Caldwell, Melissa L. Not by Bread Alone: Social Support in the New Russia. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004.
Reviewed by Cheryl K. Hosken.
Not by Bread Alone is an enthnographic study of the elderly poor in Moscow who were fed in church-supported soup kitchens in the late 1990s. The ministry of the soup kitchens continues to this day, although diminished in size. For those of us who desire to understand Russian society and how it works, Melissa Caldwell’s study is filled with useful information. It is also helpful that the author knows the Russian language and understands not only conversations, but also the nuances of meaning in words people use. She details her observations with examples that she herself experienced.
The theme of the book is “making do” with the economic and material uncertainties of life in Russia, especially following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Soviet citizens nearly always experienced a shortage of consumer goods. Thus, families had a network of family and friends who procured needed items and lent money when necessary. In the 1990s, consumer goods increased, but disposable income was practically nonexistent. Therefore, Western agencies and humanitarian organizations began to distribute food packages and feed the poor.
The book focuses on a food program set up by the congregation of the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy. For a number of reasons, it is a fine example of koinonia, the New Testament Greek term for sharing or fellowship. The program feeds those who are most needy as recommended by the local social welfare offices. Students who are in need of food serve as volunteers and receive one hot meal per day. The church supervises the program and works with locally run cafeterias to prepare and serve food. A good percentage of the food recipients and volunteers worship together at the host church. By working together, these groups serve and form community for the elderly poor. The food program gave the elderly companionship, information on goods for low prices, a sharing of needs and ways to meet needs, and celebration of personal and national holidays. In other words, more than just bread was shared in the cafeteria.
The network of family and friends is used today as well to help the elderly in times of trouble or material need. The practical rules governing what one can expect to receive in exchange from this network is difficult for Westerners to understand. However, the author gives examples of exchange, gift giving, and to whom one can look for help. Russian elderly also need to reciprocate charity and kindness shown them even if the return gift has little monetary value. Such a revelation will help Westerners understand the need to accept gifts or invitations to tea with an elderly person. The book also explores changes in Russian society and interpersonal networks through globalization and technology. Family relationships are changing as Russia has been introduced to name brands, personal computers, European culture and trends, and increased amounts of disposable income.
The book ends with a note of uncertainty about the continuation of food programs for the elderly. Russia has certainly changed since Ms. Caldwell’s original visit in 1997. From information I have gathered in Moscow, many food programs were negatively affected by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack. Funding from the West decreased, therefore lowering the number of pensioners who could be served. Russian Duma legislation is also affecting pensioners and handicapped people. They will receive increased monthly income in cash payments but all discounts for housing services and assistive equipment will be removed. Prescriptions will be subsidized at what is now about $12 per month (Moscow Times, 13 August 2003). Given such small pensions for the elderly, perhaps those who now sponsor food programs will find it necessary to continue and even expand them.
Cheryl K. Hosken teaches social work courses at the Russian-American Christian University, Moscow, and with her husband, Bob, heads Agape Biblia and Agape Rehab Society.
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© 2004 East-West Church and Ministry Report