No Paycheck Means Apples Under the Bed
LIFE IN RUSSIA
IVANOVO, RUSSIA — When Valeri Novikov and his wife, Galina, were youngsters and went to work at the "Ivanovo Order of Lenin Blended Yarn Mill, Named for Konstantin Frolov" (a local revolutionary hero), they were proud to belong to a flagship of the Soviet textile industry.
Today, after a year in which they were paid for only five months by a company struggling to survive, their attitudes are markedly less enthusiastic.
"The sooner I retire, the better," says Galina, a matronly woman who has stood at a loom each working day since she left school 28 years ago to begin her apprenticeship as a weaver.
And she is not alone. Nobody knows exactly how many Russian workers are owed back wages, but cash-strapped enterprises all over the country owe a total of $6.8 billion to their employees, according to government figures, and the problem is getting $500 million bigger every month.
If Galina's plight today is typical for Russia, so has her life been. When she first went to work, her future was secure in a Soviet sort of way, if hardly lavish. Marrying Valeri, a cheeky, quick-witted repairman she met on the factory floor, they started a family and moved into a single room in a dormitory-style building near the factory. By the time they had three children they were assigned a second room. Sixteen years after they made their application, they were allocated the sparsely furnished four-room apartment they live in today.
They weren't rich, but they managed. "We had enough for food, we had enough for clothes, and I could buy presents for the children," Galina recalls.
"Now we are down to just food," chimes in Valeri. And that, despite the fact that he and his wife have shown inventiveness and endurance in the face of great difficulties.
Month after month: not a kopeck
Toward the end of last year, the Ivanovo Blended Yarn Mill Ltd. (it is now a joint stock company) began falling behind in paying wages.
"First they were a few days late, then a few weeks, and now they are several months behind," Galina says. "If we were paid regularly and on time, we would be OK. As it is...." She shrugs.
As a skilled worker, Valeri takes home $113 a month. Galina earns $94, and their elder son, Misha, a driver at the mill, receives $47. These are below average but reasonably adequate wages by Russian standards.
"But those are our wages on paper, not in real life," Valeri points out.
In fact, Galina has not been paid since May, when she was given her February pay packet. Misha is in the same boat. Valeri was paid his July wages last week and told that his June pay had been "frozen." Precisely what that officially means was not explained.
What it means to the family's everyday life, though, is clear from a look inside their refrigerator. Although Galina insists they eat properly ("that is why we can't afford any new clothes") the shelves are austere: a jar of preserved cabbage, a small enamel churn of milk, a single frankfurter, a pot of borscht, a plate of margarine, a lump of smoked pork fat, a saucepan of potatoes.
The freezing compartment, however, is stuffed full of nothing but chickens. Last April, Galina bought 21 day-old-chicks, reared them in a cardboard box in the kitchen for a month, then took them to her sister in the country.
Her sister fed them over the summer as part of a deal whereby she would keep the hens. Galina ended up with 11 cocks, which will go into chicken soup for as long as she can make them last.
What would she do if she had more money? "Buy meat," she replies.
In another deal with the farmhand sister, Galina and Valeri bought a calf recently; the sister will fatten it, and in the spring they will slaughter the animal and share the meat.
But that will be a feast. Everyday fare is considerably more basic - porridge, vegetable soup, fried potatoes, bread, and milk, with the occasional egg for variety. And much of what the family eats, they grow themselves on a small plot of land an hour's bicycle ride away.
The kitchen window sill is crammed with green tomatoes that will never ripen now, as autumn sets in. Valeri and Galina's bedroom reeks of the onions and garlic that fill two sacks under the single bedside chair. Lyuba, their teenage daughter, has to clamber around a mountain of apples - it has been a good year for apples - to get into bed. Under the balcony outside the sitting room, Valeri has constructed a chamber where carrots will keep through the winter without freezing. A cousin has made room in his apartment for their potatoes.
"We know how to work with our hands, how to breed animals, how to grow things," says Valeri, a practical-minded sort of man. "If our land was closer we would have no problems - we could feed ourselves almost completely, and I could keep my family properly. I made a plow this year and used my two boys as horses. They can do all sorts of things, too."
A family secret
But even relative self-sufficiency and frugality do not see a family of five through four months without a kopeck in wages. How do they avoid starvation?
"That's a secret," says Galina with a guilty laugh. "I cannot tell you."
But eventually she does. Their eldest daughter, Natasha, who is married, has a job as a night watchwoman at a local kindergarten. Her husband does not like her to work alone at night, however, and earns enough himself to take care of his family. So Natasha's parents do her job, and Natasha hands them her $75 paycheck each month.
It is this moonlighting money that keeps them fed. But the price they pay is steep. It means that when Galina is on the late shift, as soon as she comes home at 10:15 at night, Valeri heads out for the kindergarten. There he puts in four or five hours while Galina sleeps, until she relieves him in the middle of the night.
When Valeri is on the late shift, it's the other way around. "We're working just about 24 hours a day," he says resignedly. "We don't see much of each other." And then, with a sly glance to Galina, "I didn't notice that my wife grew old."
And even then, the money they earn scarcely pays for the staple two loaves of bread and three liters of milk that Galina buys each morning. There is nothing left over for anything else. Lyuba is wearing the same clothes that her big sister wore 10 years ago; the last time Valeri and Galina bought anything for the house was in 1991, when grandpa, a World War II veteran, gave them his ration card to buy a sofa and two armchairs.
But Valeri and Galina aren't looking for work anywhere else, even if they are not being paid at the mill. Indeed, they even persuaded their son Misha to turn down a job he was offered at another plant. "His dad wanted to keep an eye on him, and the trouble is that if you move jobs you are more likely to be sacked if they start laying people off at your new place," Galina explains.
She herself is only two years away from a pension after 30 years' service. "Who would take me on now?" she asks rhetorically.
Street stalls not an option
Galina doesn't feel able to go into the petty trading business, setting up a stall on the street, which is how many unpaid Russians make a living today.
"I can't even sell my apples, because I'd feel ashamed to stand on the pavement and sell things," Galina explains. "And anyway, I'm no good at mental arithmetic; I'd be cheated in no time."
Nor is Valeri attracted to commerce. "I'm a worker; that's not my kind of life, and I wouldn't be any good at it," he says. Nor is there much prospect of a job anywhere else in Ivanovo, one of the most depressed regions in Russia.
"I don't know why I'm still at the mill really - maybe I don't know what else to do," he confesses. "These are difficult times, but I hope they will soon be over, and in the meantime all we can do is work.
"I like my job; it's interesting work, and I want to do it. I just don't like it when they trick me [over my wages]. Then I lose heart."