Looms Stilled, Life Unravels in Textile Center

IVANOVO, Central Russia -- It was the middle of a weekday and the automatic looms at the Eighth of March Fabric Mill should have been working at a deafening roar. But as Tamara Lozhnikova walked across the vast weaving hall, all you could hear were her sensible black pumps clicking on the factory floor.

"See what a lovely mill we have," said Lozhnikova, 60, sweeping her arm toward row upon row of idle looms. "The only problem is that it isn't working."

Lozhnikova, deputy director of the mill's commercial department, has witnessed the rise and fall of Russia's cotton-weaving industry, which has long been centered in this industrial city about 300 kilometers northeast of Moscow.

She proudly referred to Ivanovo's moniker, "the Russian Manchester," apparently missing the irony that Ivanovo not only mirrors Manchester's success, but also its demise. As the fall of the British Empire spelled the end for Manchester's cotton mills, so the collapse of the former Soviet Union is now devastating Ivanovo.

Nearly all of the region's 60 textile plants, which employ 70 percent of the local workforce, have come to a standstill.

They lack money for wages and cotton, which is no longer available at subsidized prices from Central Asia. After months of functioning at drastically reduced schedules, most of the textile plants have closed for the summer, sending their workers on what is known locally as "collective vacation."

"We're supposed to start producing fabric again in August, but I'm not sure if it will happen," said Lozhnikova. At the Eighth of March mill, named for International Women's Day, the workforce was recently cut from 1,700 to 1,000 employees, she said.

The area's reliance on the textile industry has left the Ivanovo region with the highest unemployment rate in Russia.

Though the official unemployment rate here is 7 percent -- the nationwide rate is 1.5 percent -- hidden unemployment brings the actual number closer to 20 percent, said Vladimir Tolmachev, President Boris Yeltsin's representative in the Ivanovo region.

With the textile plants still awaiting promised government credits and some 65 percent of the region's enterprises idle, Tolmachev said the local government could not afford to follow a federal law raising minimum wages in July and may not be able to pay teachers and doctors their August salaries.

In downtown Ivanovo, the waiting room at the city employment office was overflowing with job applicants. But few of them are likely to find work. There are only about 900 job openings a month for the 51,000 people seeking work through the service, said Vadim Ignatov, director of the regional branch of the Federal Employment Service.

Women, who together with young people make up nearly 80 percent of the unemployed, are usually the last to be hired, either because the available jobs are not considered suitable for women or because employers do not want to incur the costs of maternity and child care, he said.

The young, who continue to graduate from textile institutes even though the field offers virtually no jobs, also are rarely hired.

Galina Kuvarova, 41, a single mother, was fired last month from her job as an engineer in a construction company. Her 20-year-old son, recently home from the army, has been unemployed for six months.

"They've just abandoned us to fate," she said of the authorities.

Kuvarova has yet to receive unemployment benefits, which in Ivanovo average 20,500 rubles ($10) a month, and she has little hope of getting a job. Most of her unemployed friends have taken to "trade," she says. "They sell whatever they can. Some sell chewing gum and candy at kiosks, some sell their apartments, some sell themselves."

Many of the region's residents have turned to the land to supplement their incomes by growing their own fruits and vegetables.

Yelena Demyenkova, 66, sells piroshki, meat pastries, on the street for a cafeteria at 1,000 rubles per day in order to support her unemployed granddaughter and grandson-in-law.

"Usually the grandchildren grow up and help their grandmother, but I'm helping them," she said. "That's what things have come to."

Others among the unemployed women who once worked in the mills that produced a third of the cotton fabric in the former Soviet Union have taken to selling imported clothes.

Oddly, most people still consider these traders to be unemployed, although they earn money by traveling to Moscow to buy goods, or join special shopping tours to such places as Turkey and Greece before returning to sell the foreign goods in Ivanovo.

On Prospekt Lenina in the center of Ivanovo, a sidewalk table was covered with brightly colored polyester blouses from Taiwan. Business was brisk for the blouses, priced at from 5,000 to 12,000 rubles. Nearby, a kiosk was filled with jackets and dresses imported from China.

"Of course, it's offensive," said Lozhnikova, a third-generation textile worker. "Ivanovo used to dress the whole Soviet Union."