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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Despite Suffering, Women May Back Reform

Last in a series of five articles

GORODETS, Nizhny Novgorod Region -- Behind a locked door on the second floor of the Tatyana Sewing Factory is a display room exhibiting intricate designs the factory once produced -- from beaded collars with handmade lacework to elaborate scarves embroidered with gold thread.

But the selection is more like a museum of the plant's glory days than a showroom for prospective clients. "We make mostly housecoats now," said a factory official, pointing to a flimsy cotton dress that is the uniform of nearly every Russian housewife. "Only the cheapest products sell these days."

The dying Tatyana factory is a typical case of the pain Boris Yeltsin's reforms have inflicted. Conditions at the sewing factory since 1992 have gone from bad to worse. Once operating in two shifts with 1,300 employees, Tatyana has disintegrated to a staff of 300 with irregular work and even more irregular payment.

The employees who hang on are really just "hidden unemployed," paid only according to the number of days worked, when they are paid at all. The average salary at Tatyana -- which workers last received in January -- is only 150,000 rubles ($30) a month.

While the unemployment rate for the Nizhny Novgorod region as a whole is around 4 percent -- about half the average for Russia -- there are few opportunities in small cities such as Gorodets. Ekaterina Sorokina, Tatyana's head engineer, and her colleagues are still shaking from the closure of a neighboring shoe factory.

"The same thing could happen to us," said Sorokina.

Tatyana's story is being played out right across the country in rust-belt factories that are having trouble staying afloat in the sink-or-swim mentality of post-Soviet Russia. While the official unemployment rate in Russia hovers around 8 percent, when hidden unemployed are considered, the figure rises to around 15 percent.

It is no secret that women -- who comprise more than 70 percent of Russia's unemployed -- lose their jobs first.

"Women are the first to suffer," said Yelena Terekhova, a counselor at Nizhny Novgorod's unemployment office, adding that the majority of her clients are women with young children, many of them with higher education. Now she advises former teachers and scientists to work as secretaries, clerks and cashiers.

"The ballast has been tossed out on the street and they are looking for work," said Terekhova. "But they are not bitter about the change."

The unemployed and underemployed will be a key to the election; in general they will vote against Yeltsin.

Yet according to interviews in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia's most electorally typical region, although their factories have tumbled from the pedestal they occupied under a centralized economy, unemployed and underemployed voters do not have a reflex anti-government or pro-communist response.

"It is difficult to predict how these people will vote," said Yevgeny Kulyanov, an analyst at the Center for Applied Political Studies, adding that many of the enterprises that were struggling a few years ago are starting to pull out ahead. "A lot also depends on the local media," said Kulyanov.

If you listen to Tatyana's almost exclusively female collective, the muzhik factor will play a deciding role.

Forget political platforms and campaign promises. Whether a candidate is a manly man or a wimp will guide this women's collective at the voting booth.

During a recent gathering in the factory board room, Tatyana's managers ran down the list of 11 presidential candidates to rate their muzhik potential.

"Yeltsin is a drunk muzhik. Zyuganov is a nasty muzhik, and Yavlinsky is no muzhik at all," said Sorokina. "Fyodorov, now there is a muzhik. He is a man with authority, but he is a bit old to run the country." Lebed, according to the Tatyana barometer, may be a muzhik, but who needs a general as president? And the rest -- Zhirinovsky and Bryntsalov included -- are nothing but clowns.

Where, then, are all the good muzhiki?

"Nemtsov is a good muzhik, but he is too young to be president," said Sorokina, referring to Nizhny Novgorod's 35-year-old governor.

Many unemployed women are not necessarily anti-reform. They may not be better off than they were five years ago, but many are amenable to change.

"At first I was upset about losing my job, but I've grown used to the idea," said Tatyana Tarasova, a biologist who lost her job and now sells leather wares from Turkey at the local market.

"We are more adaptable than men -- just look around," she said, pointing to all the women merchants near her. "The burden was always on our shoulders, but for men the transition is more difficult."

With their tomato plants growing on the factory's window sills, the unpaid employees of Tatyana also seem more resigned than bitter about their lot.

"These elections will not change anything -- nothing can make our lives easier," said Galya, who has been cutting patterns at the factory for 20 years.

"Why should I even bother voting?" chimed in her co-worker. "This election will not be decided by people like us anyway."

Those in the factory who were planning on voting were either undecided or unwilling to reveal their choice, but they all seemed certain Yeltsin would win.

"Let's just say that it looks like Yeltsin will be president, regardless of how the people vote," said chief engineer Sorokina. "But that is not good news for us."If the plant is set on a course for oblivion, why do the employees keep coming to work?

"We come to cheer each other up," said Galya, with surprising cheer. "At home we can cry, but here we manage to laugh a little."