Russians get chance to put stock in future

February 09, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

VOLGOGRAD, Russia -- A giant tractor factory, emblematic of all the excesses and inefficiencies of the failed Communist system, went on the block yesterday as Russia began the most ambitious phase of its monumental privatization plans.

While the factory's workers labored in Victorian-like gloom and grime, the "Tractor Plant Named after Dzerzhinski" was being propelled into the future. Shares in it were being put out to bid at the Palace of Culture in downtown Volgograd, the former Stalingrad.

"It means I can become a man of property," said Boris Kamenev, an optimistic 45-year-old. "It means I will no longer have to waste time working for nothing."

Last year, every Russian man, woman and child was offered one voucher as his share in the vast property of the state. The vouchers could be sold to speculators -- and many were. They also could be saved and invested into mutual funds that are soon to be established.

Or they could be exchanged for shares in hundreds of big factories and businesses across Russia, a process that officially began yesterday and will last for months to come. It is the biggest sale of government property in history.

Perhaps none of the enterprises offers a better glimpse at what lies ahead for the potential investor than the local tractor factory, which employs 26,417 people and sprawls like a small city over almost 200 acres.

The air inside is thick with dust, and hundreds of grimy men and women wander about -- sometimes attentive to the assembly line moving past them, sometimes not.

"I like the idea of the tractor factory," said Anna Shulgina, 69, waiting in line at the Palace of Culture to sign up for the auction. "If it starts to produce smaller tractors, it will be very profitable. Many farmers will need them."

Mrs. Shulgina, like many residents here, feels the ties of blood in the tractor factory. During World War II, it turned out tanks, which rolled off the assembly lines right into lines of German soldiers as the deadly battle of Stalingrad was fought.

Almost 2 million people died in that siege, which changed the course of history. Here, 50 years ago last week, Russia stopped Hitler.

In the final days of the battle, the tractor workers had to leave their benches and take up arms as Germans entered the factory and fought from room to room.

"I dug trenches here," Mrs. Shulgina said. "This is our land. This factory is our past."

From gloom to optimism

The place looks like something from the underworld. The din is fearsome. Whistles, clatters, whooshes and blasts fill the air.

Alexander Sukhurov, 23, sat looking gloomily at a giant excavation in the middle of the dirt floor where he was supposed to be part of a crew preparing a foundation for a new line.

The factory produces tractors with caterpillar-like treads. Recently, someone got the idea of a tractor with wheels. This reinvention will add a new line of tractors with wheels to the output.

"There will be no change for the better," Mr. Sukhurov said of the future privatization. "Why should there be?"

One man bashes at his part of the assembly line with a sledgehammer. Someone in front of him holds a drill in one hand while flailing with a hammer in the other. A little black dog trots happily by. Bells whistle, parts clang, conveyor belts wail.

Built in 1930, the factory was turning out its capacity of 144 tractors a day by 1944. Almost 50 years later, it has worked up to a daily production of 148 tractors. The manager won't say how many of those are actually sold.

"We don't know exactly what privatization means," said Luda, a 54-year-old woman with bright-red hair. "But we'll privatize it, and that's it."

She spends her day measuring six holes on a pile of metal disks. The woman next to her measures holes too, but different ones.

"I just don't know what privatizing will help," said Luda. "It will take many years for us to re-establish what we have ruined. We ourselves are to blame for what has happened. We have lost that feeling of discipline."

Swirls of metal pipes extrude from machines, sparks fly, giant springs fall on the floor.

Viktor Pershin, the 66-year-old director of the factory's museum, was the first to register to buy shares yesterday.

Mr. Pershin is highly pleased with privatization. He sees it as the inevitable and long overdue return to socialism. "We're back to ,, 1917 now," he said happily. "It means we can keep our country in the hands of the worker."

In each of the sales that began across the country yesterday, employees are offered a chunk of the stock at highly favorable terms. In the case of the tractor factory, only 22 percent of the shares are being offered to the public. The government is keeping a small percentage, and the workers get the rest.

Mr. Pershin, who first joined the Communist Party in 1949 and recently took membership in the newly constituted Communist Party of Russia, insists that Russia always had a market economy.

"Of course I believe in a free market," he said. "We always had one. It was planned, that's all."

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