Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 2

Despair in the Russian Provinces

The "Forgotten People"

"It seems that the world has forgotten all about our little forest village. The timber industry enterprise has been closed, and half of the people are out of work, since there’s no other business here. The young people have all left, but the old people have to suffer on here. Those who are still working haven’t received any paychecks for the last five to seven months. At least they give us our salary in the form of food every other month; otherwise, we’d be working for free. The weather here has gotten bad. Last year, the potato crop rotted (due to the acid rain), and the same thing is expected this year. Again, we’ll be without potatoes. The bakery here hasn’t worked for two years, and they’ve closed the Workers’ Supply Department. There was no one to run it. We bake our own bread, that is, if we have enough money to buy flour. Unemployment compensation isn’t being paid either. In short, it’s a real mess, and no one knows where to turn for help."

Aleksandra Pekh, Soplesk, Komi republic

How "New Russians" Grow Up

"I’m 14 years old. I started working at 11 — as a longshoreman. Now I work as a manager in a local company. I could live on my own, without my parents’ help. But former soldiers, able-bodied men, can’t even earn enough for a piece of bread. I don’t understand it. They could hire themselves out to their farm, plant potatoes, sell them at the market, or trade them. They could do anything. Is it really impossible to find honest work here? Many of these men, who are really too old to be staying at home, have obviously been brought up to be a burden on their parents, and on the state.

"But our family, like many others, doesn’t just work from nine to five, but as long as it has to. My father is the president of a big company. He built it from the ground up, having only 500 rubles in his pocket at the beginning of perestroika. My oldest brother is the director of a company, and another brother is a commercial director. We younger ones are learning commerce, business, and if we have to become longshoremen or sales clerks to do it–we’re not afraid of that kind of work. We do the kind of work that you can’t fit into a narrow specialty. We are learning this, in spite of the fact that they call people like us ‘god-damned capitalists.’ We give millions of others the chance to earn their own good piece of bread and butter, even though we work harder than any of them do."

D. Mitin, 14 years old, Abakan

Getting the "Run Around"

"For three years now, I have been waiting for an answer to a question which seems to me quite simple. In August 1993, railroad transport workers (engineers, carriage-building workers, assemblers) got the right to retire under favorable conditions, at the age of 55, while we, the railroad electrical mechanics and other workers right next to them, who worked under the same harsh conditions, got no such privileges. My co-workers asked me to find out why.

"I wrote the minister of transportation about this injustice, and received this answer from a department head: ‘It is impossible for me to give a concrete answer to your question.’

"I wrote to the chairman of the Railroad Workers’ Union, to see if he could help a working man find the truth. They gave me the brush-off as well: ‘The Railroad Workers’ Union cannot answer this question. Everything depends on the Ministry of Transportation and the Ministry of Labor.’

"I resigned from the union and wrote to the State Duma. They said that ‘materials on working conditions and a medical statement justifying the need for such privileges must be presented.’

"I looked for a way to collect such information, and wrote again to the Ministry of Transportation, to the director of social development, and got an answer back from his deputy, A. Klyashchitsky, who gave me the address of a research institute. So I wrote the institute, and got a statement back, saying that ‘the working conditions for electrical mechanics are just as dangerous as those for fitters, assemblers, and railroad inspectors.’

"I was glad. It was hard, but I had found what I was looking for. Then, on the basis of this scientific data, I wrote a letter to the Ministry of Labor, but got an unintelligible answer from the Ministry of Transportation, from the very same Klyashchitsky.

"I wrote to the president of Russia, explaining the situation in detail, telling him that not only had a great number of workers been offended, instead of sending me intelligible answers, high-ranking officials had given me the ‘run-around’ for a long time.

"Shortly thereafter, I received a response to my letter, again signed by Klyashchitsky. I understood that it was useless to carry on any kind of conversation with our government. In the end, Klyashchitsky acidly replied: ‘I consider it inexpedient to continue our correspondence.’

"No matter where I turned, the figure of the bureaucrat Klyashchitsky loomed. I will never know whether people at the top would have acted justly or unjustly, because all my avenues were blocked by this man."

Vladimir Vyaznikov, Gubakha, Perm oblast.

I Am a Worker

"I was a worker, I’m still a worker, and we’ll still have the last word. Our light bulb factory is still in operation, but not all the time. We haven’t seen our salaries in months. At least our parents — who still get their pensions — sometimes help us out, giving us money and bread. But now, even the elderly people are getting their pensions a month or more late. At least I have my own garden, and my goat. I have three children. The youngest is ten years old. Sometimes you have to think long and hard to find ways to feed them.

"We elected the director of our factory. I must confess that I worked hard on the election. People trusted me, and I believed that if we could elect our own director that everything would go easily, like a knife through hot butter. The plant would be profitable, and we’d all have work again.

"I’m ashamed to look people in the eyes now. Our director, as soon as he got in power, changed completely, started looking out for himself first. But we started the same year, and he started as a normal worker. In a word, he got greedy. He tried to run for the State Duma, but he didn’t get in.

"Now, you can’t speak out against people like this at work anymore. They’ll show you the door, and not only you, but all your friends, too.

"That’s ‘democracy’ for you. Russia has never been in a mess like this before. I’m already ready to do anything, even take up arms. I can’t live like this anymore."

Vladimir Kruglev, Kalashnikovo, Tver oblast.

Problems at the Village Soviet

"I am the chief of administration of our village soviet. There are seven villages and a large former collective farm under my jurisdiction. The work is hard. No one is used to discipline, to demands, anymore. Drunkenness and thievery are pervasive.

"There’s no money. People in the former collective farm haven’t been paid since November 1995. The teachers went on strike in April, were able to get their salaries paid up, and then, again, they were cut off. My salary is 700,000 rubles a month, but I don’t see it. I didn’t have a refrigerator, and took out a loan to get one. Now I have to pay it back, and all of my salary goes to pay off the debt.

"In September, there will be elections for the raion chief of administration. My fate depends on the person who gets elected, for my position falls within his ‘pyramid of patronage.’

"I work hard, and rarely get home before 11 PM. It’s like that every day.

"They don’t give out children’s subsidies. At the oblast level, they decided to replace them with ‘payments in kind.’ But parents in the country don’t want to get bricks, paint, firewood, felt boots, auto service, or food instead of real money. To send a child to school, you need money.

"But the hardest, and most disgraceful, part is the production sector. Almost every day, several sectors on the farm are empty. Workers don’t come out to milk the cows. The chief livestock specialist, the farm manager, and even the sector supervisor have to drag these workers out of their beds and force them to work. The reason is that they are all so drunk that it’s hard to wake them up.

"These men just spit on everything. And with "specialists" like these, you can’t grow grain, or milk cows, or raise children. Their personalities have decayed completely.

"And we still have to rebuild our country. In earlier times, when things were like this, many would have fled the village, but now, where is there to go? People are losing their moral values. Thievery, and drinking up what has been stolen, has dimmed their sense of the need to work."

Yulia Khomutova, Talitsky raion, Sverdlov oblast.

We Have to Defend Our Farm With Pitchforks in Our Hands

"I was one of our country’s first independent farmers. What horrors I have had to go through over the last few years! Everything from arson to having our crops trampled. And all this, from our fellow villagers, who are ‘taking revenge’ on us. They have forgotten how to work, and they won’t let us work. But it seems to me that someone is cleverly agitating our neighbors against us, against independent farmers. Not long ago, my wife had to defend our farm with a pitchfork in her hands. Passing tractors run over our fences all the time. It’s a normal occurrence. We put them back up again. This fight has been going on for eleven years, and I hope that we’ll be able to hold out."

German Ilyin, Tulun district, Irkutsk oblast.

They’re Trying to Shut Me Up

"I have always tried to write articles in the newspapers, even though I work as an electrician. My work as an electrician puts food on the table, and my writing allows me to have an influence on the mood of the people, to take part in their education and moral purification.

"I saw — and still see — this as my civic duty. I don’t tell people bedtime stories with a happy ending, I show them life, in all its harsh unpleasantness. I show them where the ‘palaces’ which have sprung up in our district have come from, and where state property is disappearing. I conduct my own investigations.

"I greeted the changes in the country with great enthusiasm, and am one of the most sincere democrats in our district. But later, things became far from democratic. First, the former district party secretaries ‘privatized’ the democratic government in Shushenskoe, and then privatized all the state property, and divided it among themselves.

"It turned out that in speaking out for democracy, I was fighting, above all, for the happiness of these gentlemen. I had had enough. I decided to tell my countrymen who these people really were, and began to show their boundless thievery, which had become the meaning of their lives, their moral shamelessness, their hypocrisy, and their ties to organized crime.

"I was nothing but a correspondent, speaking out against a criminal clan, but they were more afraid of me than I was of them. They couldn’t force me to be silent. Every month, they took me to court, but the facts were always on my side. (I collect facts very carefully and do not start such a conversation with empty hands.) The newspapers didn’t print my stories, so my friends and I started putting out leaflets and sticking them on lampposts.

"Then they tried to ‘shut my mouth’ another way. On May 25, 1995, at 9:00 a.m. two unknown people wearing masks appeared at my apartment. They wanted to kill me. And they came close. They beat me for a long time, but someone must have scared them off. They were unable to carry out their boss’ orders.

"It took me three whole months to recover, but I got back up again. And I went back to work. The evening of April 18, people staked out my apartment, and knocked me on the head as I was coming in. I lost consciousness. I came to, alive again, and once again, went back to the work that they were trying to stop.

"That’s how I live, as if I were a soldier in a war to which nobody sent me, a volunteer, fighting, in my own way, for democracy. Some may think that I must have a death wish, but democracy is very dear to me, perhaps even dearer than my life."

Nikolai Rumyantsev, Shushenskoe, Krasnoyarsk krai.

Translated by Mark Eckert