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Summer in Saratov

Olga Bakutkina
19 June 2009

It's summer in Saratov and the street cafes have sprung into life.  The central streets running down towards the Volga are full of flimsy kiosks sheltered by gaily-striped canopies, giving the city the coquettish air of a holiday town. White ‘job vacancy' notices flutter at the entrances, taking care of the unemployment problem, at least until autumn. Statistics confirm that seasonal work has brought down the unemployment level for the first time in the last six months, though the list of summer jobs is not long.

Demand stays high throughout the dacha season for construction teams that are disbanded again once winter comes. Along the Ust-Kurdyumsky highway, Saratov's equivalent of Moscow's prestigious Rublyovka, where the rich have their dachas, there is no shortage of ‘slaves' - workers paid by the day and willing to perform any task. But you no longer see among them the immigrants from the former Soviet republics, who have made up the bulk of summer labourers over these last years. The Uzbek I knew has disappeared somewhere. He gave himself a Russian name, Zhenya, to make things simpler, and turned up with his wife and a whole army of daughters in multicoloured Asian shawls and robes, looking after the gardens of professors and lecturers with precious little knowledge of gardening tools and agriculture.

Otherwise, dacha life is going on as usual. Some people are busy digging away in their vegetable plots, others are completing work on swimming pools. The little market by the roadside sells everything from vegetable seeds to expensive decorative saplings for planting. True, they haven't yet managed to sell the enormous plastic palm tree adorned with garlands of little lights. In the past one of the local nouveaux riches would certainly have bought it to stick by the swimming pool, somewhere in between the blue firs and Alpine hillock, but these days people are obviously trying to save electricity.  

The car showrooms along the roadside are packed with new foreign-brand cars. The local car industry is in the doldrums. Car dealers who were selling hundreds of expensive models every month say that these days they are lucky to sell a few dozen. The crisis is gradually forcing people to give up all luxuries. Of course, luxuries mean different things to different people. One person counts a $2,000 bottle of cognac as a luxury, while another has to give up the idea of getting a false tooth.

Irina, a dentist I know at a private dental clinic, has big problems at the moment. She recently divorced her husband and is now alone with her five-year-old son and the mortgage for her new flat. But how can she pay the mortgage when her wages depend on the number of patients at the clinic? Sometimes hardly more than a dozen come through in two shifts, though not so long ago they had to make appointments a couple of weeks in advance.

Doctors in the public sector are in a more stable situation. Their wages are lower, but they receive a fixed salary, which is paid without holdups. But even in the public sector hospitals and clinics there are fewer patients these days. You might think that people in the city have become healthier. But the drop in patient numbers is above all for diagnostic and therapeutic services, while surgeons, for example, have seen no drop in numbers. This suggests that people are still having treatment that cannot be put off, but are trying to save on early diagnosis and prevention. As a result, at some point down the line, the hospitals will see an increase in the number of patients with neglected or already incurable diseases.

Given that public sector healthcare is supposedly free, you might wonder what they all trying to save money on. Yes, the consultation is free, but you have to pay for the examinations and analyses, ultrasounds, x-rays and so on, all of which is not cheap. You also have to pay for the medicines the doctor prescribes, and the cost of medicines has shot up of late. Also, it's not really the done thing to turn up at the doctor's empty-handed.  

Another indicator of economic instability which the official statistics overlook is the drop in the number of clients at the hair salons. Women in the post-Soviet area still consider New Year and the March 8 Women's Day holiday as the two main times of the year when it is simply essential to get one's hair done. Hairdresser Natalia Ashayeva said that this year only two thirds of her regular customers had their hair done for Women's Day. Natalia is a self-employed hairdresser. She used to work in bigger hair salons before she rented premises and set up her own small hairdressing business. She knows her customers well and they help each other out in these tough times: if a longstanding customer suddenly finds herself out of work, she can pay for her hair care in instalments over 2-3 months. For Natalia, the main thing is not to lose customers, for the business and its little team depend entirely on them for their future.

Natalia's daughter finishes school this year and was planning to send her to St Petersburg to study in an elite hairdressing school in the autumn. Tuition and living costs for the year amount to a considerable sum of money. The family had shares in a local energy company, inherited from Natalia's mother-in-law. They planned to use these shares to pay the expenses, but they have seen the value plummet over the last year . By skimping on everything they have managed to save part of the money needed. But they have no idea where to get the rest. They still have not finished paying off the loan they took out to buy a car. Until not so long ago they had no trouble keeping up with their loan and other payments. They would like to buy a computer for their daughter on credit, or a video camera, but the uncertain future holds them back. The crisis years of the 1990s were much less worrying, Natalia recalls. They had enough money for food back then and their daughter was still small. Now they are concerned not just for themselves but also for their daughter's future as she prepares to enter adult life. 

Lena and Anatoly's tiny business is on the verge of going under completely. The family sells books at a stall set up on the central street. Book sales have halved since last October. Now they are operating at a loss. What will they do if people stop buying books altogether, they wonder?

For an objective view of the current state of things, you can always turn to those who make their living off its conclusion. Gravedigger Tolya, busy painting a cemetery railing, came up with the melancholy observation that "more people are hanging themselves lately, mostly women, and then you have the old men and women killed for their pensions".

Old Saratov needs renovation

These grim statistics also include other unseen victims of the crisis - people who have died from heart attacks or strokes brought on by seeing their dreams fall through. As Andrei Rufanov, a businessman, owner of the company Litsei-S, put it, "Over the decade between the crises, many people raised their living standards considerably and don't want to part with this image of prosperity - it's shameful to be seen as a failure. They run into problems and end up facing total ruin, but hide the real state of affairs even from their own families. This is dangerous: the wider the gap between reality and the illusion, the deeper the abyss". Andrei thinks that people who did not have much to begin with and lived only off their wages are having an easier time getting through the crisis.

The very wealthy not only survive, they even prosper, especially if they have the right political connections. It's the small and medium businesses that face the biggest risks. Banks have cut back on lending and increased interest rates, and consumers' purchasing power has fallen, especially in the non-foodstuffs retail sector. Litsei-S ran a dozen or so shops selling shoes, but fierce competition and the crisis have forced it to close down all but four. "The crisis is like a very high, very long tidal wave", Andrei Rufanov said. "Those in low buildings have already climbed on to the roof. Everything depends on whether or not we can hold out for long enough to see the disaster through". He is not counting on any state support or help from the authorities.

During the troubled 1990s, when hostile company takeovers were simply called gangster attacks, Rufanov had to decide how to protect not just his capital but his family's lives. The family left for Canada. A year later, he came back alone. Infrequent meetings and international telephone calls proved an impossible way of keeping a family together. So he and his wife divorced.  Now he is remarried and has a small daughter. For her and her generation, he wants to preserve the memory of what it was like for his generation. So he has written and co-produced a film called Parallel Worlds of S Town. The film has six episodes. The heroes are all Saratov businesspeople, who have succeeded through their own talent and entrepreneurial spirit rather than by having access to budget funds or raw materials. They are united by time and place, each of them in their own way trying to make things better. The crisis is probably not the best time for artistic self-fulfilment, but three of the episodes have already been filmed and the fourth is currently being made.  The film must be finished.

Old town Saratov

Saratov businessman Andrei Taboyakov thinks that if we destroy the memory of the past we lose our sense of identity and destroy the link between the generations.

Andrei Taboyakov, one of the film's heroes, owns elite clothing outlets, beer bars and a chain of cafes. Most of them are located in old merchant's houses, lovingly restored by the new owner. He has put up the first, and so far the only, memorial plaque in town to commemorate a Saratov merchant. It adorns the facade of the former residence of Vakurov, a well-known and respected nineteenth century merchant and patron of the arts. Today it houses a cafe. It would probably have been simpler the tear down the building and build something new in its place. But Andrei Taboyakov thinks that if we destroy the memory of the past we lose our sense of identity and destroy the link between the generations. Despite the crisis, he is restoring another old merchant's residence, that of Blyum, who owned hat shops. After Blyum died, his widow opened a fashionable bakery and sweet shop, Mignon, on the ground floor of her own home. Andrei Taboyakov wants to restore and reopen the shop under the same name. He is philosophical about the crisis. Of course there are big problems, but every crisis has its beginning and its end.

In August 1998, when economic crisis engulfed Russia, he was in Paris, where he'd just signed a contract for deliveries of designer clothing. The situation was simpler then because the crisis affected only Russia and his foreign partners carried out their side of the contract. He was younger then too, took a simpler view of things and had nothing to lose anyway. Now, those who depend on foreign imports are feeling the consequences of exchange rate fluctuations and their partners in Europe are having problems too. Sales of elite clothing have slumped. What is saving Taboyakov's business now is that he decided to diversify after the 1998 crisis and branched out into the foodstuffs industry.

Saratov cafe

 His pubs and cafes target the middle-income bracket: the average bill at his cafes comes to 100-150 roubles, so he has no shortage of customers, all the more so now when the summer terraces are open.       

The city is getting on with its summer life and trying not to think about what autumn will bring. The problems under the surface are suggested by the ‘To let' notices up in shop windows around town, even in the most sought-after locations. Local businesses used to battle it out to get hold of these retail premises, but not any more. Cranes stand idle at building sites and apartments in newly-built fashionable high-rise blocks are empty. WDB Bank has been declared bankrupt and had its licence revoked. A little more than two billion roubles will be paid out to the bank's depositors under the federal deposit insurance programme. This is the second time that such a large bank has gone under in Russia. The newspapers are writing about companies laying people off, and farmers are threatening to dump their milk in front of the regional government headquarters if purchase prices are not raised. On Kirov Prospekt, Saratov's central street, a huge poster adorns the front of one building: "The American crisis won't pass!" It's not clear what is meant by this. Does it mean "We won't let the American in"? Or that it is never going to end? And in any case, what's it got to do with America?   

All photos: Olga Bakutkina (all rights reserved)

Editor's note:  

Saratov is a major city in Southern Russia with population of 900 000. It is important port on the Volga river. From Soviet times until 1991 Saratov,  as a military aircraft manufacturing site and a vital part of the Soviet space programme was a "closed city", strictly off limits to all foreigners. In the past Saratov region was home of the Volga Germans (800 000 in the early XXth century).   At the outbreak of World War II, half of the Volga Germans were exiled, many left to Germany after 1980. Today Saratov is one of the most important scientific, cultural and industrial centers of the Russian Federation.

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Russia is not only Moscow politics and St. Petersburg's monuments. Read other Letters from provincial Russia:

Pskov: the Paratroopers' Town, My Town, by Anna Lipina, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/pskov-the-paratroopers-town-my-town

Nizhny Novgorod: Life in Nizhny Novgorod doesn't stand still, by Lira Valeyeva, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/life-in-nizhny-novgorod-doesn-t-stand-still

Samara: Notes from Samara, by Sergei Khazov, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/notes-of-a-samara-resident

Kazan: Life in Kazan: defying the crisis, by Oleg Pavlov, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/life-in-kazan-defying-the-crisis

Sakhalin Island: The Island of cyclones and abundant snows, by Ksenia Semenova, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/the-island-of-cyclones-and-abundant-snow

Khabarovsk: Far East is still far away, by Alexei Minin, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/Far-East-is-still-far-away

Kirov: The Vyatlag Archipelago, by Ekaterina Lushnikova, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/the-vyatlag-archipelago

Lipetsk:  You can get a life - in spite of everything! By Oksana Zagrebnyeva, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/you-can-get-a-life-in-spite-of-everything

Izhevsk:  A Sunny Mayday in Izhevsk, by Nadezhda Gladysh, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/letter-from-izhevsk

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