Peace Corps volunteer from Maryland brings capitalism to Engels (near Marx)

November 24, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

ENGELS, Russia -- Judy Neiman has spent the past two years here bringing capitalism to Engels, a town named after the man who spent his life trying to destroy capitalism.

Marx (named after Karl) is the next town up the Volga river -- Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were fellow travelers on the road to communism.

Mrs. Neiman, 68 and a former resident of Columbia, Md., came here as a Peace Corps volunteer to set up a business center offering practical help to Russians trying to emerge from 70 years of communism.

"I think the workers of the world don't want to unite," she has concluded as she nears the end of her tour. Mrs. Neiman was one of 100 Peace Corps volunteers who arrived in Moscow on Nov. 21, 1992, the first group sent to Russia from an agency more accustomed to serving African and other Third World countries.

For many of the volunteers, life here was a shock they couldn't absorb.

Only half lasted the full two years, a much higher attrition rate than the Peace Corps average of 20 percent, said Tim Carroll, the agency's director for Russia. But he said the high rate was not unusual for a new program where the conditions were not fully apparent.

"I haven't been troubled," he said. "Statistically, it's understandable."

The volunteers came with high ideals and an unusual profile: Their average age was 41, and half of them held master's degrees in business administration. Their mission was to help develop small businesses, to change the world a little and live like Russians on a $250-a-month stipend.

Mrs. Neiman not only survived but happily prevailed.

She advised 150 clients, developed a warm circle of friends, read untold volumes of Russian literature and even studied some Engels.

"Engels was a funny, witty, marvelous guy," she said. "He couldn't foresee into the nature of power and the lack of competition in a closed society. He didn't foresee enlightened capitalism."

Mrs. Neiman had impeccable credentials for her task here, having worked eight years as director of communications for the Rouse Co., which as a developer is a veritable den of capitalism.

Engels and Marx, who developed the theories that Lenin seized for his revolution, envisioned a world where the proletariat ruled and owned the means of production, guaranteeing them the good life.

"It was a good idea that just didn't work," Mrs. Neiman said.

She was horrified at just how badly it did turn out.

"I get real sore at some things here," she said, "especially at how the government won't treat its people with any respect. I won't even say anything about the toilets."

Toilets are so dreadful here that, like many foreigners in Russia, Mrs. Neiman plans her day (light on liquids) so that she can wait until she gets home at night to use the toilet. Her office is in a government building.

"There are the open manholes, the broken pavement," she said, "in a country that built a sputnik before we did. Yet they don't care enough to do anything for people. It's idiotic and insane."

Mrs. Neiman adapted quickly. "I say yes to every invitation I get, to every insane thing that's asked of me," she said. "And when someone shows up at my apartment without calling, as they do, I come out in my bathrobe and invite them in."

She even found a good place for dry cleaning -- in Berlin, where she visited one of her four children who is an opera singer.

She was able to help some businesses, and watched horrorstruck as others kept up their old ways.

Engels has the world's largest trolley bus factory, which decided to bid on a contract in Dayton, Ohio. "They sent me a copy of the contract, and I told them they had to get a lawyer," she said.

'Parts' as 'profits'

They didn't, went to Ohio without a translator and misunderstood the terms of the contract. "They translated 'parts' as 'profit,' " Mrs. Neiman said, and thought they had to pay 60 percent of the profits when it said 60 percent of the parts had to be American -- a provision that could have been waived with legal help.

"They decided to pull out of the bidding," she said, "and now they're waiting for the government to rescue them. They think they don't have to compete. So you still have that old psychology."

One thing the volunteers clearly have accomplished is opening communication to the outside world in a country that has long been cut off.

One Engels man was trying to reach a foreign cutting-tool company, equipped only with the name Glissom. Mrs. Neiman found the firm -- named Gleason -- and a representative promised to visit Engels when he was in Russia.

When Mrs. Neiman leaves in December, she expects to move to Baltimore, where her son Joshua lives.

"I don't know what I've accomplished," she said, "except I've worked very hard and I've made a lot of friends and I think I've represented my country well."

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