irony. When starting from 1947 here in Leningrad we were constantly told about price cuts for food and consumer goods. But things were improving year in and year out. We felt that we had survived, that the war was over and that we were all moving forward, the whole nation. One can make comparisons. Because this doesn’t concern only the doctors’ pensions (which Boris Belyavsky spoke about). What about teachers and all the others? Our children… My daughter retired on May 9. She can barely pay the utilities and buy drugs with her pension. Very little is left for everyday expenses. Something has to be done about it.  I would like to say something about public health. Physical culture. They started destroying it in our time in the Soviet Union because physical culture and the PT teacher were regarded as something secondary. And yet health comes from physical culture and that is important. Laws are being passed and what is being introduced at schools now… We must raise a healthy generation, and health begins at school. So if the schools maintain a high standard… And then there should be free hobby groups because most people cannot afford to pay for them. Also, regarding drugs. The situation with medicines is, should I say…

Boris Belyavsky: Abominable.

Irina Skripacheva: It’s abominable. Absolutely dreadful, you are quite right. You see, the laws seem to be there, there is a list of drugs available for free, but you have to first go and see a doctor. It can be a real ordeal. I am not going to name any names, but while we do not give up our right to social benefits, we do not go to the doctor either. We buy as much as we can afford because things are unpredictable. They promise us that drugs will be available. But when and where can we buy them? How many people will pass away before the drugs are delivered? That’s as far as medicines are concerned. The law must be backed up by a relevant mechanism so that it makes a difference to people. What Boris Belyavsky said here may have surprised you, but not me. This is our ideology. That’s the way we were brought up. That was the case in Leningrad.

You will all remember that we used to have a television programme called “A Real Hero”, which showed today’s heroes, like a schoolboy who rescued small kids from a burning house. It was a wonderful programme. What happened to it? Where is it? You know, real heroes… During the programmes they announced the account to which donations could be sent: for example, for treatment, and treatment costs money, and people rushed to remit money. The mechanism is in place, but the programme has gone off the air.

There was a Polish film that left a harrowing impression. A guy went to see the film together with his pregnant wife and she nearly fainted. It was called “Everything for Sale.” The same things are happening today, and we, the older generation, are very worried about it. I am the head of the St Petersburg citizens’ organisation called Survivors of the Leningrad Siege, and our city has the largest number… In general, our city has many elderly people. The Government recognises it, and that is fair because Moscow is twice as big as our city, but our city has more war veterans, including those who survived the siege and have been decorated with the medal For the Defence of Leningrad or the Resident of Besieged Leningrad badge. So there is this discrepancy. They have separated us and have set us against each other in our old age. That is something to consider, and we are ready to do something about it, though we are not ready to speak about it at this very moment.

I would now like to say a few words about our organisation. It has to do with fostering patriotism. Our main task today is to pass on the memories of Leningrad’s heroic feat. Our city survived a 900-day siege. When they speak about the siege being broken even those of our citizens who had been evacuated tend to say: “We weren’t here, but things here weren’t really so bad and it was quiet.” Well, I lived in the Smolny District and my school at 6 Sovetskaya Street was bombed out on April 16, 1943. Air raids and shelling continued and we often had classes in bomb shelters instead of the classrooms.

How can we pass on that baton of memory? We come to schools and speak and we see that the pupils listen to us with great attention. War veterans come if they can and they speak about events that have passed on to the realm of history. We understand that you are often short of time, and I would like to thank you for listening to us. That is the main thing. Formerly, the media, especially television, had a lot to say about it. For us, the survivors of the Leningrad siege, the Road of Life is the main concern. You know that it is suffering the attrition of time, especially the banks of Lake Ladoga. There is a banner there. Some journalists took me there on November 14. On November 15 we had a meeting with the governor at the Veterans’ House. And on the 14th, when they brought me there I could see with my own eyes…You know that on memorable dates we visit the spot where the siege was broken (The Broken Ring), we made a quick visit because out time was limited. And what did I see? The headquarters of the ice road (the Road of Life) across the lake, which was opened on November 19, 1941. What do they look like today? The building, a pre-war rural school where the headquarters were, is still there. There is a decent copper plaque which says that this building housed the Ice Road headquarters. Well, two-thirds of the monument is occupied by hunters and fishermen and only one-third belongs to the Defence of Leningrad Museum. It was a sorry and depressing sight. And I am not even talking about the neglected overgrown bank and the colourful banner on the wall with the words “Land for Sale” and a mobile phone number. All these pictures were taken by a journalist who is well into this theme. She made the films The Road of Life, The Road of Victory. From Leningrad to Berlin via Prague and People’s Volunteers. She is now doing a project which I think is called Leningrad: The Front City.

You see, our young generation needs all this. When we come to talk to them I see that they are listening and our message is getting across to them, which is important. The headquarters of the Ice Road, “the Broken Ring” are under a different jurisdiction. Then there is a museum where the guide Alexander (I forgot his last name) shows us some gaps where they used to have exhibits. Why are these gaps there? Because he cannot guarantee that the items will not be looted. It is under the jurisdiction of the Naval Museum, and the Naval Museum has no money to keep it all in proper order. The Morskoy okhotnik, a patrol boat from the time of the Road of Life, is falling to pieces, due to negative influence of bypassing cars and everything else. Then there is the mound where officer cadets died, there is the Ladoga Wave memorial marker that we installed because the bottom of Lake Ladoga is like another Piskaryovskoye Cemetery. We call it the Road of Life because it really saved those who were here, delivering food,  and we even sent weapons from here, some of which even went to Stalingrad. The city’s factories forged all this in the unbelievable conditions of siege, famine, cold, air raids and bombardment, but the cornerstone for the Ladoga Wave monument was laid. It has yet to be built, but that is another story and I don’t want to waste your time speaking about it now. Further on there is Osinovets, a museum at Osinovets and it ends with the railway. The Okyabrskaya Railway maintains it in a more or less decent condition. In other words, there is this strip along Lake Ladoga… But there is no money… It is part of the Leningrad Region, but it is really about the history of the city of Leningrad (now St Petersburg). So it is not on the balance books either of the region or of St Petersburg… You don’t need to be told about the budget, the budget must address a lot of problems, but these things should be financed out of the federal budget. If investments were made into this, you know, the whole world would come running to visit these places. Speaking about the whole world… One proof is Roosevelt’s letter, which he wrote after the siege was broken (the first Leningrad Victory Day was January 18, 1943) about the valiant soldiers, the courageous men and women and children of this city. Children are frequently mentioned.

Forgive me, I have a letter from a mother who worked at the Baltic Shipyard that repaired ships and she was walking home (when the situation permitted because our mothers spent twenty-four hours a day in factories and hospitals) and she was walking home and did not allow herself to sit down and rest because she knew that if she sat down she would never get up. There were cases like that all over the city. She did not let herself sit down because she had a three-year-old daughter waiting for her. So, a three-year-old was also living through the siege of Leningrad and was among city defenders.

Mr Putin, I attended a round table of the Pensioners’ Union at the Oktyabrskaya Hotel yesterday. It was a roundtable of the Pensioners’Union of Russia. Unfortunately, I was in a hurry for a meeting of our Legislative Assembly (as it was not only a special occasion, but an important official event as well). I have a package that I will hand over to you. I will only read out the first short paragraph, as there have been remarks on this matter already. “The Presidential election in Russia will be held on March 4. We urge all representatives of the older generation and all of the country’s citizens to support Vladimir Putin’s strategic policy aimed at the revival of Russia.” Mr Putin, I can see that all those present here give you their support. Here is our booklet, which we call “the society’s visiting card.” This double-page spread gives the main facts about us: the medal For the Defence of Leningrad and the information on when and who it was founded by, the badge To the Resident of Besieged Leningrad – it is about the history of our society. And here is a photo (can you see it?), this one, in the corner. It was taken in 2004, when I spoke with you. When you came in and I saw you – and Nina Fadeyeva, the chairwoman of children’s homes graduated, was sitting next to me – I said: “Nina!” and we ran towards you… I said in January 2004: “Mr Putin, we support your policy.” And then I spoke about the fairness towards those who were awarded the badge To the Resident of Besieged Leningrad. This shows the organisation of our society.

Vladimir Putin: Have I fulfilled all your wishes?

Irina Skripacheva: Yes, you have. Certainly, there are still problems, but they are being addressed. (Hands over the booklet).

Vladimir Putin: Thank you. You have addressed vitally important and acute issues of social nature. I won’t evade these issues and will comment on them briefly.

First, regarding pensions for the disabled veterans of the Great Patriotic War. As you know, disabled war veterans receive about 23,000 per month, while the average monthly salary nationwide is 24,000 today.

Irina Skripacheva: Is this like the average patients’ temperature around the hospital?

Vladimir Putin: Yes, but this is how it is calculated. Some earn 12,000 in many regions, and the average for Central Russia is 14,000 or 15,000. And war veterans get 23,000. There are also those who work in Siberia, in the Far East, or, to be more exact, in the mining regions, in the North, and they earn about 60,000-70,000.

Irina Skripacheva: Is this the maximum level?

Vladimir Putin: Yes, it is. There are still wages of 12,000, 15,000, 16,000 and 17,000 in Central Russia. And war veterans get 23,000. Still, I believe this is quite a high pension, given the average salaries earned by people across Russia. Ms Skripacheva, you were absolutely right when you said that incomes must be raised in order for Russians to have decent pensions in the future. And we have to increase the so-called – I won’t go into too much detail but there is such a thing as a wage replacement ratio. This is the ratio between the average wages, say, for the last two years, and the pension itself. This wage replacement ratio must be quite high, or the difference between wages and pensions will be catastrophic. Last year and particularly in 2009, we came very close to achieving this level of replacement, similar to European countries, but this was due to a one-time increase in pensions. Now it has gone down a little again. But we should work to make this ratio normal, and we should certainly increase the level of incomes.

Mr Skripacheva, distinguished veterans, I would like to address a system-wide problem that we must resolve. Incomes mustn’t greatly exceed the growth of labour productivity. That is a key issue for any economy. If we, say, simply allocate funds from oil and gas revenues, eventually prices will collapse and we won’t even be able to pay the pensions. You see, we are in the middle of an election campaign and it would be easy enough to say: “We will do this and that,” bang my fist on the table and promise all sorts of things. I am speaking honestly, and only such a responsible approach to tackling economic and social issues will ensure a true development and fulfilment of all our goals with regard to the country’s development, both in the economic and the social sector. Look, over the years, the growth of incomes has outpaced the growth in labour productivity in Russia. The world’s average growth of labour productivity amounts to 3.7%, whereas in Russia it is 3.2%. Unfortunately, we are still lagging behind in terms of labour productivity growth.

Irina Skripacheva: It isn’t higher than that?

Vladimir Putin: No, it isn’t. This is the official data of international organisations. It means that in general we are lagging behind a bit, but we have every opportunity to catch up.

What is happening in our country? Look, in 2000 our average monthly salary – and even though it is “the average temperature across the hospital”, still it is a valid indicator – amounted to 3,000 roubles in Russia. That was in 2000. And if we indexed it simply according to the official inflation rate, our average salary would be about 7,500, if I’m not mistaken. As things stand, it is 24,000 this year. We have an outrunning gowth in salary.

Ms Skripacheva is absolutely right and we would like to have even higher incomes. And we will have them but this must be addressed together with economic growth. We must modernise our economy, making it innovation-driven and up-to-date. Just as the army, the economy must be modern. According to experts, it is possible to reach a different level of labour productivity and growth in incomes, social benefits, etc. on the basis of these structural, qualitative changes. I am confident that we will be able to accomplish this, I have no doubt.

Another very acute issue, which I wouldn’t like to disregard, is medicines. Let’s admit that, first, the early 2000s abounded in discussions and decisions on the provision of free medicines. But in fact, there were no free medicines at all. Last year we allocated about 120 billion roubles through various channels. This year we will allocate 122 billion roubles, with 80% allocated from the federal budget. But all decision-making and the practical organisation of this work was transferred to the regions, and in this case it means St Petersburg. Here the local authorities receive the funds from the federal budget and must organise the work properly. They don’t always succeed in this and sometimes serious problems arise. We have repeatedly discussed this matter with Ms Matviyenko, and I will soon discuss it with Mr Poltavchenko (Georgy Poltavchenko, Governor of St Petersburg). The memorial programmes have been relegated to the regional level but there are issues that must be in the focus of federal attention. If Mr Poltavchenko and Mr Serdyukov do not have enough money to maintain the museum, we are ready to give it. But I’m sure you understand that this is also a matter of determining priorities. There is never enough money but everyone needs to understand the difference between primary and secondary importance. The war memorial programmes are always a priority because they are essential not only for… Don’t be cross but they are necessary not so much for you as for future generations. People must know about the war, they must understand what happened, appreciate it and be proud of it.

Remark: And prevent such a war in the future.

Vladimir Putin: Absolutely! And I made a note of what you’ve said herer. I will talk to them – both to Mr Poltavchenko and Mr Serdyukov (Valery Serdyukov, Governor of the Leningrad Region). Now about …I made a special note. Aside from wages and pensions there is also the provision of housing. You will agree that we never had a programme for supplying housing to veterans like the one we have launched now. And upon just starting it we had 28,000 veterans on the waiting list, but as soon as we lifted restrictions on the time of registration….

Irina Skripachyova: This is great! The issue is resolved. We also receive people in our office and nobody complains. Well, there are complaints but not the avalance of them.

Vladimir Putin: Ms Skripachyova, my dear! After this announcement the number of people on the list increased by ten times. Not by some percentage, but ten-fold. From 28,000 their number grew to 280,000. Now there are another 43,000 on the waiting list and we expect an additional 30,000 to register. But we will keep our promises in any case, and we will need hundreds of billions…

Mr Khachatryan, is there something you want to say?

Zakhar Khachatryan (participant in the Great Patriotic War, a merited artist of Russia): I represent the Union of Artists of St Petersburg and am the chairman of the Veterans Council. I’m 88 years old and I took part in the fighting from Novorossiysk to Berlin through Anapa, Kerch, Simferopol and then in Byelorussia under the command of Zhukov (who replaced Rokossovsky) and up to Berlin – the Vistula and the Oder… We had a bridgehead there, named after the Panfilov division. I was hit by a sniper near Berlin and had a perforating wound. It's a bit ridiculous, how I survived, because living with such a wound… As Suvorov said, die but help your friend… This is what happened, and I survived thanks to my friends who helped me.

What questions do we have now? I fully agree with Ms Skripachyova, who said what I had wanted to say. As for financial difficulties, you know that the Ubion of Artists is now… After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, all creative unions actually ceased to exist. I attended a meeting of the confederation and just arrived from Moscow this morning. They are working hard but cannot restore the former Union of Soviet Artists, which also had its advantages, because it awarded commissions  to artists. What was called socialist or realistic art – it was such irony, such mockery! These new trends, the youth, free art… What artists we had! But these were essentially Soviet artists. Why do they  now  ask who is  this Deineka (a Soviet painter), and who is Gerasimov (a Soviet painter)? This is all strange. Yet, under the influence of these innovative artists the classics…

All exhibitions we stage are very grave… The start of the siege, the breach of the siege, the full liberation of Leningrad… Then we achieved Victory. What were artists supposed to do? They had no material help, no money, no commissions but they had to do something. How could they paint pictures and when?

Many younger artists will not have any pensions because they contribute nothing to the Pension Fund. They don’t have salaries and for this reason, they won’t have pensions. They receive peanuts – some 8,000 roubles at most. This difficulty does now allow artists to fully engage in their occupation. Still, young artists are very active and take part in our exhibition.

I wasn’t prepared, Mr Putin because I didn’t know that I would… I would have brought you some materials to show you what I’m doing. For instance, in 2008 we buried (I personally attended the burial along with the chairman of the veterans council of this district)…

Remark: The Krasnogvardeisky District.

Zakhar Khachatryan: Yes. And we buried 69 soldiers. Nobody had any…anything – they were missing soldiers. But they defended the city with their own hands. I know what it takes to be a soldier. In Novorossiysk we had only Iranian rifles and if a soldier was smart he’d fire it only once because the second time it wouldn't go… These were the weapons we fought with. It was horrifying. These guys died all around St Petersburg – their bones are everywhere. Scout search teams find them… We show it during our exhibitions  and it looks terrible. Every exhibition means mourning. This is how the city was defended – at this expense.

I must say that we all support your policy because we know that there is nobody we could… I’m personally grateful to you because it's thanks to you that I received a one-room flat 65 years after the war. I thanked Ms Matviyenko and she told me I should thank you. Despite my thanks there were some officials who were quick to get in the way… They were trying to find fault with me and finally they found it.

Vladimir Putin: What was it?

Zakhar Khachatryan: They found out I didn’t have permission for privatisation. “Where were you in 1992?” they asked. “I said I was in Leningrad. “No, you were not registered,” they said. “I didn’t have a flat,” I replied. But they insisted I wasn’t entitled to privatisation. They are still on my case about this. And I have proof. Patriarch Alexei and our Catholicos consecrated my icons. This is not a document but the icons are displayed on Nevsky Prospekt in the Church of Maria Magdalena and on Vasilyevsky Island. But no, they don’t take any of that into account.

I’d like to ask for your help with privatising the flat you have given me. As for the exhibitions, we always… I have one more request. At the meeting of the confederation in Moscow, people asked why the minister of culture did not attend its sessions. He does not attend for various reasons. We are no longer the Union of Soviet Artists. So who are we? This is a big question. They are still trying to get together and have invited representatives and heads of all CIS artists unions. Everyone agrees that the contacts must be continued.

What do I want to say to you? I have read Tolstoy. I don’t know what you think, but his world view is entirely different, as I’m sure you know. He accepts five out of the 10 commandments. One of them says we should not be proud of our homeland because all people are children of one and the same father, in a figurative sense.

Indeed, during the war we were children of one and the same father. Nobody knew whether soldiers were Uzbeks or Ukrainians. We were all soldiers of the great country – the Soviet Union. This was the case, Mr Putin and we all fought as equals. And now it looks is if we are not quite brothers, are we? All this talk about this subject is ugly. We live in a multi-ethnic country. Where will we go from here? There is nowhere to go. We lived and will live here.

Thank you for giving me awards and titles. I have a medal “For Loyalty to Russia.” Thank you once again. I’m grateful to you.

We are residents of this country. I can’t speak. I’m on the verge of tears. I have just been to the Piskaryovskoye Cemetery and saw my friends there…. I could have been there, too... I’ll tell you straight – I don’t know whether this country was good or bad, but it was ours. Where can we go from here?

Irina Skripachyova: This was our country. That's right.

Zakhar Khachatryan: It was and will be ours. Thank you for receiving us and having this calm conversation.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you. Thank you very much. As for creative unions, it will be difficult for us to interfere in their work. It is particularly difficult to restore the creative unions of the Soviet Unions – they have mutual grievances and it is practically impossible to interfere into this process. As far as your problem is concerned we will resolve your issues. These are technical issues and it is not a problem. As for support of creative workers in general, not their unions but workers themselves, we must give it some thought and there is a lot to do in this respect. The problem you mentioned – the multi-ethnic problem – is one of the most pressing issues, but it is not the only one. There are many issues and we are working on them. In conclusion I’d like to emphasise that we will resolve these issues, with your support. We need it. We count on you like we did in the past. Thank you very much. I wish you all the best.

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