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Next Step : A Summit of Citizens : 'Thanks for not abandoning us,' say Russians. But foreign aid alone can't pull them out of poverty.

March 30, 1993|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KLIN, Russia — Two countries. Two leaders. Two sets of urgent national priorities.

In Vancouver, Canada, this weekend, the presidents of Russia and the United States are to meet, with emergency support for Russia the chief item on their agenda.

But what do their citizens think? Should Americans give more aid? Will it do Russians much good?

Can it buy both peoples a better future?

Here are dispatches from the countries' heartlands, from towns as different as classical ballet and a quarterback sneak, yet also similar in many ways.

*

In February, the manna from Amerika arrived.

There were precisely 14,213 boxes of canned and dry food from Pentagon surplus stocks, accompanied by this stirring note: "From the American people, who assure you that the struggle for democracy is worth it."

For people in this once-sleepy provincial town where Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky wrote "The Nutcracker Suite," the "Pathetique" symphony and other classics of 19th-Century music, it was their first exposure to some American classics like barbecued beef, cranberry sauce and succotash.

That was more than a month ago, but still, some of the elderly and needy of Klin happily approach a visitor to say a few words of gratitude for the odd-tasting but appreciated nourishment. Like Daria Sergeyenva Koroleva, 74, who got three cans.

"Thanks for not abandoning us. Thanks for sending those boxes," the gray-haired woman with the dark brown, gimlet-like eyes, who worked 41 years on a collective farm and now receives a minuscule pension, said cheerfully when asked if she has anything to tell the people of America. "But we'll get through this. We're Russians. We're tough."

We're Russians. We're tough. As grateful as people are here, 50 miles up the road from Moscow, as the presidents of the United States and Russia prepare to hold a meeting largely devoted to new ways of helping this country out of disastrous straits, most are also skeptical there will be any benefit for them.

With Russia's economic reforms now in their troubled second year, and no end in sight to social and political convulsions, the inhabitants of Klin, population 144,000, seem largely to have concluded that they are on their own.

For no fewer than 90%, the mayor estimates, the end of Soviet socialism has brought impoverishment or a severe decline in living standards.

Klin's new poor line up to save the equivalent of a dime on the purchase of 10 eggs. Production has dropped at every big factory; the machine-building plant last year ran at only 52.8% of its 1991 output and axed all but 480 members of its 1,000-worker payroll.

The city's largest employer, the Khimvolokno Amalgamation, the pioneer producer in the Soviet Union of synthetic thread for that once-scorned bourgeois luxury, women's stockings, is now running at a mere 63% of last year's output.

"Moscow has the political quarrels. Here we just have economic and social problems--and what problems!" said Alexander N. Postrigan, a native of southern Russia who has been chief administrator here since last July. "Our plants are almost closed down. In the near future, our major objective is just to hang on and survive."

As a result of what he wryly calls "Russia's new revolution," Postrigan estimates that only 10% of Klin's people now live better than five years ago under Soviet communism.

There has been some Western assistance, but the billions of dollars in aid to Russia trumpeted in the world press look totally inadequate when one analyzes what an individual town receives. To date, Klin has benefited from 22 tons of U.S.-donated powdered milk; more than a million rubles in charitable donations from an Evangelical Baptist church in Canton, Ohio; food shipments from the Netherlands, and the U.S. Defense Department surplus food.

But the collapse of the Soviet system has brought about massive economic dislocation that such donations cannot cure. Klin's collective farms, like the "Friendship" farm where Koroleva spent her professional life among cows and potato fields, are fiscally on their knees, with a total of more than $1 million in debts because of the skyrocketing prices of fertilizer, insecticides and other goods from town.

As for the new economic freedoms, leery of the risks of individual enterprise and the possibility of a Russian rollback to communism, only a total of 69 people in the half-million-acre district have launched private farms.

To make sure their townspeople don't go hungry, Klin authorities last year parceled out small land holdings so anyone who wanted could have a private potato patch or soup garden to till. Another 1,000 people are still waiting to get their own garden.

Unemployment isn't yet a major problem--only 1,300 people are officially registered as unemployed. Of that number, only 400 get unemployment benefits because they are the only ones actively seeking new jobs, according to Yelena V. Zdorova, head of the local unemployment office.

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