Sarochkins just got paid for Nov. Bitter Russians: Millions of Russians go for months without being paid. Their resentment is one reason President Boris N. Yeltsin will have difficulty getting re-elected in June.

Sun Journal

March 13, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PODLESNY, Russia - The good news in this dilapidated coal mining village is that salaries were paid last month.

In the home of mine electrician Valery Sarochkin there was meat on the table for the first time in weeks. Mr. Sarochkin's eldest daughter had her first pair of new winter boots in two years.

The bad news is that the $180 the Sarochkin family received was the salary for November.

Half of it went to pay debts, because the miners haven't received wages for December, January or February.

A quarter of it paid for the new boots. And the rest about $45 was left to cover rent, utilities and food for "God knows how long," says Mr. Sarochkin's wife, Nadezhda.

The Sarochkins Valery, Nadezhda, who is the mine director's secretary, and their quiet daughters Olga, 13, and Svetlana, 7 are the face of what President Boris N. Yeltsin calls this nation's "financial famine."

In their between-pay nether world, a morning newspaper is an unaffordable luxury and salted pork fat is a dinner table staple. The Sarochkins' tidy and proud existence in this village 100 miles south of Moscow is a study in desperate economics.

They turn to grandmothers and neighbors for loans of money and backyard vegetables. They penny-pinch and go without the extras of modern life.

For example, replacing a pair of pantyhose, a must for Mrs. Sarochkin's secretarial job, becomes a major financial question $1 for cheap ones or $3 for Lycra?

The Sarochkins' story is typical in a Russia struggling with debts, salaries and taxes as it emerges from a command economy to a free-market system.

Millions of working Russians are not paid on time.

The unpaid working class forms the core of the discontent threatening to turn against Mr. Yeltsin in favor of a Communist rival in the June presidential elections.

$2.8 billion in unpaid wages

With government estimates of unpaid wages at $2.8 billion, not a day goes by that the latest wage crisis isn't in the news.

Last week, hospital workers and teachers were striking for back pay in Usinsk, a town in the far north. Before that, actors in a Urals theater were paid in sausages instead of cash.

In January, the nation's parliamentary deputies had to wait for their pay. In December, the union of nuclear power plant workers threatened to switch off reactors if back wages weren't paid.

Mr. Yeltsin, in a sop to the unhappiest voters, has promised that all government back wages will be paid.

But the Sarochkins have been scraping along so long putting in their nine-hour days in the mine and the office for the increasingly rare payday that they are very doubtful.

"When this started a year and a half ago, the first delay was a month, and there were promises like, 'We'll pay you right away, right away,' " recalls Mr. Sarochkin, who grew up in this village where cars are rare and children play near the black mounds of mine tailings.

The Sarochkins have had to wait up to four months to be paid. They've participated in union strikes pressing for back pay. They've accepted a dish set, watches and a wall clock in lieu of cash goods that the government forces the mines to accept as JTC payment from companies that can't pay cash for the coal.

And it's been six months since they received the monthly $10 due everyone living in the fallout zone of the Chernobyl nuclear power disaster, 200 miles away.

When pay day is announced, they've learned to arrive early at the cashier's window. People who have known each other all their lives elbow past each other to reach the head of the line, because cash often runs out before everyone gets what he's earned, says Mrs. Sarochkin.

And a year from now, the Sarochkins face the prospect of no job at all because the Maisky mine where they work is closing, its coal quality no longer competitive with coal from Siberia.

The closing means the village will no longer get free coal for its furnaces, not even during the winter, when temperatures rarely rise above freezing.

Mr. Sarochkin is stoic.

"I've learned to enjoy television," says the 36-year-old miner though the television, turned on during meals and into the evening, blares commercial temptations of food, clothing and appliances he can't buy.

"And I've learned to bargain," he says, referring to an open-air market five miles away that has replaced shopping in the village grocery store, where prices can't be bargained down.

On the last visit to the market, the family bought a couple of pounds of frozen American chicken, a pound of pork fat and a slab of butter for about $15.

But Mrs. Sarochkin, 35, can't always maintain her proud demeanor. Her reminiscences help to explain why so many Russians are attracted to the Communists.

"We never bought anything chic, but, before, my kids always had cake, fish, chicken and meat. Now it's cucumbers with potatoes," she says. There have been days when the family was without bread.

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