Throw The Communists Out

Out where the Soviet rust belt is crumbling, Communists are taking the fall. Last week at the Soviet Union's biggest machine-building factory, the Uralmash plant in Sverdlovsk, more than 25,000 frustrated men and women voted to throw the Communist Party out of their workplace. "Why should the Communists get a special place in the enterprise?" said Vladislav Shamov, organizer of the referendum. "We've got lots of political parties now. Everyone deserves the same treatment." He says party representatives on the shop floor will have to get busy on the production line, and party bureaucrats will have to vacate their office in the factory's administration building. Since the ballot was not legally binding, the party expects to fight back. But in its tomblike office last week, a couple of listless apparatchiks seemed to have little fight left. They leaned on a bare table, chins resting on hands. "Oh, everything will turn out all right," said one. He didn't say how.

Nothing is turning out right for the Communists of Sverdlovsk. It is an important site in party chronicles: Bolsheviks shot the last czar here in 1918. This "city of factories," a raw urban sprawl of 1.4 million in the Ural Mountains, became a vital center for defense industry in World War II. Indeed, only in the last few months has the city been opened to foreign visitors. Boris Yeltsin, the party's first secretary here from 1976 to 1985, made Sverdlovsk his power base. But heavy industry is on the decline. "This economic system is bursting the extremes of governability," said Stanislav Kuzmenko, a workers' advocate.

The Communists bear the brunt of the blame. The halls of the Sverdlovsk city party committee are nearly deserted; the democratically elected city council is threatening not to renew the committee's lease next year. One quarter of the party's members have left in the last 15 months. "People feel the party is to blame for everything," complains First Secretary Vladimir Denisenko, who is now booed off platforms when he tries to speak in public. He blames Mikhail Gorbachev. "The president is forced to take very unpopular measures, and he does it without consulting rank-and-file members," explained Denisenko. "Then we have to answer for them."

But communism can still kick back. Last Tuesday on Lenin's birthday, a sacred day for Communists, freshly scrubbed school children came to lay flowers at the feet of his immense statue in the city's main square. The end of the day brought visitors of' a different kind. A scraggly group of half a dozen political activists scurried onto the square and unfurled posters of Lenin's visage juxtaposed on Hitler's, and the slogan, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO OUR FUHRER. Black-bereted special forces plucked the protesters from Lenin's pedestal and tossed them into a police van. "Fascists!" screamed the handful of observers. "Enemies of the people! We feed you!" Within hours, the anti-Leninists were released.

But political wrangling seems almost beside the point on the factory floor. Profits at Uralmash have fallen 69 million rubles in the last year. Some would like the enterprise to stop subsidizing the "socialisteity"--the vast warren of apartments, shops, theaters and sports complexes radiating from the main factory complex. Others want to diversify production away from the huge excavators and drills that Uralmash churns out so inefficiently. The workers themselves, vaguely aware that they will face inflation and unemployment no matter whose plan prevails, don't know quite where to turn. Warning strikes at Uralmash seem to vent aggravation as much as propose reasonable demands. On Friday 800,000 workers in the greater Sverdlovsk region downed tools for an hour to demand a doubling of pay, full compensation for price rises and total repeal of the new 5 percent sales tax. But they sensed that these were cosmetic issues. "If only I knew how to do things differently," said a frustrated Uralmash blacksmith, Aleksandr Kordukov, "I'd do it." For the ills of Soviet heavy industry, no one quite knows the cure. They only know that communism isn't it.