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Working Class Russians Resent Reform, Remember Soviet Stability

November 16, 1995

VLADIMIR, Russia (AP) _ Valentina Ivanova remembers not long ago when her life in this drab factory town still had a little class, and poverty was something she thought only workers in the West had to fear.

``I used to make 100 rubles a month. I went to the theater. I went to the movies,″ recalled Ivanova, who works at the Vladimir Tractor Factory. ``Now I don’t make enough to put sugar on the table every day for my two kids.″

For Ivanova, the not so distant Soviet past seems like Paradise Lost _ a time when there wasn’t much, but there was always something. A time when she didn’t always feel like what she really is _ a working-class mom eking out a living in a provincial city with no savings and few prospects.

It is this slide into the world of the real proletariat that is turning more and more people back to the Communist Party or turning off interest in the Dec. 17 parliamentary elections.

In the race to create a market economy, the government failed to halt an inflation tornado that gutted worker’s paychecks even as stores suddenly brimmed with merchandise and the lines vanished.

In the short term, more reform means more pain for workers in old state industries as Russia’s new capitalists streamline. Recent success in curbing inflation is too late for many workers _ their savings already are gone.

In working class towns like Vladimir, layoffs, unpaid wages and falling living standards are a way of life and cloud the memories so many Russians hold of the Soviet era with its poorly stocked shops, shabby goods and long lines.

The resentment many Russian workers feel is not so apparent in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where support for reform among wealthy businessmen and the urban intelligentsia is still strong.

Few workers in Vladimir seem to believe the elections will change their lives for the better.

``I’m fed up. These elections, well, they happen all the time and nothing gets better,″ said Nikolai Petrov, a middle-aged truck driver. ``There are so many parties, so many candidates. It’s hard to figure out.″

Petrov says he won’t vote. Those Russians who will vote must choose from a dizzying list of more than 40 parties and thousands of candidates.

``None of those parties interest me,″ said Vasil Bobrik, who has worked as a welder at the Vladimir Tractor Factory for 40 years. ``They make only empty promises.″

Vladimir, a 12th century Russian city 100 miles northeast of Moscow, ought to be a reform stronghold, a symbol of Russia’s success in building democracy and capitalism.

Mayor Igor Shamov, a Yeltsin appointee with impeccable reform credentials, has pushed through changes despite a Communist majority in the City Council in the four years since the Soviet collapse.

The Vladimir Tractor Factory, once a showcase of Soviet industry, has been entirely privatized. Its director studied at Harvard. The head of the World Bank just visited, and U.S. tractor company Case says it wants to invest.

But the workers have not harvested the fruits of the reform, and even those who have no use for the old regime are confused by the country’s crazy politics and anxious about losing their jobs.

The tractor factory laid off 900 of its 10,500 workers this month. Deputy Director Vladimir Filatov said another 2,100 employees will be axed by spring if local or regional governments don’t come up with cheap credits.

Such cutbacks are a painful reminder of the time when all Soviet citizens were guaranteed a job.

``I didn’t like them. To tell the truth, I hated the Communists, but for crying out loud we lived better then,″ Bobrik, the welder, said.

The inflation unleashed by Boris Yeltsin’s reforms forced Bobrik, who had retired in 1992, to don his welder’s mask again. He couldn’t survive on his $49 monthly pension, the equivalent of four bus trips to Moscow.

The average wage at the tractor factory is $75 a month, barely above the official subsistence _ or poverty _ level of $64 a month.

Finding a better job elsewhere is hard. The factory is the city’s biggest and one of its best-paying employers.

Nearby cities and towns are even worse off than Vladimir, a city of 340,000 people. In neighboring Ivanovo region, top-heavy in textile plants, there are 94 contenders for every job posted.

For unhappy workers like Valentina Ivanova, it’s time to change course and for her the choice is clear.

``The Communists, of course,″ she barked, looking back at the Lenin statue in front of the factory when asked who would get her vote. ``Everybody shouts, `Democracy, democracy.′ You tell me, what did that democracy do for us?″

Mayor Shamov and Filatov, the factory manager, intend to vote for reformers. Both worry about a Communist comeback. But sitting in their warm offices, neither one has an answer to the workers’ fears or a way to bring back the stability of the past.