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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

SKINT CITY

RYAZAN, Russia -- In the heart of Ryazan, a cluster of concrete soldiers four meters high and dusted with snow overlook the town's central thoroughfare, triumphantly waving a flag frozen in a victory half a century old. A proud dedication marches in graven letters across the wall of concrete behind the monument, where an eternal flame burns: "To the glory of a people defending freedom and the independence of the Fatherland in the years of war."


Today, however, there is precious little glory for the 500,000 citizens of Ryazan. While Moscow and St. Petersburg prosper, the profound changes of the last decade have taken their toll on this once-proud provincial city about 200 kilometers southeast of the capital.


The reasons for Ryazan's decline are clear. Tens of thousands of people are dependent on state enterprises in the midst of a lingering death. Like workers all over the country, these employees play out a strange daily farce, trudging half-heartedly to work in half-functioning factories. In return, they receive only enough money to eke out a minimal existence -- and they rarely receive this pittance on time.


"Ours is a strange country," muses one young Ryazan resident, "where it is possible to live for months without a salary."


But do people really live for months without pay? Or are they adapting to the market economy and finding new ways to survive? In Ryazan, as elsewhere, the answers are as varied as the people themselves.





Olga Nikolayevna* was brought up believing in the ideals of communism: pride in labor, pride in family, pride in country. Now, in middle age, she is ashamed to show the tiny kitchen where she cooks meals for her family of six. "Look, that's all there is," she says, throwing open the door of the refrigerator, bare except for a plate of yesterday's macaroni and a few scraps of bread on the shelf. "It's like this every day. I buy a little bit to feed my family. I can't do anything more. I can't buy kolbasa, cheese or butter. I simply can't."


Beside the stove lies a packet of cheap Iranian macaroni. "This is what I got today, for 3,500 rubles, and this bread. This has to feed six of us. I need to spend 10,000 rubles a day just on bread. Count 30 days and you'll see, that's 300,000 rubles a month. And my salary is just 280,000."


When it arrives, that is. Olga, a short, surprisingly vivacious woman with long hair streaked with gray, has worked for 15 years as a technician in a laboratory testing produce from the region's collective farms. She hasn't received a ruble in pay in three months. Her husband, Vasily, was the chief veterinarian in a collective farm until he was injured in a car accident four years ago. He hasn't received his invalid pension in three months.


The entire household income of about 900,000 rubles ($160) a month consists of Olga's pay, Vasily's pension and the pension Olga's mother receives. Of Olga's three sons, Vladik, 21, and Dima, 20, both study mechanical engineering at Ryazan's agricultural institute. The youngest member of the family, 13-year-old Sasha, is still in school.


The family's hardship is clear from their two-room apartment. During the day, the family uses only the main room. A bed doubles as a sofa, while the opposite wall is lined with books. A broken refrigerator in the living room is also filled with books. An old television flickers quietly in the background atop the room's only table. The bare floor is of scuffed linoleum. Through a narrow doorway lies the family's second small room, stuffed with the mattresses, sheets and blankets that provide bedding for six people.


The family survives on its meager income by doing without. Olga is wearing a light blue dress, thin and frayed from years of washing. Her sons wear woollen winter coats instead of fashionable leather. The family, of course, walk or take the bus to work and school -- a car is an unattainable luxury.


Born in Azerbaijan and raised in the difficult years after World War II, Olga seems resigned to her lot. She has only 50,000 rubles left to feed her family for the week, but even so she is unwilling to question those in authority -- at least publicly. She will not consider going on strike, as teachers in Ryazan did last month, and apparently prefers not to consider why she never receives her wages on time.


"Why aren't we being paid? We can't say why. We have work, so we work. If we say we're not being paid, they explain that it's not their fault," she says simply.


Her son Vladik, however, is not so reticent. He offers an explanation commonly held in Ryazan and elsewhere: Local officials use funds intended for salaries and pensions for their own private gain.


"They simply take the money, use it for their commercial operations to get some profit, then return it," says Vladislav, a sturdy, serious young man. "But by then it may be a month, six weeks or sometimes six months overdue."


Olga will not allow her sons to get involved in business, as some other young people do. "It's dangerous," she says. "For that you have to understand money, how to bargain and so on."


Behind such objections is the view, ingrained by a Soviet upbringing, that business is best avoided by those who value clean, honest work. Ryazan's active criminal gangs and protection rackets merely lend substance to this view.


Vladik and Dima will probably seek work in the country on collective farms, employment they consider practical and secure, if poorly paid. "It all depends on a person's values," says Vladik, "whether he wants to earn money, or to acquire experience which he can use later on."


Olga explains their preference for country life: "You know, they have the idea that city life is difficult, and that in the villages, where everything is your own, it is easier to live."


In his desire to return to the country, Vladik recalls an urge deeply embedded in the Russian psyche. In troubled times, Russians have always turned to the land. And for this family -- and most Ryazan families -- the land has been their salvation. Without the carrots and cucumbers, tomatoes and carrots from their plot of earth outside the city, they would never make it through the winter.





At the Ryazan Cash Register Factory, ironically, the management is chronically short of cash and the workers always out of pocket.


The behemoth once produced cash registers for the entire Soviet Union, but now it has lost its monopoly and must compete with other factories for sales. Its work force has been cut from 9,000 to less than 2,000, many of them working reduced hours. In mid-January, a notice posted at the entrance indicated the dates on which last October's wages could be received. Six of the 39 work sections were to receive their pay on Jan. 15. The rest would have to wait.


The factory director is not interested in discussing the problems faced by his and other factories in Ryazan. "Honestly speaking, I do not want to take part in an interview because it won't change anything," he says by telephone.


Wages for factory workers average from 200,000 to 300,000 rubles a month, depending on the work available. The workers streaming out of the factory all repeat the same refrain: The wages are paltry and paid late, but what is the alternative?


Pyotr Nikolayevich, a father of three who has worked at the factory for 15 years, says the time has come for him to look elsewhere for work. "We cannot survive on my salary," he says at the factory gates. "My wife supports us by trading in the market. But now my mother-in-law is in the hospital and my wife is with her all day."


Later that evening in his three-room apartment in a Ryazan suburb, Pyotr was frying potatoes and a little bacon to feed his three children, aged 14, 12 and 8.


Pyotr worked the land at his dacha from May until November when there was no work for him at the factory. During such periods, the factory pays only the minimum wage -- 75,000 rubles a month.


"We have potatoes and carrots of our own. If we didn't have the dacha, I don't know how we'd survive," he says. He pulls open a door to reveal a pantry with shelves lined with jars of pickled vegetables.


The limited diet shows in the family's faces. Pyotr himself is ashen gray, and his children all have the pale complexion and dark-rimmed eyes of the poorly nourished. According to a recent survey, nearly one in 10 Russian children in 1994 were chronically malnourished. But more than statistics, nothing underlines the limits of the Russian diet so much as the constant evocation of kolbasa -- a poor food at best -- as a luxury food of the old days.


"People eat potatoes and cabbage these days," Pyotr says. "Meat is only for holidays. In the days of communism, we ate meat and kolbasa every day. Now I don't buy kolbasa. Sometimes I go to the shop to look, like in a museum," he joked grimly.


Despite the family's shortage of money, an imported color television and video player occupy pride of place in the small living room, where Pyotr and his wife sleep on a sofa they use as a bed after the children have gone to sleep. In a low voice, Pyotr says he bought them for about 2 million rubles eight months ago with money he earned doing car repairs for a friend.


Most people in Ryazan work on the side to supplement their wages. Few are willing to talk openly about such casual work for fear of being reported to the tax police. The authorities' failure to encourage private initiative, and the fear that the state will try to claw back any gains they might make, is still a powerful brake on peoples' attempts to make a living in the rudimentary market economy.


Often, when money is available, they splash out on one of the tantalizing luxuries made available by the market that otherwise seems to deny them so much.


In the small bedroom shared by Pyotr's two sons, three large jars of home-brewed samogon are another indulgence, albeit a cheap one. And on the little balcony, two black rabbits occupy a little cage. "I got them for the children," says Pyotr, stroking one plump rabbit affectionately, "but in the future, who knows ..."


The family has managed to get by until now thanks to the initiative of Pyotr's wife, Lyudmila, who got a job as an assistant at the Central Market and then got a license to sell dried fruit.


This type of trading in one of the city's four markets is one of the main sources of extra income for families in Ryazan. "Everyone you ask says there's no work, but then you see them trundling off to the market with big bags of things," says one resident.


The Central Market lies in the grounds of an old church, now newly whitewashed. Every day hundreds of private traders gather here from early morning, selling everything from boots and clothes to children's games and household necessities. Up the hill under the huge dome of a covered market, mounds of succulent fruits and vegetables, cheese, meat and sausage are on sale. Although many of the traders can't afford these luxuries, their takings are keeping their families, like Pyotr's, from hunger.





Three years ago, Alexander Zhuravlyov's prospects appeared worse than Olga's or Pyotr's. Recently arrived from Uzbekistan, he was without a job in Ryazan. What he had was an idea: He wanted to set up his own business.


With the help of a friend from Moscow, he was able to rent a small office and start his own company selling housing supplies. Today, he employs 50 people, including his mother and his wife, and has three separate shops in Ryazan.


Alexander, 36, and his wife, Vera, live with their two young daughters and their grandmother in a simple three-room apartment. Instead of spending profits on expensive fur coats or trips overseas, the money is reinvested in the business. Alexander is often up well before dawn, sending off vans to pick up goods in Moscow .


Alexander understands the difficulties of those still working in Ryazan's factories, but he recognizes that times have changed. It is fear of change that keeps many people in dead-end, subsistence jobs, he says. "Many people in this country are not used to thinking and making decisions," he says. "They want the boss to tell them what to do, then they do it. But we need to get used to thinking for ourselves."


In the small, well-organized office from which he runs his business, there is a constant coming and going of customers and employees. For all the grim talk, Alexander says, there is money in Ryazan. His turnover has increased steadily and, he adds, "even expensive goods at Moscow prices sell well."


The key to reviving towns like Ryazan, says Alexander, is releasing the initiative any society needs to move forward. Ryazan's younger generation are adapting, he says. Those left behind are the older generation, those who grew up under the old system and who are now unwilling or unable to create new jobs for themselves. "Of course the old generation thinks life was better before," he says. "But that's because they were young. Everyone thinks life is better when they are young. Life now is better for some and worse for some, but it has changed. We must learn to live under the new system."





* The first two families in this article asked that their full names not be used.