Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Former Defense Workers Struggle in Russia

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Former Defense Workers Struggle in Russia

Article excerpt

For 27 years, Maria Vasilkova worked in a top-secret defense factory, a place surrounded by high walls where employees took pride in helping produce the guidance systems that made the Soviet Union a superpower.

Today Vasilkova, 51, still works at the same factory, but her job is no longer secret: She presses a mold that makes a small plastic part for a machine that detects counterfeit money. And she counts herself lucky to have a job.

"The work was more complicated in the past and of course it was considered more important," she said in a work room where another woman was busy making red lipstick holders. "But the main thing is to support oneself."

Across the former Soviet Union, once-cocky defense factories such as Vasilkova's are struggling with a new, post-Cold War world in which their products are no longer needed by a government that has no money to pay them. Once protected and pampered, many factories can barely stave off bankruptcy.

The ability of this privileged sector, which by some estimates accounted for two-thirds of the Soviet industrial base, to adapt to the free market may be crucial to Russia's ability to emerge as a player in the world economy, analysts say.

No defense factories have been forced to close yet, but with Russian defense orders a fraction of what they were in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, shortened workweeks, unpaid leave and early retirement are the norm. A recent analysis of Russian salaries found defense workers lagging well behind miners, metalworkers and others in the industrial sector. In 1992 alone, 600,000 workers left defense industries.

To survive, some defense factories are making teapots, plastic toys, candy, pasta makers and washing machines. The more fortunate can continue manufacturing the products they long specialized in, such as warplanes redesigned as private jets for business executives.

At Vasilkova's factory, known by its initials NIIAP and pronounced Nee-Op, the tribulations of the last few years are evident. The acrid smell of poor plumbing wafts through hallways, dim because many lights are burned out. Faded Soviet-era signs still hang, exhorting workers to "Struggle to Achieve the Rank of a Model Shop. …

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