Russians count cost of payment in kind

Helen Womack meets workers who have to sell their own products to survive

On the road to Valdai, the beautiful lake district between Moscow and St Petersburg, ghostly figures loom out of the twilight, holding up crystal goblets, as if in some strange piece of theatre. They are workers from the Krasnoe Mai (Red May) glass factory who, for the past 13 months, have received their wages not in cash but in kind, and are obliged to stand on the roadside hawking their product before they can eat.

Cars zoom by, ignoring them. When I stopped my car, dozens of the crystal- sellers ran up. When I asked for an interview, they backed off. But when they realised I was British, they relaxed a little. "Come on guys," said Svetlana, a middle-aged woman. "The Valdai police are hardly going to read a London newspaper."

Svetlana explained how she and her friends worked only every other week at the 130-year old factory because its financial difficulties were such that electricity was rationed. In theory, they should receive wages of one million roubles (pounds 150) per month. But instead they were paid in the cut-glass vases and wine glasses which they sold in the rest of their working time and in their leisure hours. The trade itself was legal, but the traffic police moved them on and fined them, saying they caused road accidents.

"In fact we have not caused a single accident," said Svetlana. "We just stand at the side waiting for the motorists to stop ... Sometimes tourists pull up and buy a vase for 100,000 roubles. But we can stand here from morning to night and go home without making a sale."

All over Russia, workers are being paid in kind and their standard of living very much depends on whether the goods their factories happen to produce are in demand or not. The workers of the Yaroslavl tyre plant are paid in tyres and have no problem as there is a lively market in car parts. Likewise Siberian workers paid in tampons always find willing buyers. But crystal is another matter. As Svetlana said: "You can live without it, can't you?"

Svetlana is married to a man who also works at the glass factory. There are few other employment opportunities, and they have two teenage children to feed. "Can your readers in the West imagine what it would be like if they had not only to work but market whatever they made? In your case," she joked, "you'd be selling newspapers on the street."

In the run-up to the presidential elections last month, Boris Yeltsin promised he would make it a priority to pay workers who have been waiting months for their wages. Indeed, a special fund was made available to make payments to key factories and buy the votes of their workers.

But, after the election, it is clear the problem has not gone away. In the far eastern port of Vladivostok last week, minersthreatened to commit suicide by throwing themselves down mineshafts if the government did not pay them. In the far east, corrupt local government officials are as much to blame as Moscow bureaucrats for the failure to deliver state money to those who have earned it.

Svetlana voted for Mr Yeltsin and, reluctantly, would do so again. "There's no alternative," she said.

Along with the crystal traders, the road to Valdai is lined with people selling bilberries, once picked as a hobby, now gathered by many to make ends meet. In the petrol stations, children of nine and ten work the petrol pumps for tips. In some families, these youngsters are the main breadwinners.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk