Provincials struggle to come to terms with new economics

 

THE ancient Russian city of Kolomna is dominated by a giant machine building factory. In communist times, the plant provided work for virtually every adult in the town. There was job security, but no sausage in the shops.

Locals remember how, on pay day, they would take the train to Moscow, 100 kilometres to the North, to buy meat. Today the picture reversed.

Dozens of tiny kiosks sell imported chocolate, cakes and liqueurs on the square beneath the medieval kremlin (fort, every Russian town has a kremlin). But the factory stands more or less idle, the workers cannot afford the delicacies on offer in the fledgling shops from economic reform.

The situation is similar all over provincial Russia. President Yeltsin has succeeded in launching, consumer market which stretches to the farthest corners of the old empire. Close to the Arctic Circle, you can now buy fresh kiwi fruits daily, if you have the money.

But the crisis of Russian industry has been less well addressed by the Yeltsin administration. Some of the best enterprises have been privatised, but many former state factories have been left to drift instead of receiving the modern management they needed to make them viable.

Official statistics show low unemployment. But in reality millions of workers are on part time or enforced holidays. Full wages have not been paid for months.

Last week I spent three days with the Matveyev family in Kolomna to find out more about provincial life in the Yeltsin era. Until recently the trip would have been impossible as Kolomna was closed to foreigners because part of the factory's production went to the military.

Two generations of the family gave their lives to the factory and they still eke out a living from it. The family consists of veteran worker, Mikhail Matveyev, his daughter, Natalia, and her husband, Anatoly, and their children, Alla (20), and Denis, a schoolboy of 16. They live in a cramped three room flat, but are grateful not to have to share it with another family any more, as they did in communist times.

The Matveyevs have always worked hard, but now they are under even more pressure as they have an extra mouth to feed. In November, Alla, who is studying to be a teacher, gave birth to a little girl called Polina. The baby's father, realising prospects at the factory were poor, went into the police, but wages have not been paid in the force since last autumn.

So Alla's parents and grandfather are supporting her and the young man, who visits but does not live at the flat because there is no room for him.

The main breadwinner is Anatoly (40), who still has some official work at the factory; but he could not feed the family if he had not launched a small private business on the side, making tools on the plant's equipment. Strictly speaking this is illegal as he taps into the factory's energy supply.

Working from early morning, till late at night, seven days a week, Anatoly makes the equivalent of $500 a month, to the envy of his lazier workmates, who sit around drinking a playing cards.

Old Mr Matveyev also makes a vital contribution to the family. At 65, he should have retired, but this winter he has worked as a watchman at the garden allotments which the factory gave out to the workers 20 years ago.

This is the secret of survival in the provinces. Few people can afford to shop at the kiosks except for special occasions; but every one has spent the summer growing vegetables on their plots of land. In the dark cold months they live on their stocks of pickled cabbage, salted cucumbers and bottled tomatoes.

Natalia (40), who used to paint the communist slogans hanging in the factory to urge fulfilment of the party's economic plans, is now redundant, but has little time to bemoan this as she is in charge of the family's bottles. Bottles for the vegetables, bottles for the baby's milk.

Old Mr Matveyev intends to help communists back to power, but the younger members of the family are undecided how they will vote in June, if at all.

The Matveyev family is like a small factory itself, endlessly working to survive. The only pleasure is the weekly visit to the Banya (bath house) where Anatoly and Natalia steam themselves before rushing out for an invigorating roll in the snow.

Compared with the new rich Russians in Moscow, provincial people live very poorly. Yet they are better off than the poorest Moscovites. The pride of the Matveyev family was Mikhail's son Vitaly, a pianist who went off to be a star at the Moscow Conservatory. But he is now reduced to poverty because of cuts in state subsidies to the arts.

In a reversal of the train trips the shoppers of Kolumna used to make to Moscow, Vitaly now returns to his provincial roots for food. Without bottles of vegetables from the allotment his urban family would starve.