Bolshevism's birthplace tries hanging on to past

February 14, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

ULYANOVSK, Russia -- By many accounts, the happiest people in all of Russia live here.

Their stores have cheap bread, meat and milk. Their houses are warm and their streets clean. They adore their governor, who lavishes tender care on them, providing a gently cushioned transition to the market economy.

The people who run Ulyanovsk, hometown of communism, say they have found a safe, protected path to the capitalistic future by controlling some prices, subsidizing food and limiting profits.

Conservative economists are urging a similar course upon Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, who has promised to soften the harsh side effects of economic change while pursuing the strong medicine of reform.

"We're living in the past here," sighs Georgy I. Stupnikov, President Boris N. Yeltsin's personal representative in Ulyanovsk. "It's all based on the former system, and it can't continue for long."

In Ulyanovsk, the Volga River town where V. I. Lenin grew up as Vladimir Ulyanov, six basic food items are heavily subsidized and rationed with coupons.

The plan, says Vladimir T. Chaya, deputy governor and head of the economic committee, offers a humane transition to the market.

"We cannot allow our children to be hungry," Mr. Chaya said. "We can't tell old people they've done all we needed and now it's time to throw them out. We can't do that and build a civilized society."

About 10 percent of the regional budget goes for subsidies. The government limits store markups to 15 percent (in Moscow they average 25 percent to 30 percent) and strictly controls producers' profits. Credits are issued to prop up some industries that might fail otherwise.

Those opposed to the go-slow approach contend that it only perpetuates the old system, in which people relied on their leaders for care instead of learning to work for themselves.

"When you're supported by coupons, your will is sapped," Mr. Stupnikov said.

The subsidies are provided, he said, at the expense of money for investments. "We're eating our future," he said.

Mr. Stupnikov, 68, has an office in the regional administration building -- where he is surrounded by former colleagues who now firmly disagree with him.

"I am an old Communist," said Mr. Stupnikov, who has a long, extravagant white beard. "I was a member of the Communist Party for 43 years. But a man can't stay in the same place.

"Most of the people in this building have sat in their chairs for a long time. They look out the window here at the statue of Lenin, and they think nothing has changed."

The enforcer of Ulyanovsk's version of reform is Gov. Yuri Goryachev, former head of the Communist Party here. Mr. Goryachev won 90 percent of the vote Dec. 12 in the race for the upper house of the national legislature.

"We love him because he loves us," said Anna Klimova, a cheerful pensioner. "He lives only to work for us."

The ultranationalist party of Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky won 23 percent of the vote in the lower house here, indicating an underlying dissatisfaction with life in the workers' paradise of Ulyanovsk.

"That's because Zhirinovsky promised even more than Goryachev," Mr. Stupnikov observed tartly.

Valery Sokolov, a spokesman for the governor, said Mr. Goryachev created a special care fund beginning at the end of the 1980s. Designed as emergency help for the elderly, it has since been extended to young families.

Every resident of the region is entitled to buy just over 3 pounds of meat a month at prices one-third those in Moscow. Bread here costs 60 to 100 rubles, while in Moscow it costs 300 rubles or more.

"We have the glory of being the cheapest city in Russia," Mr. Sokolov said. But clothes, televisions and other uncontrolled products are much more expensive than elsewhere, and residents say they travel 500 miles west to Moscow for such shopping.

There are few signs here of the individual initiative so visible now in Moscow, where the streets bloom with colorful kiosks selling practically everything.

Most people here appear satisfied with the security of cheap bread and strive for little more. At the airport one morning last week, the restaurant stood open and empty while travelers rushed to catch the 7:45 a.m. flight to Moscow.

When the flight was delayed and hordes of passengers hurried to the restaurant for a hot drink and warm food after being stuck in a freezing waiting room, the restaurant promptly closed for its scheduled break. The three women running it sat behind the counter, absorbed in their own conversation while prospective customers pleaded unsuccessfully for them to open.

An hour later, when the flight was finally called off and all potential customers were safely out of sight, the restaurant reopened to a nearly empty airport.

Ulyanovskhad a fortunate balance between agriculture and industry. It was not unduly dependent on the defense industry, as were many other parts of Russia.

The local economy has gotten a big boost from the UAZ factory, which has a monopoly on manufacturing the jeeps bought by Russia's police and military.

UAZ makes a huge contribution to the national and local economy: 70 percent of its profits go for taxes. But Lev V. Anfimov, first deputy director, has ominous forebodings about the future. Taxes leave nothing for investments.

"The costs of parts have increased 10 times, and the price of the cars has only gone up four times," he said.

The economy here, Mr. Stupnikov said, can't work in isolation. "We have cheap food," he said. "But we can't set the prices for car parts or the tractors or combines we buy from other regions."

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