Lifestyle

'Angel', 80, drives to aid of poor St Petersburg pensioners

Long retired from her job as a Saint Petersburg trolley driver, 80-year-old Galina Yakovleva still spends her days behind the wheel, but now in a mini-van distributing food to needy pensioners.

A decade ago Galina Yakovleva created the charity "Dobrota" -- or "Kindness" -- a one-woman operation where she works as director, manager and driver for needy pensions in Saint Petersburg
A decade ago Galina Yakovleva created the charity "Dobrota" -- or "Kindness" -- a one-woman operation where she works as director, manager and driver for needy pensions in Saint Petersburg (AFP)

Long retired from her job as a Saint Petersburg trolley driver, 80-year-old Galina Yakovleva still spends her days behind the wheel, but now in a mini-van distributing food to needy pensioners.

"I do it because I like to help people and I like to drive," she laughs during one of her daily rounds. "With this I can do both at the same time."

A decade ago Yakovleva created the charity "Dobrota" -- or "Kindness" -- a one-woman operation where she works as director, manager and driver.

Pensioners across Russia are struggling to make ends meet and deeply unpopular government plans to raise the retirement age have brought the issue into the spotlight.

President Vladimir Putin in October signed a bill that will lift the retirement age for men to 65 from 60, and for women from 55 to 60, in the first hike for almost 90 years.

The move has sparked rare street protests in a country where the elderly often have to keep working to bolster their meagre aid from the state.

"Here she is, our guardian angel!" shouts Nina, Yakovleva's 84-year-old neighbour as they meet in the courtyard of the complex where they live.

Yakovleva takes a box of cakes out of the back of her van and hands it over.

"Come on, there's a crate of apples to get from a friend and then I've got three visits to do," she says as she turns on the ignition.

The average monthly pension in Saint Petersburg is 12,300 rubles ($180), while the official poverty line is set at 7,000 rubles.

"Pensioners still have to pay their bills and for their medicines, which can be expensive," Yakovleva explains. "So my help is always useful."

Independent restaurants, corner shops and bakers, along with friends and acquaintances, supply the food, clothes and other essential items that she distributes.

"Sometimes I have to use my charm," to get businesses to cooperate, says the diminutive octogenarian, dressed in trousers and a black leather jacket, her hair immaculately styled.

Stopped by police

Handing over the apples, her friend Elena Varakushina confirms it's with her "character and charm" that the energetic pensioner convinces small businesses to donate.

Despite her previous work on the trolleys, Yakovleva says she is still sometimes stopped by police when they see her behind the wheel of a mini-van.

"They're friendly, it's just because they're curious. It's rare to see a woman of my age driving in Russia!"

"Most of my 'charges' are pensioners, but there are also disabled people and some large families," she says.

The recent pension reforms caused a backlash that saw several Kremlin-backed candidates defeated in regional elections across the country.

But Yakovleva steers clear of politics, preferring to focus on the "joy" she is able to bring with her deliveries.

"Where do I find them?" she asks of the people she helps. "Everywhere. Sometimes on the street but most of the time through friends or acquaintances."

Nina Savelyeva, a 94-year-old retired engineer, says Yakovleva's help is essential for her survival, as she welcomes her into her flat during the morning round.

"I don't understand how people can be so uninterested (in us) nowadays," she says.

"Today people just think of themselves. But that's not true with Galina. I admire her kindness, and if I tell you the truth, I couldn't do what she does."