DATELINE: THE SOVIET UNION

Andropov’s war on alcoholism and sloth

November 14 1983
DATELINE: THE SOVIET UNION

Andropov’s war on alcoholism and sloth

November 14 1983

Andropov’s war on alcoholism and sloth

DATELINE: THE SOVIET UNION

Sergei Vasilyevich no longer tries to squeeze in his grocery shopping before reporting to work in the

morning. For the past three months the 29-year-old purchasing clerk, who requested that his last name not be used for fear of reprisals, has made an extra effort to report to his job at a downtown Moscow department store punctually at 10 a.m. Sergei’s promptness, a virtue until recently unknown to Soviet workers, is now increasingly common. The Soviets are growing apprehensive about leader Yuri Andropov’s Aug. 7, 1983, announcement in the Communist party daily newspaper, Pravda, of his intention to crack down on workplace inefficiency. In December the Supreme Soviet is expected to rubber-stamp Andropov’s decree, which outlines a system of bonuses for industriousness and penalties for “parasitism,” absenteeism and drunkenness, the scourge of the Soviet economy. But while workers are not yet tasting the new capitalist-style incentives that the new law will bring, they are already bending under the authoritarian discipline that has become Andropov’s hallmark. On paper the policy has a ring of fairness. Andropov recently said of his plan to tie wages to productivity, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his work.”

Indeed, Soviet citizens have taken heart from Andropov’s public insistence that the new discipline is not restricted merely to “workers, engineers and technicians.” Said the president: “It

applies to everyone, starting from the ministers.” Part of a series of reforms which includes decentralization and controls on job mobility, the proposed changes are designed to resuscitate the country’s sluggish growth rate, which fell to an embarrassing 2.5 per cent in 1982 from a high of eight per cent in the early 1970s. For their part, managers have been keen to prove their loyalty to their employers by anticipating the spirit of the law before they know the letter. As a result, workers—from coal min-

ers to police captains and Communist party officials—are already forceably abandoning bad work habits.

Most workers feel that the changes offer more sticks than carrots. They are worried that by decentralizing power and making employers responsible for

meeting production targets, the labor law reforms will invite increasingly onerous demands from petty officials. Most threatening is the new power of the office manager to withdraw muchneeded

tion bonuses. Other penalties spelled out in the decree are equally stiff. An employee absent from work for more than three hours a day loses a full day’s pay. Managers can dock workers responsible for lost production—as much as a third of their monthly wage in compensation— while people deemed to be drunkards must assume total financial responsibility for sloppy work or damage due to their inebriation. On the other hand, the rewards for industriousness are comparatively marginal.

Workers who raise the production rate stand to gain extra days of vacation, passes to resorts, such as the favored Black Sea tourist spots, and preferential treatment on lists for desirable apartments.

Few Soviets dispute that shirking

work has been a fact of life in the Soviet Union. In a letter published in Pravda, a trucker described a typically indolent day in the Moscow garage where he works: “If you want to show up around our place at 8 a.m., that is fine. But if you would rather come in half an hour or an hour later, or not at all, that is okay too. Our mornings begin with chitchat about how to spend the hours each of us takes for lunch after the first trip of the day. The bosses kick off their day with a tea party, followed by long telephone conversations with relatives and

friends.”

Idleness is a national preoccupation. Construction crews put in twoto three-hour days or stop work for entire days, using such flimsy excuses as a shortage of paint.

Waiters in near-empty restaurants ignore their customers, and by midmorning, drunks are staggering through the streets. Still, tardiness and absenteeism are in large part products of the Soviet Union’s sluggish economy. Work hours are the only time during which Soviets can shop for such scarce goods as meat, fresh fruits and vegetables.

Each day people can spend hours in lengthy queues or scouring shops to purchase such necessities. Noted one Moscow woman, a painter who decorates stairwells in the apartment blocks of the city’s foreign community: “Then, if you want something special, like theatre tickets, well who knows?”

Realities such as those may explain why Andropov’s “Operation Trawl” scheme, introduced last January to

round up truant workers, appears to have for the most part waned. For example, although the truancy squad’s practice of posting the names of tardy workers on factory walls initially moved worried employees to arrive at work on time, the sudden rush-hour crush overburdened the Moscow transportation system. Ultimately, Soviets may have to fall back on the services of the “order departments,” provision depots in apartment blocks which take weekly orders for provisions from customers.

The main fear of the modern Musco-

vite, however, is that the new measures will mark the end of the current relaxed system in which people change jobs with minimum interference from the state bureaucracy. It is a luxury particularly enjoyed by white-collar workers who take advantage of the country’s chronic shortage of trained personnel to pursue increasingly attractive job offers. Even if an employee simply tires of his job and resigns, the law against unemployment or “parasitism” ensures that he will quickly get a new job instead of risking a fine or a jail sentence.

Andropov has said that massive turnovers mean that there are few trained people in any particular position. As a result, under the new legislation workers must give two months’ notice, instead of the current two weeks, when leaving a job for reasons other than health, family problems or transportation difficulties. Political observers also anticipate that the final reforms will include a ban on job relocation except through state channels. For people like Galina Bodnyak, a 40-year-old secretary who has marketable fluency in French and English, that would be a severe blow. Explained Bodnyak: “I like to be able to move when I get bored. To be faced with a lifetime stuck with the same employer would be terrible.”

Few Soviets were surprised that Andropov, the former KGB (secret police) director, would also target corruption in his push to streamline the economy, but the scope of the purge has rattled everyone, from market stall vendors to

top Soviet officials. Under the widespread bribe system that prospered during Leonid Brezhnev’s administration, taxi drivers would collect a “policeman’s tip” from customers to pay off traffic officers. Bribe-taking rings permeated government posts, from the audit department of the Ministry of Railways to the elite Administration for Combating Embezzlement of Socialist Property and Speculation itself. The minister of internal affairs, Col.-Gen. Vitaly Fedorchuk, a tough-minded Ukrainian charged with supervising the crackdown, has been meting out repri-

mands, demotions, dismissals and punishing terms in Soviet labor camps to people found guilty of offences ranging from the avoidance of work to the acceptance of under-the-counter money. To the public’s delight, the courts have issued some of the most severe penalties to members of the militia and the police for their failure to respond to citizens’ complaints of corruption. Soviet papers even carry disclosures of firings of police officials. One recent case was that of a Capt. Borshchev, who is now serving a 12-year sentence of hard labor for accepting a 15,000-ruble ($25,000) bribe to sideline a prosecution. A corruption scandal has also led to the firing of the deputy aviation minister. But political observers suspect that more subtle methods of injecting discipline and productivity exist within the Communist party. Suddenly a larger number of senior officials, such as Valery Lukyanov, former head of the notoriously corrupt traffic police, are retiring at the pensionable age of 60 instead of lingering comfortably on.

Despite the advocacy of efficiency, the penchant for vodka is the one counterproductive workday habit that Soviets insist on pursuing. The fact that penalties for drunkenness feature prominently in Andropov’s reforms reflects the extent of the problem. In fact, 40,000 Soviets die of alcohol poisoning each year, 100 times the North American rate of alcohol-related deaths. Workers who do not sneak bottles into their factories or offices, instead duck out frequently to Soviet bars, which are packed from morning until evening with men swilling cloudy beer from half-litre glasses with vodka chasers. Under the proposed legislation, bosses who find workers drunk on the job may summarily dismiss them without consulting the union—a tough measure even by Soviet standards. In their next job such workers would be eligible for only half the monthly production bonus for up to six months.

Since Andropov announced his proposed reforms a year ago, improvements have taken place in some areas. Afternoon lineups at the movies and steam baths have virtually disappeared, and some workers are making an effort to amend their work habits. But for the most part, Soviets grumble and remain pessimistic about the effectiveness of the reforms.

Office workers claim that incentives and monetary penalties are meaningless because production bonuses are never great enough to affect monthly income significantly. And older Soviet citizens view the measures with equanimity. They recall more trying times under Stalin, when a worker could be sent to labor camp for arriving late on the job.