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Orenburg: East or West? Home is best!

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Orenburg is typical of many provinicial Russian towns in that the government does what it wants, while the people try to make ends meet. Despite the rising prices, few Orenburgers see the point in talking about the endemic corruption that surrounds them. For them, it's the bigger issues, such as education and the family, which count, says Elena Strelnikova

Elena Strelnikova
27 March 2012

The local school

‘Lord, show me a master…one who is straight and strict. With a face dark as ebony and soot. A master of masters’ …

Alfira Shigapovna Gabzalilova is almost in a trance when she reads out poet Andrei Voznesensky's words. I don’t really understand the meaning of it all: is this a personal prayer for herself or a summons to bask in the strong rule of the future president of Russia? 

Alfira, a teacher in Orenburg for the last 30 years, comes from an educational dynasty going back another 300 years (and that’s just counting her close relatives — to look at the extended family would take it back 500). At the start, family members went into teaching because they loved it, and as little as 10 years ago some were still training as teachers. Today, however, Alfira tells the children to get out of teaching while they can: it’s a profession they love, but the pay is so low that every village teacher has to keep a cow. The main thing, however, is that teachers are treated with none of the respect their profession deserves. And this is the opinion of people who love teaching with a passion.

‘The Orenburg region has endured four election campaigns during the last year and a half. People were absolutely fed up and it looked as though their strength would run out before we got to the presidential election. Yet they pulled themselves together and voted. Orenburg region got some of the best election results and came a respective 7th among the leading ‘opposition cities’

I ask Alfira whether our government isn’t now treating people in the public sector more favourably. I’m told that this change in attitude is so minimal as to be almost imperceptible. In our school there are practically no male teachers or young people, though the building itself is pleasant – comfortable and well cared for. It’s small: falling rolls mean that where there were 200 pupils, there are now 80; there’s no top class (year 11) because there weren’t enough pupils and they are pleased to have 7 children in year 1, with 12 in year 2.  

'Do you believe in the future?’ I ask her. The reply is, yes, she’d like to be able to believe in it. But country people don’t like talking about politics, they only sigh. There would certainly seem to have been some positive developments: salaries are paid in money, rather than ready-mixed feed, the farm has got back to work and the neighbouring village is opening a museum. But it’s all still rather shaky and worrying.

Elections

“I’m so glad that the charade is over now,’ sighs my friend, who is head of a vocational training college. ‘The elections are done with, together with the endless campaign meetings in our beautiful new school hall. The authorities allocated money for them, so we can’t really refuse, but the daily problems pile up. Salaries have officially been increased, but no extra funds have been allocated. At the moment I am paying out of the funds we use to pay for utilities, but if we don’t get sent some money soon I don’t know how I’ll cope.’

The Orenburg region has endured four election campaigns during the last year and a half: local government, regional legislative assembly, State Duma and presidential. People were absolutely fed up with the endless promises and it looked as though their strength would run out before we got to the presidential election. But they pulled themselves together and voted. Orenburg region got some of the best election results and came a respective 7th among the leading ‘opposition cities’ (behind Lipetsk, Voronezh, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Irkutsk and Vladivostok). Civil servants give reports of success, whereas the voters emphasise that there’s nothing to be particularly pleased about.

A journalist colleague followed the elections particularly closely, and has spent a long time trying to work out what should happen and how things actually would pan out. He’s read all of Putin’s pre-election articles very carefully: ‘He writes so well that it brings tears to your eyes. I specially liked the bit about the economy – it was all correct and logical. But why did he only start writing these articles just before the election? What was he doing before that? Why didn’t he achieve anything when he was prime minister?’

Shawl_Orenburg

The Orenburg region is famous for its shawls made from a blend of silk and indigenous goat fiber. The Orenburg Shawl is one of the classic symbols of Russian handicraft, along with along with Tula Samovar, Matrioshka or Khohloma painting. (photo: flickr.com, Avital Pinnick’s photostream)

My colleague is vexed by the huge income inequalities that have become a reality in Putin’s Russia. ‘Yesterday I was filming a meeting of bankers. I put on my decent suit — decent by my standards —  but I would’ve been better off in jeans, because from the moment I got there I felt like a complete pauper. The politicians are completely unfazed by the enormous differences between the various layers of society. During the frenzy of the State Duma election campaign an official came from Moscow to lend his support to ‘his’ candidate. He comes from round here, but had left under a cloud of suspicion about kickbacks and worse. He comes back and struts around as if he owns the place with his bling bling laptop. You don’t want to envy him, but you can’t help it… though a journalist’s salary is rather higher than the average salary for the region.’

My colleague told me that at the election he spoilt his ballot paper, but he did it in an educated way. He simply wrote ‘This ballot paper has been spoilt’, sincerely believing that his voice would be heard correctly. How naïve can you get?

Corruption

In Russia people like doing battle with corruption and with officialdom: it’s probably the most ‘popular’ issue and is handed on from one president or prime minister to the next. The topic sounds well from the platform and is always a safe choice. It’s never changes and it can be developed – at the national level there’s a plan for addressing the problem of corruption, the region has a corresponding law and all the government departments with a hand in the pot, as it were, regularly gather round the table to talk and talk about how to deal with corruption. But finding a solution isn’t easy. I suspect that, while officially discussing how to eliminate this particular vice from Russian society, they are unofficially (nods, smiles, winks – pre-arranged signs) working out their strategy for avoiding the new twists in the Russian legislation (damn them!) which they themselves had devised the day before. They wriggle and squirm until they can find a way out of the situation. Such clever officials - well done them!

‘In Russia votes are not cast along ideological lines, but on the theory that Mr X has been in power for some time, so perhaps he’s now stolen enough and might start thinking about the people who voted for him. As almost everyone in Russia steals, people don’t even particularly mind that officials do…you steal? Steal away, but do it with care.’

Every year in the Orenburg region one high-ranking official (of ministerial rank) gets put in prison. They’re afraid of nothing. Recently I was on my way home when I heard hooting from a bright yellow 4x4. There are only two of these cars in the region and I don’t know either of their drivers, or so I thought until that moment. I paid no attention to the hooting, sure it was nothing to do with me, but it carried on insistently and the shout from the car of ‘Lena, Lena!’ finally convinced me. 

At the wheel was a girl I had been at school with whose husband, the head of some department in the Economics Ministry, had recently been sent down for corruption. It was 20° below freezing, but she spent a long time explaining to me, foaming at the mouth, how wrong all those journalists were who had been on the side of the prosecution in the case. Her husband had paid for their delightful country house by selling mobile phones and had simply been made a scapegoat at the Ministry. She was struggling with two children, trying to pay off his millions of roubles of debt and didn’t know how she was going to cope. I asked her where she was working and she told me she has a job at the Ministry of Sport and Tourism, where she earns a pittance. I really wanted to advise her to sell the 4x4 and move to rather less grand accommodation, but then I thought that the Minister of Sport had gone to prison and the Economics Minister had been let out on bail of 3 million roubles. I do believe the Prosecution Service will ensure all the guilty people get their just deserts– or if not all of them, then at least some.

In Russia votes are not cast along ideological lines, but on the theory that Mr X has been in power for some time, so perhaps he’s now stolen enough and might start thinking about the people who voted for him. As almost everyone in Russia steals, people don’t even particularly mind that officials do…you steal? Steal away, but do it with care. This subject is not even much discussed round the kitchen table. 

Kitchen table discussions

No, what we like talking about is prices. My husband had a call the other day from a friend who is building himself a house. He wanted to talk about building materials and their prices. We are not building a house, but we know a businessman who is, and he is happy to give advice. Or my sister rings to tell me to take my husband and go quickly to the hypermarket, where there is a massive sale of men’s clothes. I almost went, but then thought that actually my father and two brothers-in-law had already been shopping there, so if my husband were to go too, they could all end up round the table at Easter in the same sweater. I stalled..it was starting to remind me of the shortages in Soviet times. We planned to take a break at a health farm, but just before we went the prices go up by about 30%, so we had to pass up on the de luxe room.

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During the presidential election campaign the streets of Orenburg region towns and villages were full of posters and banners promoting Vladimir Putin.

We’re sitting at supper and…talking about prices. This year the petrol price will probably go up to a dollar a litre. Food prices have already gone up. Our government has pulled a fast one by postponing the hike in rental payments until the summer. ‘Ha!’ says my husband, ‘just as we expected. The elections are over and now the mistakes of the former government are going to be corrected. Have you heard? Putin is bringing back summer time and the unpopular step of increasing the retirement age is now popular.’ Whether we like it or not, we have moved on from prices to politics.

‘We may be stagnating here, but provincial salaries are very low and they have to be paid on time. Our government likes comparing our prices and taxes with the West, but no one ever says that our salaries should level with Western salaries. When you turn on the news, all you hear is the dollar exchange rate and that another gas pipeline has come on stream.  Somewhere I read that our current government’s aim is to reduce the population to 40 million – enough people to service the gas pipelines and oil wells.’

‘For the media it’s he who pays the piper that calls the tune.’

‘There’s a certain stability in business. We go round and round: we take out a loan to finance development and then pay it back at a huge interest rate. We take them out and pay them back. Our debts are our stability and development is the stuff of dreams.’

‘I’m really cut up about the housing services and utilities, or rather their disintegration. The whole utilities system in Russia has collapsed.  In Orsk the water pipes have burst three times.  Three times a town of 300,000 went without water.  And that’s only the beginning.’

‘But Orenburg is a donor region. We feed Russia, but can’t make our own ends meet. Orsk is one of the 50 larges industrial centres, but the construction of our paediatric cancer centre still isn’t finished after 10 years. Now, at last, they’ve done something about culture: 400 million roubles have been allocated for the refurbishment of the theatre. The most important thing is not to allow the authorities to forget. Bread is always top of the list, but cultural events come lower down.’

We talk about teaching dynasties, about love for one’s own region, for children, about the relationship between parents and what makes a family.  I listen to the simple-hearted, good village people of our Orenburg region and am once more persuaded of the purity and meaning of the concepts we are discussing. But still, somewhere in my sub-conscious niggles a really silly joke about a little worm asking his mother:

‘Is it true that some worms live in delicious, juicy apples?’

‘Yes, my son, it is.’

‘And do other worms live in beds of sweet strawberries and eat them every day?’

‘They do.’

‘So why, oh why do we live in this huge smelly pile of dung in an old cowshed and don’t even try to move to a fruit farm?’

‘Because, my son, this is our home.’

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