Next Step : A Summit of Citizens : ‘Thanks for not abandoning us,’ say Russians. But foreign aid alone can’t pull them out of poverty.
Two countries. Two leaders. Two sets of urgent national priorities.
In Vancouver, Canada, this weekend, the presidents of Russia and the United States are to meet, with emergency support for Russia the chief item on their agenda.
But what do their citizens think? Should Americans give more aid? Will it do Russians much good?
Can it buy both peoples a better future?
Here are dispatches from the countries’ heartlands, from towns as different as classical ballet and a quarterback sneak, yet also similar in many ways.
In February, the manna from Amerika arrived.
There were precisely 14,213 boxes of canned and dry food from Pentagon surplus stocks, accompanied by this stirring note: “From the American people, who assure you that the struggle for democracy is worth it.”
For people in this once-sleepy provincial town where Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky wrote “The Nutcracker Suite,” the “Pathetique” symphony and other classics of 19th-Century music, it was their first exposure to some American classics like barbecued beef, cranberry sauce and succotash.
That was more than a month ago, but still, some of the elderly and needy of Klin happily approach a visitor to say a few words of gratitude for the odd-tasting but appreciated nourishment. Like Daria Sergeyenva Koroleva, 74, who got three cans.
“Thanks for not abandoning us. Thanks for sending those boxes,” the gray-haired woman with the dark brown, gimlet-like eyes, who worked 41 years on a collective farm and now receives a minuscule pension, said cheerfully when asked if she has anything to tell the people of America. “But we’ll get through this. We’re Russians. We’re tough.”
We’re Russians. We’re tough. As grateful as people are here, 50 miles up the road from Moscow, as the presidents of the United States and Russia prepare to hold a meeting largely devoted to new ways of helping this country out of disastrous straits, most are also skeptical there will be any benefit for them.
With Russia’s economic reforms now in their troubled second year, and no end in sight to social and political convulsions, the inhabitants of Klin, population 144,000, seem largely to have concluded that they are on their own.
For no fewer than 90%, the mayor estimates, the end of Soviet socialism has brought impoverishment or a severe decline in living standards.
Klin’s new poor line up to save the equivalent of a dime on the purchase of 10 eggs. Production has dropped at every big factory; the machine-building plant last year ran at only 52.8% of its 1991 output and axed all but 480 members of its 1,000-worker payroll.
The city’s largest employer, the Khimvolokno Amalgamation, the pioneer producer in the Soviet Union of synthetic thread for that once-scorned bourgeois luxury, women’s stockings, is now running at a mere 63% of last year’s output.
“Moscow has the political quarrels. Here we just have economic and social problems--and what problems!” said Alexander N. Postrigan, a native of southern Russia who has been chief administrator here since last July. “Our plants are almost closed down. In the near future, our major objective is just to hang on and survive.”
As a result of what he wryly calls “Russia’s new revolution,” Postrigan estimates that only 10% of Klin’s people now live better than five years ago under Soviet communism.
There has been some Western assistance, but the billions of dollars in aid to Russia trumpeted in the world press look totally inadequate when one analyzes what an individual town receives. To date, Klin has benefited from 22 tons of U.S.-donated powdered milk; more than a million rubles in charitable donations from an Evangelical Baptist church in Canton, Ohio; food shipments from the Netherlands, and the U.S. Defense Department surplus food.
But the collapse of the Soviet system has brought about massive economic dislocation that such donations cannot cure. Klin’s collective farms, like the “Friendship” farm where Koroleva spent her professional life among cows and potato fields, are fiscally on their knees, with a total of more than $1 million in debts because of the skyrocketing prices of fertilizer, insecticides and other goods from town.
As for the new economic freedoms, leery of the risks of individual enterprise and the possibility of a Russian rollback to communism, only a total of 69 people in the half-million-acre district have launched private farms.
To make sure their townspeople don’t go hungry, Klin authorities last year parceled out small land holdings so anyone who wanted could have a private potato patch or soup garden to till. Another 1,000 people are still waiting to get their own garden.
Unemployment isn’t yet a major problem--only 1,300 people are officially registered as unemployed. Of that number, only 400 get unemployment benefits because they are the only ones actively seeking new jobs, according to Yelena V. Zdorova, head of the local unemployment office.
The minimum unemployment payment is about $3 a month. Zdorova estimates about 1,000 other people without work in Klin don’t bother to register--young mothers, who get a state payment if they keep young children at home instead of sending them to kindergarten, and the handicapped, “who understand that nobody will employ them in the current situation.” Other Klin residents say up to 40% of the people who lost their jobs are elderly, and that they don’t bother to register as unemployed because they can get pensions.
Underemployment is another problem. Factories have cut back to four-day workweeks or single-shift production and, because their customers aren’t paying promptly, are churning out merchandise to increase their inventory.
The Titanic struggle in Moscow now being waged by President Boris N. Yeltsin and his opponents seems, from Klin, to be nothing but a shameless contest for power.
“Everything has been destroyed, and now we’re supposed to build up everything again from scratch!” Alexander G. Panchenko, a 55-year-old invalid with arthritis, scowled. “And that Congress! The people are suffering, and they are squabbling over how to divide ministerial portfolios. It’s disgusting.”
“People are all going through a period of great disappointment,” Deputy Mayor Pavel P. Plyukhin said. Apathy and disgust with “those people in the capital” has become common: Democratic Russia, the movement that was Yeltsin’s springboard to the Russian presidency, has been less and less active here.
Meanwhile, Russia’s reborn Communist Party has enlisted only 2,500 members, mostly retirees.
As for the April 25 referendum that Yeltsin said Sunday he will hold, Postrigan says: “If Yeltsin expects people to go to the polls to support him, he will be disappointed.”
Admittedly, the bone-chilling, rainy Russian spring is hardly a time to inspire faith in a better future. In a local gift shop, a decent pair of men’s boots costs an average month’s salary. A hard winter has left streets and roads riddled with large potholes and slathered with mud.
Thanks to Soviet industrial policy, the birch-ringed birthplace of “The Nutcracker Suite” is also now home to factories that belch sulfurous, evil-smelling fumes.
Hope is in far shorter supply than the German-produced candy bars and foreign liqueurs that are now the goods of choice in Klin’s street kiosks, one of the positive consequences of a market economy.
“There is no way out, no one has come forward with a precise program on how to get the country out of the swamp we’re stuck in,” Postrigan muses during a freewheeling conversation in his dimly lit third-floor office.
Paradoxically, Russia’s march to a market economy was supposed to make the state’s role shrink, but in Klin and a thousand other places across the country, it has had just the opposite effect.
City government is having to step in to fill the void left by state-owned enterprises now running in the red or starved for cash.
Sixty percent of Klin’s housing stock belongs to its factories, but the town has had to assume control as factory debts mounted. Khimvolokno was the last holdout, but it too informed Postrigan this month that it could only put a third of the 600 million rubles into keeping up apartment houses that it used to.
Since last year, the municipality has been picking up half of the phone, hot water, heat and rental bills for the needy. Coupons are issued to allow 2,000 retirees and invalids to eat free five days a week at 11 snack bars. The town also pays out large subsidies to keep down the cost to consumers of three basic staples: milk, bread and potatoes.
In 1993, Klin will need an estimated quarter-billion rubles to meet pressing social needs, estimates Lyubov N. Krivstova, chairwoman of the local government committee for social assistance. Since neither Russia nor the Moscow region had adopted an official annual budget nearly three months into the year, Klin leaders don’t know how they will get the money.
And what of potential foreign investment as a means to revive Klin’s economy? The mayor, a swarthy, dark-haired man from the Krasnodar region of southern Russia, smiles wanly.
“Five or six entrepreneurs have come here. But when we get down to brass tacks, all they are interested in is buying land and raw materials,” Postrigan said.
“I must say, I understand them. They are worried about stability.”
So far, a group of Canadians have agreed to get involved in a local venture to produce oatmeal, a food as unknown to the average Russian as succotash. Klin leaders hope they can also get American investors to build a campground near a popular hiking trail.
Tourism is another dream in this town where one of classical music’s most gifted creators lived and wrote some of his greatest works in 1892-93. But the breakup of the Soviet Union and turmoil across the Commonwealth of Independent States cut entries at the nearly century-old Tchaikovsky museum here to 50,000 in 1992, half of the 1991 figure.
To understand the daunting challenge of the future for Klin’s industries, consider the Khimlabopribor factory, which makes test tubes, flasks and other types of scientific glassware, and now has 1,500 workers, or less than half the payroll of five years ago.
In 1992 it churned out 140 million rubles’ worth of glassware that went straight to the warehouse, since many of its usual customers were broke or had stopped paying their bills.
Baggy-eyed but natty in a white turtleneck, Khimlabopribor director Mark S. Ginzburg is gloomy about the immediate future and his ability to conquer foreign markets.
“Everything that’s bad we can already make for ourselves, but everything that’s good would cost us too much money,” Ginzburg says, puffing on a cigarette.
Half of the plant used to make equipment for school chemistry classes but is being shut because schools now don’t have the means for such purchases. To modernize one production line to make world-class goods would cost an estimated $4 million, in hard-to-earn dollars.
“I don’t think the entire Moscow region has that kind of money,” Ginzburg said.
But listening to Ginzburg, one comes away with the belief that if given a fair chance, he and his enterprise might make it. Russia’s recent economic changes have forced his plant to adapt, including installing two furnaces to make heat-resistant glass.
“We have done more in the past two years than in the preceding eight,” Ginzburg admits. His worry now is that, because of the complexities of Russia’s privatization law, racketeers looking to launder profits could conceivably buy a controlling share in his plant for the ruble equivalent of only $11,500.
Another glimmer of hope comes from the grocery store on Lenin Street, near City Hall. Now privatized, it employs 11 people, who work 12-hour shifts two weeks per month.
For such grueling toil among sausages and imported bottles of orange soda, clerks earn an impressive average of 14,000 rubles per month. Goods are prohibitively costly for many Russians’ pocketbooks, but they don’t stay on the shelves long.
Manager Svetlana S. Myasnikova is one person in Klin who quit her government job in the tourist sector, hitched her star to private enterprise and doesn’t fear the future. “We started from nothing, now we have a refrigerator, meat chests,” the plump woman says proudly. “I think we’ll live better. I think we are ensured from a return to the way things were.”
* Population 144,000
* Unemployment: 1,300 people
* Major industries -- Synthetic thread, glassware, machines, building materials, agriculture and tourism.
* Politics: 52% voted for Boris N. Yeltsin in June, 1991.
* Name: Alexander N. Postrigan
* Title: Chief of administration, Klin district
* Age: 43
* Personal: Native of southern Russian farm region of Krasnodar. Polytechnic Institute graduate. Worked at Khimvolokno, Klin’s largest factory, for 10 years. Managed construction projects in Mongolia for three years. Until 1992, worked in municipal building department in Klin. Named to current post in July, 1992.
* Quote: “Moscow has the political quarrels. Here we just have economic and social problems--and what problems! Our plants are almost closed down. In the near future, our major objective is just to hang on and survive.’