Former 'city of brides' now lives hand-to-mouth

From paying taxes in cloth to other creative marketing strategies, atextile- mill's workers struggle to stay afloat in rural Russia.

Yevgeny Koryagin says he's been expecting bankruptcy to catch up with him every day for the past eight years. But so far he's found a way out of every dead end, met his payroll each month, fended off the creditors, and kept the Zinovyevskaya textile factory in Ivanovo going.

In the hardest-hit industry, in the most depressed town of economically blighted Russia, mere survival represents a huge victory against the odds.

"When I tell foreigners about the conditions under which we work here, they frankly don't believe me," says the plant's heavyset, curly-haired director. "They tell me no one in the world pays his taxes in cloth, or sends the factory's trucks to another region to buy potatoes for his workers, or accepts raw materials in lieu of cash.... But I do."

Labyrinthine barter arrangements and creative marketing methods are the main reason the Zinovyevskaya plant is still stumbling along when most of Ivanovo's once-thriving textile mills are dark and silent.

This city of 400,000, once proudly known as "Russia's Manchester," produced a third of the world's cotton cloth in 1960. But the collapse of the USSR cut it off from Uzbekistan, its traditional supplier of raw cotton. A flood of cheap, attractive clothing imports from third-world manufacturers in the early '90s almost pushed Ivanovo's dowdy products out of the Russian market.

In Soviet times Ivanovo, 300 miles northeast of Moscow, was known as the "city of brides" because tens of thousands of young women were attracted to its relatively well-paying textile factory jobs. But today, most of the young people are gone.

More than 30 percent of the population is pensioners, and just four of its 44 huge textile mills are making any profit.

"I often look around and wonder why anyone is still here - how do we live?" says Lyudmilla Moskaleva, chief economist for the city government. "Statistically we are dead and buried, but still there is activity and hope. Some of our factories are even starting to recover."

One of those is the Zinovyevskaya mill, a downtown complex of 100-year old buildings housing machinery almost that antiquated. Its workforce is down to less than half the 1989 peak of 3,000, and those who still have jobs earn an average of just 700 rubles ($30) per month. "We will go on strike when we're ready to commit suicide," says Lyudmilla Krukova, the plant's trade union chief. "Until then we'll go on working and dreaming of miracles."

All of Ivanovo's textile factories were privatized a few years ago, many of them bought by their own workers. It made no difference. "What we need here is outside investment, new technology, more efficient management," says Ms. Moskaleva. "Just changing the name on the signboard is no help."

Workers toiling on the ill-lit and cold factory floor seem to grudgingly agree.

"He's a strong man, and I think he's only looking after his own interests," says Svetlana Gaisova, a small, dark woman who tends three machines that spew camouflage-printed material - a new contract for the Russian Army - onto shipping wagons. "Having a bad job is better than not having one at all," she says. "Lots of people in this town are unemployed."

Because of its dependence on the nearly defunct textile industry, Ivanovo now has the highest unemployment rate and proportion of its population living below the subsistence line than any region in the Russian Federation - after Ingushetia.

Municipal officials say much of the local population lives an almost cashless existence. They subsist by growing their own food and preserving it for winter, by moonlighting at all sorts of hole-in-the wall jobs and by sharing whatever they have within extended families. At least half the city's residents are far behind in their municipal charges for water, gas, electricity, and heating.

"You can't cut anybody off," says Moskaleva. "That would be like a death sentence in the winter. So, the debts just accumulate."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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