Letters from Russia: Lipetsk ! You can get a life – in spite of everything!

Oksana Zagrebnyeva
5 June 2009

Hi!  I haven't written a letter for ages.  You don't need to with mobiles and the internet.  I'm more likely to ring my friends or colleagues or exchange short messages with them. 

Hi!  I haven't written a letter for ages.  You don't need to with mobiles and the internet.  I'm more likely to ring my friends or colleagues or exchange short messages with them. 

I moved to Lipetsk about a year ago.  It's roughly 500 km south-west of Moscow.  The cities in Russia that are considered really big are those with more than 1 million people, so from that point of view Lipetsk is not very big.  There are just over half a million here. I fell in love with it last spring: it's so clean and there's lots of greenery and fountains.  The city fathers chose St Petersburg as their model, perhaps because the town was partly founded by Peter the Great.  He decided to build ironworks here to make his cannons, ships' anchors and chains.  Even the architecture here is quite like St Petersburg.

In Lipetsk there are buildings from different ages, as there are in many Russian cities.  Merchants' houses and Stalinist Empire-style buildings are cheek by jowl with modern commercial and business centres.   In one of the squares - Cathedral Square (it used to be Lenin Square, after the leader of the proletariat) - the regional administration building, which was built in Soviet times, is right opposite a statue of Lenin.  To the left of them is the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ, which was built at the end of the 18th century.  They're very strange bedfellows, if one remembers that in the USSR atheism was taught as a science, while churches and cathedrals were pulled down. 

Today Novolipetsk Steel (NLMK) carries on the 18th century Petrine tradition of the ironworks.   The owner is Vladimir Lisin, one of the five richest men in Russia.  They are the main employer in the city:  they occupy a vast area of land and employ about 35,000 people.  On top of that many of their components are made to order in small and medium-sized Lipetsk factories, so that accounts for several thousands more jobs. 

Lipetsk and its region have felt the influence of the economic crisis more strongly than other cities and regions, because it's a single-industry city and everything depends on NLMK.  They are short of orders, so their employees have felt the pinch too - many of them are not working a full day any more, some are working a short week and others have been retired or made redundant.  My friend's mother worked has had her work cut back, so she's earning less.  Her father worked in a factory which depended on orders from NLMK.  When the crisis started he was paid 4,000 ($130) instead of the usual 10,000 roubles ($324).  No explanation.  There are 4 people in that family, 3 are working.  By the New Year their total monthly income had dropped to  30,000 roubles ($971.5), half what it was before the crisis.  Many, though not all, have lost 30 - 50% of their income.

My husband worked at the Lipetsk Meat Processing Plant, where he was head of sales.  The enterprise ran on credit, as most of them do, and had no working capital of its own.  When the banks cut the credit line the directors started streamlining their expenditure by sacking people and cutting wages.  My husband was offered the possibility of working for 15,000 ($485.75) instead of 30,000 - or find another job.  His last working day there was 31 December.  What a way to start the new year! 

And he's not the only one.  At that time many people were unemployed or on leave with no wages.  After the New Year holiday the labour exchange was full of people looking for work and my husband was one of them.  He was registered unemployed and should have received unemployment benefit of about 5,000 roubles ($162), instead of which he got 1,800 ($58).  We didn't bother asking why.  At that moment there was the possibility of another job and that was more important than sorting things out with the employment people.  But this way of 'looking after' the unemployed left a nasty taste in the mouth.

There are firms, like the radio station where I work in Lipetsk, where the directors have not shocked their employees by drastically cutting their salaries.  They've done it gradually - a couple of thousand a month, even though advertisements (the only source of revenue) have gone back to their previous levels.  People grumble, but they can't actually do anything.  Everyone is on the lowest salary level and the rest is made up by abstract things like 'professional skills', 'achievements' and 'performance'.  You could say that salaries depend what side the boss has got out of bed that morning.  Your actual levels of achievement are of no interest to anyone, so there's no incentive to be creative.  And what about the directors of, say, a construction company, who pay the workers first and only then the foremen, managers and engineers?  So people in managerial positions with a higher education, who are essential for production to function at all, are rated lower.

The regional budget has also been affected by the crisis, as NLMK taxes are millions of roubles below what they were and they are the main contributor.  Many programmes have had their funding cut, including road construction and repair.  Our drivers were just beginning to enjoy things, but now we're back with the potholes. 


Oksana's house was built in the fifties. Lipetsk has dozens of buildings like this one.

(Photo: Oksana Zagrebnyeva)

The housing construction budget is frozen, though we can still remember last autumn how nice it was to drive past a new estate under construction and dream of getting a mortage to buy a small one-room flat in one of the new blocks.  My husband and I live with his father in a block of flats built as temporary accommodation in the '50s for workers at the Lipetsk Tractor Plant. 

There are 8 flats in the block, which has been condemned - the pipes are in a terrible state, the roof is leaking and there are problems with the electricity.  Lipetsk has dozens of buildings like ours: the people living in them are waiting their turn on the regional resettlement programme list.  I don't believe in miracles such as being resettled at someone else's expense, so I decided to do some repairs to our hovel.  It's said that there's nothing more permanent than the temporary and, as my mortgage dreams melted away in the crisis and I don't want to take a flat and pay some unknown landlord rent, we going to put to rights what we've got.

Lobby in Oksana's house badly needs renovation (Photo: Oksana Zagrebnyeva)

We've put up a notice on the entrance doors downstairs.  It reads 'Dear Residents! If you want the front of the house and the roof to be repaired, the tenants in flats 4 and 7 are going to have to pay off outstanding rent payments of 40 and 60 thousand roubles ($1295 and $1943) respectively.'  This is approximately 2-3 years' worth of debt.  When they read this notice the other residents started asking 'What can we do?'  Could we really go and screw the money out of the alcoholic who lives in no 7 or the orphan who lives in no 4 and is a minor?  Or appeal to their conscience?  Why does the house management committee not institute proceedings against these debtors?  Non-payment is, after all, its problem.  Why do paid-up honest tenants have to sort it out?  Lots of questions, but no answers!

At the beginning of May my husband and I were returning to Lipetsk from a trip to southern Russia.  The other couple in the coupe were a woman pensioner and a middle-aged man, who live in even smaller towns in the Lipetsk region.  They started talking about how things were under the Soviet communist regime and how they are now.  The pensioner described today as the time of  'robber capitalism' and was singing the praises of the Soviet system which had given her a free education, medicine and, for her most importantly, stability.  She said that she knew that if she was a good student and worked hard, she would be able to afford a way of living that may have been only average, but was at least stable.  Perestroika did away with all that.   When she goes to see her family these days she takes them dried roach to go with the beer.  She buys it on the platform of one of the stations because she can't afford anything better.  You can understand her: in later life Europeans can at last travel to see the world, but she doesn't even have a washing machine yet. 

Her companion is a man of 45 and he is more optimistically inclined.  He sees all the drawbacks of the current political and economic situation, but believes that there will be a bright future: the crisis will soon be over, credit and mortgages will become available and anyway, he says, it's still better now than it was in the '80s, when the Soviet Union was about to collapse.  His reasoning is very simple: there are more cars per head of the population and increased demand for household goods - each family has at least one television!  Before one had to go to the neighbours to watch TV if one didn't have one's own set.

I don't know whose side I'm on - probably somewhere in the middle.  Each age and system has its own pluses.  I am not in a position to judge about the Soviet Union: I had just started school in 1989 and had no sense of the collapse of the USSR.  But I certainly agree with 'robber capitalism'.  For the man in the street the system is divided into capitalist-grabbers who are rolling in cash and only consider their own interests and a kind of Just State which raps these grabbers over the knuckles, fines them and sends the robbers to prison.  The main thing is that this Just State doesn't let the grabbers brazenly line their pockets at the expense of ordinary mortals. Let them divvy up their capital and shares between themselves, buy their yachts, islands, even planets if they want to!  The only thing is that this Just State doesn't exist.  State power in Russia now is identified for me with the capitalist-grabbers.  Up there on their heights they divide up spheres of influence and (shock! horror!) our money and not in our favour either. 

I'm not saying anything about corruption.  Though perhaps I will.  I'll tell you a joke....Lipetsk regional officials are trying to decide who should get the contract to build the new motorway.  A tender is announced and the first bidders are the Turks, who say they can build it for a million dollars.  Our lot reflect - sounds good.  The next bid comes from the Germans: we'll build it for 2 million dollars.  Oho! think our lads, the Germans are super pernickety and their roads are excellent.  Sounds good!  The third bid is from our neighbours in the Voronezh region.  Their bid is 3 million dollars.  Why so expensive? ask our lads.  'Well, there's a million for you, one for me and one for the Turks - let them build it!'

Thinking about roads reminds me of the Russian car industry.  Perhaps you've heard that because of the crisis our government has decided to introduce loans on favourable terms for the whole of the AvtoVaz model series and the Russian 4x4s Chevrolet Niva and UAZ Hunter.  Also Ford Focus, KIA Spectra, FIAT Albea, Skoda Fabia, Volkswagen Passat and Renault Logan, which are assembled in Russia.  The main condition is that these cars should not cost more than 350,000 roubles ($11,334),  the interest rate is 6-10% and the loan must be paid off before the end of 2011.  However, in practice it turns out that this is just a banal promotion of AvtoVaz cars and there is only an illusion of choice, so that the anti-trust lobby doesn't start making a fuss. 

Hear this:  my husband and I wanted to use these favourable facilities to exchange our Russian Lada.  We started going round the car salons and it soon became apparent that the only car you could buy for this money was an AvtoVaz.  There were no cars made by other firms that were basic enough to be sold for 350,000 roubles.  In principle they could be ordered at the favourable loan rate, but delivery would only be in 2011.  The sales people in the salons talk you out of playing these games with the state: 'It's better to buy a decent specification Skoda Fabia for 430,000 roubles ($13,924.8) than a top Lada Priora for 350,000!'  We don't want to exchange our Russian car for another piece of junk, but aren't quite sure about the Skoda.  We have different priorities.

On the whole I often think that we live in defiance.  In defiance of the crisis, the falling salaries and growing prices, in defiance of the fact that we can't plan our budget.  And in defiance of everything I got married during the crisis - no pomp and ceremony, no banquet, just him and me.  During the crisis several of my friends have had babies and others (and I'll let you in on a secret - me too) are planning to have them.  Some friends are intending to buy a house in the suburbs, others want a car and without any favourable credit facilities from the state.  Life goes on.....


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

Saratov: Summer in Saratov, by Olga Bakutkina, http://www.opendemocracy.net/russia/article/summer-in-saratov

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

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

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