In the Kurgan region entire villages are becoming ghost towns as young people move to the cities in the search of jobs, while the rest often get absorbed in hard drinking. There is a village, though, where life is different – thanks to one man.
For the past ten years the population in the village Chastoozerye has been steadily increasing, as people not only have a job, but they are motivated to refrain from drinking – financially.
On Monday morning, Aleksandr Ovchinin, a former prison guard, is at his post in the sausage factory, and is testing the incoming employees for alcohol.
If they are over the limit, there is a choice. To be cited for a no-show and lose 30 per cent of their month’s salary, or jog three kilometers and be docked ten per cent of that month’s wage.
“We do the testing every morning, regardless of gender or position within the company. People know they could be caught, that they will see it on their paycheck and that’s a strong incentive not to drink during a working week,” explains Aleksandr.
Enforced alcohol abstinence is the idea of Aleksandr Iltyakov, director of the sausage factory, who likes to extend his influence as far as possible. A man of big ideas yet the very epitome of micro-management, for the past 15 years he has been preaching to his employees how to make good sausages and how to live a good life.
“Quality is a must. It’s the quality of the product that gave you this job in the first place and it’s the quality that determines whether you’ll keep it,” Iltyakov tells his employees.
A former electrician, Aleksandr represents the first generation of Russian entrepreneurs who built their businesses from scratch in the early 1990s. Since then, he had to defend his plant against racketeers, unscrupulous business partners and corrupt officials.
Yet, as he discovered, his most potent enemy was within his own ranks. Excessive drinking is one of the biggest killers in Russia, especially in the countryside.
After firing dozens of workers for showing up drunk at work, Aleksandr started lecturing his employees on the harms of alcohol. He does that three times a day during food breaks.
“The Roman emperor Karl the Great said that those caught drunk for the first time should get corporal punishment in private. Those caught for the second time should be beaten in public. Those caught for the third time – should be hanged”.
That is what Aleksandr may read to his workers during lunch.
As a former boxer, he is not shy about exercising his rule with an iron fist, and has built his version of the iron curtain around his plant. With dozens of video cameras around the facility, employees have no chance to circumvent the eye of the Big Brother. On the upside, thefts are no longer the issue.
“The rules are very rigid and most people find it hard to comply,” says Konstantin Kamnev, one of the employees at Aleksandr’s plant. “But those who don’t play by Aleksandr ‘s rules don’t work here.”
Aleksandr’s drive to set the rules of the game does not end within his plant. The only corporate taxpayer in the village of 4,000 people, he has taken on a very wide notion of social responsibility. Using the plant’s profits, he paved all local roads, renovated a school and built a church.
And while he agrees that modesty is a virtue, his fondness for giving guidance and advice is evident wherever he goes.
“It doesn’t matter if you come from a village,” says Aleksandr to school pupils. “What matters most is to get a good education. Thank God we’ve got good teachers. And behave well at school. Is that clear?”
But this approach has divided villagers. The majority believe Aleksandr is a blessing. A minority, primarily those who he has fired, are not as impressed.
As an old saying goes, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Not everybody in this village appreciates Aleksandr ‘s philosophy or his tenacity in spreading it around. Some call him a control freak; others resort to more agricultural language.
His opponents also include some local officials who believe that Aleksandr has too much power that infringes on their own authority. But Aleksandr accuses them of not doing enough for the people. When I asked him whether he’d like to run for office, his response was a resounding “no”.
“I think the whole purpose of power is to create. To make life around you better and, in this regard, I have all the power that I need,” explains Aleksandr.
“As for the iron fist, I think every successful activity requires discipline, strict discipline. And it starts with me. Instead of waiting for somebody to come and do something, I do it myself. I may offend other people but sooner or later they’ll understand I was doing it for their own good.”
Many historians make the case that Russians prefer authoritarian leaders. And that tackling the deep problems of alcohol addiction and rural desolation needs strict discipline and total control. It may not be very democratic but in Aleksandr’s case, it proved efficient.