Reforms make abused Russian city doubly cursed

December 21, 1992|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

CHAPAYEVSK, Russia -- If you lived here in the Russian heartland, in a place like Chapayevsk, you would have to be a person of uncommon courage, strength and self-abnegation to have supported the government of Boris N. Yeltsin and Yegor T. Gaidar.

After 70 years of communism and one year of shock therapy, the people of Chapayevsk are losing such fortitude. If the rest of the world wondered at the anger that erupted at this month's Russian Congress, leading to the assault on Mr. Gaidar and his reforms, they would easily find the answer here.

Life here was always bad. Now it is worse.

Chapayevsk's representative in the Congress of People's Deputies, Nikolai Maltsev, is typical of the conservatives who went after Mr. Gaidar's hide. He could easily be characterized as a former Communist Party apparatchik who is willfully blind to the need for market reforms.

But he can also be characterized as a man who fairly represents the seething political frustration of this dreadfully abused industrial city.

"Of course I voted against Gaidar," he says. "This government has led to the collapse of all industry and the economy in general. We cannot manage this way."

The Soviet system brought the people of Chapayevsk pollution, bad housing, dangerous work -- all in the name of defending socialism.

But the new democratic government of Mr. Yeltsin has ushered in a decline in factory work and 2,000 percent inflation -- and has left the people here to cope as best they can with the pollution, the crumbling apartment blocks and general breakdown of city services.

"People are reduced to poverty," says Pyotr M. Vasyukhin, a retired chemist. "If they had savings, they turned to dust."

The stores do have groceries in stock, which they didn't have a year ago, but at astronomical prices.

"Poverty is worse than any sort of repression," says Mr. Vasyukhin.

"Life has deteriorated in the last year," said Yuri N. Lipchenko, the mayor. "It cannot be improved. There is no production, no salaries. Just higher prices.

"Last year the situation was the opposite. People had money, but there was nothing to buy. Now they can buy anything, but no one has any money. It's basically the same. Either way, you have nothing on the table."

The burgeoning commercial classes of such cities as Moscow and St. Petersburg don't exist here. In Chapayevsk, a city of 82,000 near the Volga River, there are no Italian shoes, no Dutch beer -- and just one German car, it seems. The radical economic reforms that were hatched in Moscow opened new horizons there; in Chapayevsk it seems there are no horizons. People here feel trapped in despair.

One-third of the people live in homes without gas or water or indoor toilets. Elderly people and children gather at neighborhood pumps, filling containers and pulling them home on sleds.

Thousands of others live in communal housing, where there's plumbing but where the "kitchen" for 10 families may be simply a dank room with two large sinks in it. Everyone has retreated to their rooms to cook with hot plates. In the middle of the drafty, dirty bathroom, the toilet has been set up on a rough wooden platform. People open their radiators and bleed the hot water out of them to use for cooking or baths.

It would take a confident, activist government to pull Chapayevsk and thousands of similar cities out of conditions like this. But in Moscow the government is beset by controversy, tugged this way and that by competing factions.

Like much of the nation, Chapayevsk had an economy that was dependent on military industries. There are five big factories here, and four are run by the defense ministry.

The factories mostly produced chemicals; since military production has decreased, they have lost 70 percent of their orders. Many people have been sent on long vacations. Many haven't been paid in several months. Several thousand people are about to be laid off.

The city budget is dependent on taxes from the factories. In the last year, the budget has been cut 70 percent. There's no money to help the unemployed.

The four big factories are the property of the national government. The local government has no control over them. It can't try to sell them or run them more efficiently or change what they're producing. The factories await orders from Moscow, where the government is embroiled in debate.

Gathering resentment

Thus, Chapayevsk epitomizes the dilemmas and paradoxes of Russia today.

Mr. Gaidar believed that in the long run Russia needed a market-oriented capitalist system. But in the short run, his prescriptions did places like Chapayevsk no good at all.

A natural resentment gathered. Across Russia, people wondered what was going on. They saw or heard about the fast-money dealing on the streets of Moscow and felt it had nothing to do with them.

This month, at the Seventh Congress of People's Deputies, this resentment joined forces with the nationalist and Communist currents also loose in Russia today and brought down Mr. Gaidar.

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