Miners Who Helped Crush USSR Now See Only Dim Light at End of Tunnel for Reforms
Five years ago, striking coal miners from this Siberian industrial center were Boris Yeltsin's shock troops, the vanguard of his anti-Communist revolution that swept the Soviet Union away.
Today, as Mr. Yeltsin fights for reelection as Russia's president in elections Sunday, those miners are abandoning him in droves, demoralized and disillusioned by the way that free-market reforms have thrown their lives into turmoil.
"At that time we had hopes for a better life, and the miners supported Yeltsin 100 percent," said Yevgeny Filin, a coal-smudged elevator mechanic, recalling the dramatic strikes in 1989 and 1991 that heralded the emergence of a new Russia.
"But think about it - if people don't get paid for several months it means the government cannot fulfill its obligations. We have to put our hopes in somebody, and this government doesn't meet our hopes," he added.
At parliamentary elections last December, the Communist Party won in Kemerovo district by a landslide, with almost four times as many votes as its nearest rival.
Frustration with delays in paying wages, widespread layoffs, and fears of massive mine closures are expected to buoy support for Communist presidential candidate Gennady Zyuganov here again on voting day.
Kemerovo, the largest coal-producing area in Russia, has not fared well from the reforms that the miners championed in 1991. All 78 of the region's mines have been privatized, but only three are profitable, and subsidies to keep the rest open are only sporadically disbursed.
Worse still for the mine workers, the government is constantly threatening to cut the subsidies altogether.
"Uncertainty about tomorrow is what scares me," explained Yelena Rumanova, a mining engineer at the "1st of May" mine, 40 miles north of Kemerovo, waiting for an elevator in the dusty gloom at the bottom of the mine's main shaft. "My big fear is that the mine will be shut down."
Shift leader Gennady Kuzmin is sticking by Yeltsin despite his problems. "He started reforms in Russia, and even if we lead a bad life now, there is a promise of better. If someone new comes in there will be another five years of bad life," said the stocky, mustachioed man with a pugnacious resemblance to former Polish president and anti-Communist Lech Walesa.
Fellow worker Vladimir Strelnikov has kept the faith too. "If the Communists take power, it will be just like it used to be - I'll have a pocket full of ration coupons, and there will be nothing in the stores but tomato sauce and rubber galoshes," he scoffed.
Reveling in the new consumer opportunities that have opened up in recent years, Mr. Strelnikov has bought himself a second hand car, a refrigerator, and a television set. He works in a relatively efficient mine with generous productivity bonuses and a hopeful future.
But that is unusual. Far more miners are using ancient equipment at worked-out seams that have little economic justification. And for them, the well-stocked stores only mock their poverty.
"There are plenty of things on the shelves, but I can only afford to look at them," complained Valentina Santyeva, as she pushed and pulled the levers that control the antiquated elevator at the Yagunovsky mine. "Under the Communists I used to get paid every two weeks. I haven't been paid now for five months."
Lyubov Posnayeva, standing at the counter of her grocery store, the shelves piled high with instant coffee, yogurt, candies, and liquor from around the world, acknowledged that most of her customers "buy only the most necessary things, the things they eat every day."
Maria Demakova, for example, a kerchiefed grandmother struggling to subsist with her husband on a joint pension of $90 a month, buys chicken or fish when the pension is paid, but otherwise lives on bread and the vegetables - potatoes, onions, cabbage, and garlic - that her husband grows in their kitchen garden.
A former surface worker at the Yagunovsky mine, Mrs. Demakova had not dreamed of this retirement. "We didn't think [reforms] would turn out like this," she lamented. "I voted for Yeltsin. We all supported him, but he has only made everything worse.
"If life ever gets any better, we won't be around to see it," she added bitterly. In the meantime, she will be voting Communist on Sunday.
Even younger people in Yagunovsky, hoping to be around to enjoy happier days, are exhausted by the uncertainties of life in a depressed region where downsizing is endemic. "A lot of us live a day at a time," said Yelena Stasyuk, a clerk at a local radio station who said she was leaning toward voting for Mr. Zyuganov. "If a day has passed, we have done alright. And it has been like this for three years."
"If the Communists come to power, most people's hopes are that enterprises won't close down, people will keep working, and they will be able to be sure of tomorrow," said Yevgeny Filin, explaining the appeal of Zyuganov's pledges to restore the security of the old days.
The nobler, broader goals that Mr. Filin and his fellow strikers espoused in 1989 and 1991, such as democracy and freedom, are largely taken for granted today. But even at this level, the miners' hopes have not been entirely fulfilled.
Kemerovo's governor, Mikhail Kislyuk, for example, is a presidential appointee, not an elected official: The government is clearly afraid voters would turn him out as an unpopular Yeltsin supporter.
Likewise, the region has had no local legislature for the past two months. The last assembly was unable to set a date for new elections because the pro-Yeltsin minority simply refused to attend voting sessions, thus preventing a quorum.
But in the end, these are probably not the issues that will decide the vote. "Today I can say what I like, and go where I like, but where is stability?" Strelnikov asked before descending into the pit. "Today everything is upside down, and I'm afraid the Communists are going to come back."