Moscow turmoil hardens resolve of Russian town

March 17, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

SERPUKHOV, Russia -- Life in this gritty industrial city has changed so profoundly one year into President Boris N. Yeltsin's reforms that all of Moscow's squabbling politicians would have hard work trying to put the past back together again.

Last week, the conservative Congress of People's Deputies that was meeting in Moscow, only 60 miles away from here, battered Mr. Yeltsin mercilessly. As the rest of the world watched uneasily, fearing a return to the old order, Serpukhov's leaders looked on in disgust, and strengthened their resolve.

"We have been working for a year, and we have succeeded in totally reshaping our city," said Irina Chernova, chairwoman of Serpukhov's privatization committee. "They can slow us down now, but they can't stop us."

When Russia's conservative politicians attack Mr. Yeltsin and his economic reforms, they often do so in the name of protecting factory managers like Vladimir L. Novikov. He sees the reverse.

"When I listened to them on the radio, my heart started to beat so fast I thought I was having a heart attack," said Mr. Novikov, PPTC placid gray-haired man in a plain gray suit. "I wanted to punch someone. I'm completely ashamed for the Congress."

Alexander Kulakov, vice chairman of the city government, had been critical of many of Mr. Yeltsin's political decisions, but the bitter assault against the president last week only revived his enthusiasm for the elected leader.

"We shouldn't forget that the people in this Congress were selected by the Communist Party," Mr. Kulakov said. "Mainly they're pro-Communist. What else would you expect them to do? But this city supports Yeltsin. This isn't his first defeat. He has been beaten by life before, and found the inner resources to come to life again."

Serpukhov's leaders say that in trying to temper reform, conservative politicians will make life worse instead of better for a nation suffering through enormous economic shifts.

This is not a unanimous sentiment in Serpukhov. The words "Yeltsin is a criminal" have been splashed on several buildings. But a commonality of purpose is evident that was absent a year and a half ago.

In the uncertain days of the August 1991 coup, when the Communists tried to reassert their supremacy with tanks in the streets of Moscow, Serpukhov's 150,000 people were divided.

"Half of our people tore up their Communist party cards," Mrs. Chernova said then, "and the other half rushed in to pay up their back dues."

Just before that August, Mrs. Chernova, 46, had only recently begun a career in journalism and local politics after years as an engineer and Communist believer.

She had been completely devoted, she said this week, recalling the extra Saturdays -- "subbotniks" -- when people worked an unpaid day as a gift to communism. She is contemptuous of her earlier blindness.

Now she is proudly overseeing the privatization of Serpukhov.

"I am sick and tired of hearing our Congress talk about Yeltsin impoverishing our people," Mrs. Chernova said. "Our people were never rich. How can they be impoverished?

"Ten years ago, the average person had to work six months to buy a refrigerator. He still has to work six months to buy a refrigerator. The change now is inflation -- one can not save money because inflation destroys it. But that is a result of indecision, and of our leaders taking half steps toward reform instead of doing it quickly."

Mrs. Chernova said that in the past year Serpukhov has broken up the two huge monopolies that controlled the distribution of all food and consumer goods. Wholesale firms have been created, along with independent shops, which are being privatized.

"The difference between a year and a half ago and now you can see immediately," she said. "The shops were empty before, and there were lines everywhere. Now people are buying less, but everything is available."

The new possibilities have changed the city forever, Mrs. Chernova said. Before, anyone who worked close to scarce goods was almost certain to be corrupted -- selling to those who bribed.

"Reform released us from this corruption, and from the lines," she said. The lines created angry and irritable people. It was humiliating. Now this terribly irritating factor of life has been removed.

"My mother, who is 80, used to stand in line all day long with other pensioners. Now my mother can go to a shop and buy what she wants and go home. She has dignity."

Much of the future now rests on people like Mr. Novikov, who runs a factory manufacturing modular metal buildings.

"I abandoned the old ways with no remorse," said Mr. Novikov, who was a loyal factory director under the Communists for more than 20 years. "It was very difficult to work. We only got orders from above. We could do nothing on our own."

Those constrictions hampered efficiency and productivity, he said.

"When you are close to it, you see it with your own eyes," Mr. Novikov said. "There are many factories here, and I don't know one director who wants to return to the past."

Some factory managers agree with the Congress that reform is coming too quickly, but even they would not want to return to the old Communist command system, he said. The rescue of Russia's economy depends to a large extent on factories like Mr. Novikov's becoming profitable. What he needs most, Mr. Novikov said, is the political stability that will attract foreign investment and steady the ruble.

"Nearly everyone in Europe has been in this room talking about investments," he said. "But all the talk comes to absolutely nothing. They leave, and I never hear from them again. The political instability scares them off."

Though the attack on Mr. Yeltsin undoubtedly will harm the economy even more, the Congress has done some good, Mr. Novikov said.

"Now we see everything clearly," he said. "Now we know at least who is who. We know who is red and who is white. People will have to make a choice, and they will choose Yeltsin."

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