Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 16

The Star-Crossed Mission of Ella Pamfilova

by Yelena Dikun

Ella Pamfilova entered politics on the crest of the first democraticwave in 1989, when she was elected a deputy of the USSR SupremeSoviet. In the country’s highest legislative body, she was rememberedfor her clear voice, her sincerity, and her high ideals. The youngcharming woman waged a constant battle against the special privilegesenjoyed by the party elite.

In 1991, she was appointed minister of social security of thepopulation in the "government of reformers" headed byYegor Gaidar. For three years, Pamfilova tried to solve the mostdifficult Russian problem — the social problem.

But in 1994, Ella Aleksandrovna left the government "of herown volition," slamming the door behind her on the way out.At the time, she publicly declared that all Prime Minister ViktorChernomyrdin’s assertions that the economy had become "socially-oriented"were nothing but pure window-dressing.

After her resignation, Ella Pamfilova returned to her post asdeputy, and in the State Duma, continued to work on social problems.The need is certainly there. There are 2.7 million unemployedin Russia today. In the half of 1996, the average monthly incomeof a worker was 714,000 rubles, and the average pensioner received271,000 rubles a month. The minimum subsistence level was 364,000rubles per person per month. Thus, 34.9 million people, i.e.,24 percent of the population, have incomes below the minimum subsistencelevel.

Ella Pamfilova knows how hard it is for ordinary people to makeends meet–and not just from the statistics. Although two anda half years have passed since she left her post as minister ofsocial security, and became an ordinary deputy, she gets dozensof letters a day in which people describe their sorrows and misfortunes.

Here are just a few of them:

* "I am 67 years old, I am very sick, I can’t walk, andI live alone. My husband died two years ago. My pension is 135,000rubles a month. How is it possible to live on this money? 35,000goes to rent, electricity, and the telephone bill. I can’t affordto eat anything but bread. I have worked for 43 years, I’m a certifiedveteran of labor, and what do I have to show for it? Not evena garden plot to call my own. The government promised that theywould increase the pensions of people who worked during the warand had medals. But they haven’t done it. When will the peopleat the top understand that people are starving and dying everyday? Please, I beg you, show my letter to Chernomyrdin. Perhapshe’ll take pity on me. I deserve better." Anna Vasilieva,Syzran, Samara oblast.

* "I am a retired woman, born in 1932, without much inthe way of property. My pension is 127,000 rubles a month. I ama certified veteran of labor. I have worked for 29 years. I wasan engineer-economist, and now it has turned out that I have onlyearned enough for bread and kasha. Meat is now only a distantmemory. Even the smell of the neighbors’ food coming through thewindow is almost too rich for me now. I am in constant need ofmedication — I suffer from an irregular heartbeat, and my feethurt — but I don’t have the money for it. I can’t say that thingswere good before — even then, we had to count every kopek –but then, at least, we were warmed by the hope that we would seea ‘radiant future’ in our lifetimes. I don’t blame anybody, Idon’t blame the government for it, but I can’t hang on like thisfor long. Please, I beg of you, help me if you can."Lidia Subbotina, Essentuki.

* "We are retired weavers from the mills of Ivanovo, wherethere are many people unemployed and poor. If you only knew howunbearable it is to live in poverty. Just as during the war, wecan’t get enough to eat. We’re sick of seeing that the store shelvesare full — but not for someone whose pocketbook is as empty asours: our pensions are only 100-150,000 rubles a month. Our clothesare all threadbare, but we never buy new clothes; the prices areoutrageous, and our pensions are only enough for bread, milk,potatoes, and rent and utilities. The new ‘Bogorodskoye’ cemeteryfilled up in just a year and a half, and those fields were enormous.People are dying like flies, since only one out of 100 can buymedicine at 30,-50,000 a pack. They’ve taken everything away fromretired people: our food, our friends (we have nothing to servethem when they come to visit), the movies, the bathhouse, thebeauty parlor. To be frank, we no longer believe in anyone oranything, and we’ll die before things get any better. We won’teven have enough for our funerals. For ten years, I salted away’funeral money.’ Now the money I’ve saved wouldn’t buy anythingmore than half a kilo of the cheapest variety of sausage."Nina Smirnova, Ivanovo.

* "I am just 20 years old, but my life is already over.At the age of 18, I got called up and went to serve in the army.I served 400 days and was badly wounded ‘while performing my soldierlyduty.’ Now, I am a first-class invalid. I can’t roll over withouthelp. I can’t even lift a spoon to my mouth, and now I use myhead to help my hand write this letter. I have not received anycompensation for my ruined health. All I was given was a miserablepension. The government turned me, a healthy young man, into ahelpless freak. I disgust even myself. But I could have been aminer or an engineer, a banker or a driver. If the governmentdoesn’t want to help those who have suffered through its own fault,then it would have been better if they had just put us to sleep,like stray dogs. Consider this letter to be my official requestfor euthanasia." Vladimir Kalyuzhny, Donetsk-3, Rostovoblast.

"If people put their hopes and expectations in me, then Iam simply obliged to do my best to live up to them," saysElla Pamfilova. "But the door to the executive branch structuresis barred to me now: in the first place, I don’t expect anythinggood from the present government, and second, I have broken relationswith them for good. But that actually makes it easier for me.I can do and say whatever I think necessary."

Ella Pamfilova really does have unique experience in social problems.She passed through the "school of hard knocks" at thefactory to which she was assigned after graduating from the MoscowEnergy Institute. She worked there as a foreman, and developeda new procedure for repairing equipment for the electrical powerplants in Moscow and the Moscow oblast. She headed a shop of 120employees: some of whom had prison records. But these "tough"men elected this "weak" woman to be chairman of thefactory trade union committee. And after that, at the Congressof Energy and Electrical Workers, she was nominated to run fordeputy of the USSR Supreme Soviet. There were eleven other candidateson the list, all of them men, but Pamfilova once again prevailed.

Not long ago, I asked Ella Pamfilova why she doesn’t take up thefight against privileges again, the fight in which she "madeher name" when she was a deputy of the USSR Supreme Soviet.She answered: "Because the nature of these privileges haschanged. We are no longer talking about special rations or specialstores, but of abuse of power, and the settling of personal accountsand the building up of spheres of influence under the guise of’fighting corruption.’ A cynical redistribution of property istaking place. In a word, the character of the ruling elite hasnot changed. It’s the same old corrupt, elitist, nomenklatura-bureaucraticswamp, in which everything worthwhile sinks and drowns."

Pamfilova says that when she was appointed minister of socialsecurity of the population, she naively thought that if she didsomething good, no one would oppose it.

Now, looking back on her time in Yegor Gaidar’s government, Pamfilovaadmits that she had no clear conception of that government’s politicalcourse. That government had its "intellectual wing"– Yegor Gaidar, Aleksandr Shokhin, Petr Aven, Anatoly Chubais,and she had a secondary role.

But soon she understood that it was impossible for her to worklike that. The problems kept snowballing: the collapse of thesocial security system, the liberalization of prices, delays inthe payment of salaries and pensions. Then, in Ella Pamfilova’swords, she began to think about cause and effect.

Ella Aleksandrovna does not deny that she probably made mistakesin her ministerial post, out of inexperience or romanticism, but,at times, she is blamed for too much. For example, some peoplethink that she was the one who was behind the subordination ofthe pension fund to the government (it had been subordinated tothe Supreme Soviet,) and that this, in the final analysis, waswhat made it run out of money. In fact, things happened a littledifferently. It came to Pamfilova’s attention that money fromthe pension fund, (which was controlled by Ruslan Khasbulatovat the time) was being spent on arms for Chechnya. She reportedthis information to the president, and asked him to do somethingabout it. An enormous sum of money had been concentrated in thepension fund and she saw her task as being to establish strictcontrol over this money and to spend it rationally. This was tobe the role of government. The fact that the government used tofulfill its obligations and make its payments to the fund on time,and now "liquidates" its pension debts the same wayit does its payroll debts, i.e., by delaying them for months,is another matter entirely…

Ella Pamfilova handed in her resignation from her ministerialpost twice. The first time was after Yegor Gaidar was forced outof the government in late 1992.

At that time, Yeltsin was able to persuade her to stay.

When Pamfilova submitted her resignation for the second time in1994, she had a clearer reason: the reforms weren’t moving forward,what went under the name of "reform" was nothing buta travesty. The raw-material producers were cynically and ignorantlytearing the country apart.

At that time, she submitted her resignation several times, butthe papers always managed to get lost. Finally, however, the presidentgave in, but only under the condition that she would continueto work on social problems. A Council on Social Policy was formedunder the presidential administration, and Pamfilova was appointedto head it. She and her small staff worked all summer and preparedan effective anti-poverty program. This was not just a statementof principles but a plan to reform wage and employment policies,tying them to investment and modernization. But when the Councilpresented its proposal to the government, it was told in no uncertainterms that they had no need of it.

Later, in November 1994, when the first provocation had takenplace in Chechnya, Pamfilova set off for Grozny with three otherDuma deputies. When they came back, Ella Pamfilova spoke quitesharply on television, on the "Podrobnosti" [Details]program, saying that the Security Council had become a collectivemaniac committing senseless murders, and that she hoped that thepresident would have nightmares about the children who were dyingin the bombing raids. After that statement, the Council on SocialPolicy was quietly dissolved. Ella Aleksandrovna read about itin the press…

Ella Pamfilova had always been a loyal and devoted supporter ofYegor Gaidar

but at the end of 1994, Pamfilova left Gaidar’s faction. She explainedher decision by saying that Russia’s Choice had adopted a policyof appeasement towards the government. The straw which broke thecamel’s back was Anatoly Chubais’ behavior when he agreed to takethe job of first vice-premier without consulting with the factionfirst. "How can I understand a situation," asked Pamfilova,"in which democrats are leaving the government because itis impossible for them to work there, and reforms are being rolledback, and after all this, Chubais goes and" [enters it.]

There have been several times in Ella Pamfilova’s political careerin which she has tried to "build bridges" between rivalmale democratic leaders. For example, at the very beginning ofthe presidential campaign, she tried to convene a forum of democraticforces to nominate a single candidate for president. Pamfilovathen held a series of negotiations with Yegor Gaidar, GrigoryYavlinsky, Boris Fedorov and others. They all warmly supportedthe idea in words, but, as is well-known, nothing came of it.

In spite of the fact that Pamfilova’s efforts have often met witha wall of misunderstanding and indifference, she still maintains,if not romanticism, then a certain optimism. This optimism isbased on the conviction that Russians are a clever and unusuallytalented people. "Yes, things are bad for people. Their salariesare not being paid on time, there’s corruption all around, crimeis rampant, but people understand that now, at least, they havea chance to do something on their own. Quietly, more and morepeople are squeezing the slave out of their souls, bit by bit.Once you have enough of such people, they will no longer allowthe government to behave so high-handedly," Ella Pamfilovabelieves.

Translated by Aleksandr Kondorsky and Mark Eckert