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The Russian Heartland, Where Quiet Poverty And Denial Reign

Far from the murders and intrigue swirling at the Kremlin, or the war rumbling in Ukraine, most of Russia lives in a strange post-Soviet state of denial like one finds in the city of Yelets.

Street market in Yelets, Russia
Street market in Yelets, Russia
Isabelle Mandraud

YELETS — Their faces inscrutable, their bodies leaning forward, focused on their work, Yelets' lacemakers are survivors. Crises came and went, and reduced their work force from some 2,000 during the Soviet era to fewer than 50 today.

So when it comes to today's crises — ramping inflation, the crumbling ruble, the scarcity of jobs and the terrifying images of the war in Ukraine — they would rather talk about something else.

"In any case, we're too poor to worry about that," says Galina Korshkova, a retired worker. Located halfway between Moscow, 350 kilometers to the north, and Kharkiv, the Ukrainian city across the border, Yelets burrows down within itself.

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When the overnight train drops you off at 5 a.m. at the station, you find yourself looking for signs of a resurrected past. But in this town of just over 100,000, where, like most other Russian towns, a statue of Lenin continues to hold pride of place on the main square, these signs present themselves mainly in relics of past crises.

Of the 54 factories operating here in the early 1990s, only 10 still exist today. The 100-year-old company that makes vodka is on its last legs, and the snow falling on this late February day seems just a bit colder.

The second bread factory hasn't been operating for a long time. In the neighborhood of Zasona and its little wooden houses, 20% of the population are unconnected to the city's water system and continue to pump their water outside. The pipes run deep underground so they don't freeze.

But traces of today's crisis are hard to find, as they are superimposed on and merge with the other, older ones. Take Viktor Novosseltsev's house, for example. The facade looks elegant with its faux light wood coating, but once you pass inside the doorstep, the concrete block walls are unfinished and the living room looks like a construction site. Business for this wholesale merchant is steadily declining.

Every month, 38-year-old Novosseltsev, who used to dream of becoming a paralegal, takes his van and drives all the way up to the factories in the major textile town of Ivanovo to buy loads of cheap clothes he then sells at the markets. It's a two-day journey totaling 1,300 kilometers on bad roads.

"Since cotton is produced abroad, the prices have increased a lot," he says. "It's crazy. I used to want everything. Now, I've reduced my ambitions. All I want is to maintain my current living standards. As for the rest, I understand I'll never have it."

Not everybody shares this resignation, though, and many in Yelets are arching their backs, waiting for better days. "Bad relations affect only high-level officials," says Yuri Faoustov, supervisor of the town's biggest industrial company, Gydroagregat. "For normal people, things are OK."

The "high level" he refers to is Moscow against the rest of the world. And Moscow is a long way away, even though Faoustov couldn't have foreseen that the Feb. 27 murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov might prove him so right. The ruble's collapse doesn't affect him, he says, "because I don't own currencies."

"Sure, my salary — 25,000 rubles, or $400 — seems ridiculous over there, but here, it's enough to get by." In their cellars, people are storing more salted preserves, jars of tomatoes and pickled cucumbers, and potatoes, that's all. Yelets has developed a cast-iron resilience.

Talk of war

It isn't easy to raise the topic of a war that's taking place just a few hours drive from here and in which Russia is not officially involved. "There's no war in Russia, and the one in Ukraine affects everybody, just like the Syrian war does," says Vladimir Mezinov, technical director at the Gydro Privod factory, which makes spare parts for combine harvesters. "With the terrorist attacks, France is also, in a way, at war, isn't it?"

People prefer to deny the existence of the war, despite the international sanctions it brought against banks, and as a result the difficulties it has created for companies. "The difference here is that this crisis is artificial," says Evgeny Nikol, the factory's manager. "In the 1990s, it was the USSR's collapse. In 2008, the crisis was global. This time, it's rather in our heads, so it's easier to get out of it," he says.

But for the past three months, the consequences have been only too real. Nikol and Mezinov spend their time readjusting loss-making budgets, juggling with salaries that are melting away, and trying to find new suppliers to replace the spare parts that used to come from Israel and Germany. The old factory is just short of collapse.

As is often the case, the real bosses aren't here. They own other companies and live far away, in Moscow or even abroad. They never come, choosing to manage their business remotely, buy or sell according to their finances, via the Internet or by telephone. But on the ground, the old habits haven't changed. Everything still depends on the factory's parent company Gydroagregat, from health care to leisure.

Its general hospital is considered one of the best in Yelets and its canteen is almost free. In the summer, workers' families travel to a holiday village paid for by the company on the banks of the river Don. "If I lose my job, I lose everything," Yuri Faoustov admits with a wince.

But he wants to see things positively. Last summer, he went to Crimea for the holidays, where Russian companies are now asked to send their employees to compensate for the lack of foreign tourists.

"People were happy, and there were Ukrainians too, from Kiev," he says with a grin.

Imaginary war?

Faoustov is lucky. His job is pretty safe, even as talks of layoffs in other companies spread. "For now, it's rather an internal, psychological tension because people don't know what's going to happen and because other countries are very negative towards Vladimir Putin," he says.

Officially, unemployment in Yelets stands at 1.5%. But in reality, it's far higher than that. It's just that people have become accustomed to taking care of themselves. After the fall of the USSR, many used to take the road to Poland to sell there what they could and buy everything they lacked back home.

Founded 50 years ago, the local beer factory Yeletskoe Piva has also experienced terrible misfortunes. First, the 1980s campaign against alcohol brought it to its knees, then came bankruptcy in 2009. Since then, after years of surviving by not paying any wages, the site, which produces non-pasteurized beer that doesn't keep for more than two weeks, had begun to recover thanks to its acquisition by a holding the employees don't even know the name of.

A few weeks ago, the company started producing non-alcoholic drinks, made from thyme, for example. "We realize it's a difficult situation," says Marina Gousseva, a beverage technician. But "we completely support Putin, his approach, and we hope that we'll soon get past this."

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A bus stop in Yelets — Photo: Salin

A retired woman named Galina Korshkova says the war in Ukraine doesn't even seem real. "They're not fighting for real things but for ghosts," she says.

Having grown up in the Soviet system, she would "never" have imagined that pro-Russian separatists could fight other Ukrainians in a "brotherly country."

Far from Moscow's rhetoric and Kremlin intrigue, Yelets takes refuge in denial of the conflict, and the crisis it suffers dates back to the fall of the Soviet Union. "Many have never been out of here, so they can't compare," says Novosseltsev the merchant. "Me, I did, and I know now that people have always been living in poverty. My neighbor gets 6,000 rubles ($100) from his pension and he says he's OK. It's all in the mind."

Sometimes, the denial crumbles in the face of reality, through Skype, for example. That's how Faoustov keeps in touch with part of his family who live in Luhansk, one of the separatists' strongholds in eastern Ukraine.

"They had to move out because their building was bombed," he says. "We offered them to come here to Yelets, but they refused. They're angry now because they say that Russia doesn't support them enough."

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