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Moscow on $1 a day

In one of the world's richest cities, unemployment won't pay the bills.

People line up to attend a job fair in St. Petersburg March 18, 2009. Millions of Russians have lost their jobs and the ruble has slumped against the dollar in the crisis, ending a 10-year boom. (Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters)

MOSCOW — Twice a week, Nikolai makes the trek along Moscow’s most congested roadway to a small one-story building packed with dozens of people in thick winter coats.

He sits and waits — for at least two hours, but often for much longer — to see if the unemployment office has found him a job. He always arrives at the office with hope, but after three long months and endless applications, his hope is starting to wear thin.

Nikolai is one of millions of Russians who have lost their jobs in a mass wave of unemployment, as the country’s economic boom has ground to a screeching halt.

“About half of my friends have lost their jobs,” says Nikolai, 25, who asked that his last name not be used. Nikolai lost his in October, when the federal forestry agency he worked for laid off half its work force.

According to the government, 6.4 million Russians are unemployed today, or about 8.5 percent of the working age population. At least another million have had their work weeks cut, or have been forced into unpaid leave. An untold number more have had their wages cut or withheld, a widespread practice in Russia when times turn tough.

All this has shocked average Russians and the system alike. For most Russians, quality of life  steadily improved under the presidency of Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, leading to sky-high approval ratings.

In the wake of the Soviet collapse, Russia hardly experienced any unemployment, though millions worked without pay as the economy adjusted to the shock of capitalism. It rose sharply after the August 1998 financial crisis, reaching 13 percent, and its steady decline since then contributed greatly to Putin's popularity.

Now many find themselves thrust back into a situation — with no jobs or with decreased wages, able to buy fewer things, travel to fewer places — that they thought was gone forever.

Tamara sits in the same unemployment office in the northern Moscow neighborhood of Marina Roshcha. Her face is weary from the three-hour wait.

“I haven’t worked in 10 years, but now the situation in my family has changed,” says Tamara, who also asked that her last name not be used. “I’m hoping to find a job as a secretary. I won’t take less than 15,000 ($450) rubles a month, but I’m doubtful I’ll get that.”

That may sound a measly amount in a city that consistently ranks among the world’s most expensive. But it is much more than what Tamara can hope to make once she registers as unemployed.