Shortly after Russian tanks began rolling into the Ukraine in February, Vladimir Levitin lost access to the pension that provided more than a third of his family’s monthly income.
The 81-year-old Russian émigré, who lives with his wife in senior housing in Brighton, says the couple each received $200 a month from their Russian pensions — but the much needed financial help stopped arriving this spring when the United States imposed economic sanctions against the country.
“The last time we received the pension from Russia was March 2022,” Levitin recently told GBH News through an interpreter. The pension has been a key pillar of his income since 2002, when he traveled back to Russia to enroll, he said.
Levitin is one of about 70 émigrés in Greater Boston who have been petitioning the Social Security Administration to recognize their lost income and boost their monthly federal payments to offset their losses. That’s according to staff members from the office of Rep. Jake Auchincloss, a Democrat from Newton, who say they have been working with concerned pensioners to contact Social Security and get their benefits increased.
There could be thousands more affected across the United States. A 2012 federal report found there were between 7,000 and 10,000 Social Security recipients who were also receiving, or were eligible, for pensions from Russia based on their work histories. Under federal rules, a retiree’s monthly Social Security benefIts are reduced by the amount of monthly income generated by a foreign pension.
Officials from the Social Security Administration could not be reached for comment. But the agency in September issued an “emergency message” to its staff, noting that pensioners’ income could be affected because of economic sanctions against Russia, prompted by the war in Ukraine.
The agency told staff to stop deducting Russian pensions from Social Security recipients’ monthly checks. In addition, the agency implemented a process for émigrés to seek this relief even if they can’t document their lost pension payments.
Michelle Spadafore, a senior supervising attorney for New York Legal Assistance Group, which serves a large Russian population, regularly interacts with the Social Security Administration through her job. She applauded the federal agency for giving pensioners the benefit of the doubt.
The problem, Spadafore said, is that staff in local Social Security offices may be unaware of the new policy. Spadafore said her biggest concern is for pensioners who can’t get help navigating the system. If a staff member has not read the message or forgotten about it, a claimant calling on their own behalf may not know the new policy exists or how to find it.
“Social Security should be making their staff aware of all new emergency messages,” said Spadafore. “Do their staff read every single new emergency message, understand it, and then apply it in all relevant cases? I find that to be unlikely.”
It does not appear to be the case in Boston.
The operator of the senior housing complex where Levitin lives, 2Life Communities, says about one-third of the people living in its seven Eastern Massachusetts facilities are Russian. The nonprofit says it is aware of 84 residents who stopped receiving Russian pensions, and there could be more who have not yet noticed the lost income.
Lucy Tsitlenko, a service coordinator with the nonprofit, says she’s been helping about two dozen Russian residents pester the Social Security Administration’s office in Boston to recognize their losses and boost their benefits. But it’s been a struggle to reach anyone. She said she has only received responses from the office through electronic fax.
“They never call back,” Tsitlenko said. “They never reply to any kind of phone calls. They don’t have the email.”
A GBH News reporter called the local Social Security office for a response to this story, but hung up after half an hour on hold — without ever getting to speak to a live person.
Tsitlenko said she and other 2Life staff have had success with several cases, but some are still outstanding, and in one case, they have had to file a formal appeal.
Levitin, a former electromechanical engineer who has lived in the 2Life community since 2011, said he and his wife each received $200 a month from their Russian pensions and about $400 a month from Social Security, plus a $100 stipend combined from the state of Massachusetts.
Because they live in a government-subsidized unit, 2Life was able to adjust their rent to match their reduced income. But beyond that, Levitin says, all that is left in his pocket is “minimal’nyy,” a Russian word meaning “very little.”
Originally published in GBHNews on November 30, 2022