MOSCOW -- Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, crowds have grown at the Martha and Mary Convent in Moscow.
The white-walled women's monastery houses one of Russia's best known charities that gives out free food parcels, among other projects.
"Before the pandemic we had around 30 to 40 people a day," Yelena Timoshchuk, a social worker at Miloserdie (Mercy) told AFP, leaning against a table loaded with bottles of sunflower oil.
"Now we get about 50 to 60 people daily. It's a heavy workload."
Many of the visitors who queue for packages containing buckwheat, sugar and tea are retired, but there are also those who have lost their jobs or had their salaries cut.
The coronavirus pandemic has delivered a new blow to Russia's stagnating economy, which was already chafing under Western sanctions, low oil prices and weak corporate investment.
Rising poverty, falling incomes and lack of tangible government support during the pandemic are fuelling discontent with President Vladimir Putin's two-decade rule and strengthening the opposition, say observers.
Answering the jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny's call, tens of thousands of people have protested across Russia over the past few weeks, and his team plans more protests ahead of parliamentary elections in September.
Russians' real disposable incomes have been falling for the past half-decade, and contracted by 3.5% in 2020, while the cost of basic foodstuffs surged.
Aware of growing anger over falling living standards, Putin in December ordered ministers to introduce emergency measures to cap prices.
Despite government efforts to rein in inflation, the cost of sugar was 64% higher in January than it was a year earlier.
Sandra, 66, said she had stopped going shopping and instead turned to Miloserdie's free food parcels.
"You can't buy anything anymore," said the pensioner, who did not give her last name. "Before I could afford to feed the birds, but now even grain is expensive."
'Risks have increased'
"From the point of view of political consequences, the current situation does not look good," said Igor Nikolayev, head of strategic analysis at FBK Grant Thornton, a financial consulting firm based in Russia.
"The risks for the authorities have increased."
Older Russians were particularly "very sensitive" about rising prices because they brought to mind runaway inflation that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he said.
Nikolayev suggested the Russian government might unveil a new economic package to dampen social discontent ahead of the parliamentary polls.
"They have to do something," he said.
According to a recent poll by the independent Levada Centre, 43% of Russians do not rule out protests motivated by economic demands, a level last seen in 1998.
Seventeen percent of respondents were ready to take part in those protests themselves, the study found.
Recent protests showed that anger at the authorities was no longer limited to the marginalised opposition and that many demonstrators were motivated by economic hardship, said Denis Volkov, deputy director at Levada.
The protesters wanted to "express their disappointment with the authorities, concern over a lack of prospects and the dead end in which our country has found itself according to them", Volkov wrote in the Russian edition of Forbes last month.
"Authorities have nothing to offer to those who are unhappy over their policies," he added, pointing to "ostentatious wealth" of the Russian elites and growing divisions in society.
Russia turning into a 'dictatorship'
Young Russians have made up a large part of the protests sweeping the country.
Navalny's near-fatal poisoning with Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent in Siberia last August and his subsequent arrest in January upon his return to Russia after recovering in Germany was the catalyst for the protests.
But protesters are also upset about rampant corruption and wealth inequality and they are worried about the country's future.
Residents of Moscow and Saint Petersburg on Sunday (February 14) staged Valentine Day's flash mobs in residential courtyards and public squares, lighting their phone flashlights in support of Navalny.
Protester Alexander Kozhokar, one of around 50 people who lit their phone lights on Manezhnaya Square near the Kremlin, said he feared that Russia was turning into a "dictatorship".
"I am afraid of thinking what will come next," the 28-year-old factory worker from the town of Mytishchi outside Moscow told AFP.
At a playground in Moscow, about 30 demonstrators gathered -- some with dogs, others with children -- lighting flashlights and arranging Christmas lights in the shape of a heart on the snow-covered ground.
Protester Mikhail Orlov said he joined the playground flash mob to signal his unhappiness with Putin's policies.
"The country is in decay; science is in decay," the 29-year-old engineer told AFP.
Orlov's wife, Maria, said she was beginning to consider whether they needed to leave Russia. "I don't feel protected here," she said.
In an affluent neighbourhood in Moscow, 28-year-old stand-up comedian Garik Oganisyan said he wanted to see political change.
"I don't like what's happening in this country, how people are being sent to jail over re-tweets in an open and brazen manner."
Yekaterina Nikiforova, an 18-year-old political science student who joined earlier pro-Navalny rallies in Vladivostok, said the country was stagnating.
She told AFP she could not see "any prospects of economic and political development" in Russia.
Arseny Dmitriyev, 22, a sociology graduate who rallied in Saint Petersburg, struck a similar note.
"Just looking at the statistics, I understand that real disposable incomes are falling and the quality of life is not improving," he said.