Russian workers learn to live without jobs: Despite the death of the old industries, and the old certainties, hope springs eternal in Lyubertsy, writes Helen Womack

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE TOWN of Lyubertsy near Moscow is famous for two things: its gangs of youths who went from pumping iron to become a powerful mafia group, and local sand deposits which attract filmmakers wanting to recreate the Central Asian desert. With its industry and infrastructure collapsing, Lyubertsy is indeed a desert, and gang membership is all that rises.

In his thriller Red Square, Martin Cruz Smith captures the former spirit of the town. 'Lyubertsy was all that Russians feared, which was to be outside the centre, not to be in Moscow or Leningrad, to be forgotten and invisible, as if the steppes started here, only 20km from the Moscow city limit. This was the vast population that moved on a straight track from day care to vocational school to assembly line to the long vodka queue to the grave.'

Today the childcare and guaranteed jobs are gone, leaving only vodka and the grave. But people are cheerful and brave.

The Ukhtomsky agricultural machinery factory, a former state giant whose workforce of 18,000 is down to 3,000, is on a four-day week, but the farmers, owed money by the state, are in no position to buy the machines. So the workers have received no wages since October. Thousands of enterprises, abandoned by the state and in debt to each other, are laying off staff, putting them on short-time or not paying them. Workers with clout, the miners and the oil men, threaten strikes, so the new government is keen to support industry.

On the main production line at the Ukhtomsky factory, a faded red banner reading 'Work with Rhythm' hangs limply above abandoned pieces of rusting machinery. The factory has no hot water because someone stole the boiler. In a corner, Alexander Yakushin, Alexander Yefimov and Valery Venevtsev, all in their forties, are having a break from doing not very much, drinking black tea from jam jars and eating lard sandwiches from a newspaper. 'We're the youngest people at the factory now,' says Mr Yakushin. 'All the young people have gone to try to make money for themselves in commerce but it's too late for us to adapt, so we're here with the pensioners.'

When the men were last paid in October, they received 100,000 roubles each, then worth about dollars 100. They survived the winter by living off the incomes of their wives. Their families can afford only the most basic food, while new clothes or consumer goods are out of the question. Cheap canteens, kindergartens and clinics which the factory used to provide have all closed.

Yet the three men complain little. Mr Yakushkin loves his daughter, Mr Yefimov his accordion and Mr Venevtsev his racing pigeons. They still trust Boris Yeltsin, for whom they voted in 1991, and have no plans to to turn to Vladimir Zhirninovsky or any other hardliner. Other workers in the factory were equally patient, except the watchman, Dmitry Baranov, who came rolling down the lane breathing vodka fumes and waving his walking stick. 'The factory's bankrupt and I'm bankrupt with it,' he roared. 'Gorbachev's to blame.'

But in one small section, a few workers are producing horse-drawn mowing machines of the kind last turned out in 1913. 'Farmers can't afford petrol for big machines these days,' explains Sergei Kostomarov, the head of the section. In another section, 15 men are producing metal kiosks for the mafia-controlled commersanti who sell Snickers bars and imported liquors on the streets.

Both the horse-drawn mowers and kiosks are likely to be temporary. If reform progresses, the farmers should be able to afford petrol again and the kiosk traders will graduate to shops. But with the workers' flexibility, and an interest in what the market wants, a streamlined enterprise may rise from the ruins of the old state monster.