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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: A Family Marks New Year in Russia's Rust Belt




I spent the New Year's holiday weekend with Arkady, my distant relative, in his three-room apartment in the city of Ryazan, 200 kilometers southeast of Moscow.


Arkady, 69, and my father, 70, had the same great grandfather. Before the war, they lived in a part of Romania called Bessarabia. The Soviet Union occupied the province in 1940 and kept it after the war. It is now the independent state of Moldova.


While my father escaped to live comfortably in Australia, Arkady is living like most of the other 400,000 people in Ryazan, on a small pension with nothing much to look forward to.


When the Soviets came in 1940, Arkady, then 11, was declared an enemy of the people because his father was educated in a Belgian university and owned shares in a factory.


His father was sent to a labor camp in the northern Ural Mountains and he and his mother were exiled to the steppes of Kazakhstan to work on a collective farm.


After the war, he studied with distinction at a prestigious aeronautical institute in Sverdlovsk, but the dean discovered he was an enemy of the people and refused to let him take out a degree. Arkady eventually got a job in Ryazan at the machine-tool plant where he worked for 30 years.


Arkady rose to deputy chief mechanic thanks in part to his knowledge of French, German and English, which he learned from private tutors during his bourgeois childhood in what was then Romania.


The Soviet Union equipped the machine-tool factory with the best foreign equipment, and Arkady was responsible for contacts with foreign contractors. He was sent around the country to install machine tools at some of the country's biggest factories. He made some good foreign friends and even went on a trip to the eastern part of Germany in 1995.


Arkady and his wife, Galya, now live on their combined pension of 900 rubles a month. This is quite high by Ryazan standards and, before the crisis, this used to be worth about $140, enough for what they considered a reasonable life.


But the pension has not been paid since September and the raging inflation of the past four months has destroyed its value. In dollar terms, it is now worth only $45 a month. The price of most goods has more than doubled, everything from sugar to meat to soap. Only the price of bread and vodka has stayed the same.


Arkady used to be able to double his pension by working at the machine-tool factory. But the sprawling Soviet complex whose gates are only a short walk from his apartment is now almost derelict. Thousands of workers have been sacked. There is almost no casual work left for pensioners like Arkady.


A few years ago, he was awarded a card identifying him as a victim of political repression. This gives him free use of public transport, 50 percent off his power and heating bills and a trip by rail anywhere in Russia once a year. It also means a lot to his self-image.


Politically, he is not a democrat or a communist. He is completely dispirited. The new government is as bad as the old government. In fact, Arkady has barely even noticed a change. He notices the BMWs and Mercedes of the New Russians that occasionally cruise down Oktyabrskaya Ulitsa.


I gave Arkady some money in the fall to tide him over the crisis. I was surprised to find that he had used it to buy a washing machine. Galya had dreamed of one for years. Somehow, I had thought they would use it for an emergency or for food. But I suppose they were used to surviving on nothing.


One of Arkady's sons, Yura, who now lives in Belarus, visited with his family for the weekend. I shared a room with Yura and his youngest son while his oldest slept in another room with his new fianc?e.


Yura used to make a good living importing cars through Belarus into Russia, but the scam of importing cars tax-free across the porous Belarussian border has been closed down.


Yura has now switched to buying spare parts in Russia for sale in Belarus, but the economy there is in worse shape than in Russia. The Belarussian ruble's official exchange is 120,000 to the dollar, but the only place to get it is on the black market where it costs three times as much. Even there it is almost impossible to buy currency, so Yura tries to arrange barter deals with Russian suppliers. It is hard.


Yura had invested all his money into three new foreign cars that he planned to sell in Russia, but the crisis has slashed prices on the automobile market here. He doubts now that he could get a third of what he paid for them.


All in all, they are a nice family. Despite all the problems, they get together for holidays.


It was a traditional Soviet-style holiday. We sat down for a big meal of jellied meat, stuffed fish and pickles that started with a toast of orange-colored Russian shampanskoye and moved on to a bottle of vodka. There was no fresh food.


We then turned on the television and sat glued to the Song '98 broadcast on ORT where the stars of Russian pop music from Iosif Kobzon to Filipp Kirkorov performed. Dressed in sequined tuxedos and satin, they wished us all the very best for the new year.


Everybody had their favorite stars. Galya liked Irina Allegrova, who had just had a change of hairstyle. Yura's youngest liked Filipp Kirkorov. Back in old Soviet times, there were no real pop stars, they said. They were very proud that Russia now had some.


After cake and tea and more vodka, the women then stayed in to watch Krasotka (Pretty Woman) and we men went out for a walk.


With the dry snow crisp under our feet, we walked through the factory's market garden, which used to supply the region with the vegetables the Soviet system could not provide.


And then we stopped at the factory gates. Arkady became emotional pointing out to me each workshop and describing to me the machine tools he had installed there. And now the factory was ruined. And behind it was another huge factory that produced tractor parts and behind that an electrical factory. They were both ruined too.


Arkady earnestly led me to a corner next to the factory gates and pointed out a huge medal on the all. It was an order of Lenin, he said. The Ryazan State Machine Tool Factory was one of very few to receive such an honor.


Arkady was a member of the Communist Party at the factory, for the entirely practical reason that it gave him perks. But he also believed in it. I found it hard to understand how a man who was made an enemy of the people at the age of 11 could have loved the party that did it to him. Now, with the factory all but closed and his pension all but worthless, Arkady could not explain it either.