Originally created 09/06/98

Unpaid wages, rising prices deepen quiet desperation of Russians



TULA, Russia -- Taisa Yevmanenko kept working even though she hadn't been paid in 11 months. Finally, after weeks of watching the ruble fall and prices soar, she left her factory job for the picket line.

"We get dribs and drabs so we don't starve to death," she said inside the tent in front of the Tula government buildingthat has been her home for the last two weeks. "We're tired of being trampled and oppressed."

Chronic unpaid wages and mass unemployment in industrial cities like Tula, compounded by the plunging ruble and rising prices, are eroding Russians' ability to endure further hardship.

So far, only a few protesters have joined the picket line in front of the local government building, but the quiet desperation of the people in this old Russian city 120 miles south of Moscow runs deep.

"We can't go down any farther. We have to get up, but there is no way," said Valentin Ponamarev, who oversees economic planning for the city. "If things don't change, people will be out in the streets, and I'll join them."

Visiting Tula is like taking a trip back in time to a poorer, more run-down Soviet Union. Moscow's recent prosperity has not reached this industrial city of 580,000 on the Upa River.

There are some modern shops and a couple of banks, but much of the commerce is carried out on the streets in kiosks, sidewalks or markets scattered throughout the city.

Apartments in working class neighborhoods are falling apart, and the streets are lined with half-finished buildings started in the flush of economic reforms. Even Tula's water supply is suffering.

"Our water is terrible. Ten years ago, you could drink water from the tap. Now, you can't even take a bath in it," said Ponamarev.

The Soviet-era proletariat that once could rely on full employment and a secure retirement now lives in a state of anxiety and bewilderment over the current economic turmoil.

At least 70,000 people have lost their jobs as a result of reforms introduced in 1992. Industrial production has virtually collapsed, and the government hasn't paid for state orders for the last several years.

Even the local vodka factory is only producing at 25 percent capacity.

"The situation is very critical," said Ponamarev. "Unemployment is a colossal problem. Federal policies give us no optimism."

City officials and teachers haven't been paid for at least three months. Some factory workers in Tula haven't seen a full month's pay for the past year.

Most Tula residents had learned to cope with unpaid wages, but the devaluation of the ruble Aug. 17 and the price increases that followed stirred resentment and old fears of shortages.

Unemployed workers and miners recently put a straw dummy of President Boris Yeltsin with a couple of apples in his arms and a bottle of vodka in his hand across railway tracks in front of the government building.

Several red Soviet flags with the golden hammer and sickle fly in front of makeshift tents where demonstrators sleep at night.

"Capitalism - Dung. Zionism - Dung," read one poster. "President, get a cold and die," said another. "Socialism or death," and "If you vote, you lose," said others.

Pro-communist sentiment is not surprising in Tula.

The governor is Vasily Starodubstev, a hard-linerwho spent time in jail as one of the coup plotters against former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

But even Yeltsin's former supporters are turning against the president.

Dmitry Dzurtsev Irbek, 42, said he was a defender of the White House, the former Russian parliament building where Yeltsin stood up to the hard-liners who tried to overthrow Gorbachev in 1991.

Now Dzurtsev Irbek wears the button of the radical Russian Labor movement.

"I wanted reforms. I wanted to be a farmer. I waited, and waited, but there were no reforms," said the unemployed coal miner. "The politicians are criminals. Except for imports, there are no reforms."

But like local officials, the protesters don't know how to fix the economy. They also don't know what good demonstrations will do or whether more workers will join them.

"I don't want to go back to the old system," said Yevmanenko, who worked for 30 years in a defense factory. "I want the government to make sure the reforms are carried out for the people."