Togliatti, a “mono-industrial” city, is one with the giant car factory Avtovaz, the first manufacturer of Russia† But because of the international sanctions imposed by the war in Ukrainethis city and its workers risk being dragged into an abyss.
In a small apartment in Avtozavodsky raïon, a checkerboard district surrounding the sprawling factory that produces the legendary Lada, workers sit under the red flags of their Edinstvo (Unity) union.
“It’s a factory town. Everyone here works either for the factory or for the police.”laughs Alexander Kalinin, 45, who has been an elevator driver for 15 years at Avtovaz, a car giant which, together with the Russian state, is 68% owned by the Renault-Nissan alliance.
“For Togliatti, the factory is everything. The whole city is built around it” in Soviet times, says Irina Mialkina, 33, who has been working in a spare parts warehouse for 11 years. The construction of the factory started in 1966 with the help of Fiat in this city named after the Italian communist Palmiro Togliatti.
This city saw glory in the Soviet era, the chaos of the 1990s and then a renaissance in the 2010s with Renaultof which Togliatti is the first factory.
With the Russian offensive in Ukraine and the international economic sanctions that followed, Togliatti and his workers are preparing for new dark times. “When I started I was full of enthusiasm, I hoped for a good income. I still hope”says Irina, sketching a sad smile.
Meanwhile, the salary goes down.
Due to sanctions, components and spare parts no longer arrive. The workers are technically unemployed and are paid two-thirds. Irina therefore receives 13,000 of her 20,000 monthly rubles, or less than € 140.
“The price increase is huge and people are nervous”she breathes, inflation has started at a gallop again.
In 2018, however, the future looked bright. Renault took the press, including the AFP, to visit its new industrial jewel on the Volga, which was being renovated at great expense.
The French group had brought the outdated Soviet factory into modernity thanks to billions of euros in investments. But by also introducing staff cuts, the workforce – which amounted to 120,000 people in the Soviet era – was halved in ten years, from 70,000 to 40,000 people (for a city of less than 700,000 inhabitants).
“There were many problems with employee departures, but there was a clear positive trend. A great Russian car manufacturer was born”explains Andrei Yakovlev of the High School of Economics in Moscow.
Employees are forced to take a three-week summer vacation in April, while Renault is considering leaving Avtovaz. The city and her employer are therefore desperate, no one at the Russian industrial giant wants to say anything.
The factory doors remained closed to AFP, as did those of the Lada Museum and many subcontractors.
While AFP was filming the area surrounding the factory, Avtovaz’s security service called the police, who questioned the journalists and took them to the station.
If there are no layoffs for the time being, many employees will already be forced to take a second job.
Leonid Emchanov, 31, a mechanic for a salary he thinks “unworthy”combined with a job as a caregiver to feed a wife and two children.
The collapse of Avtovaz would also be that of a whole part of Russian industrial history.
In an underground garage, two men in period overalls are bent over the guts of an 1980s Lada Niva, the legendary 4×4, whose freshly painted bodywork gleams red.
“From childhood my whole life has been connected with the factory. My uncle came to work there in the 70’s, then my father, then my mother and I came to work for them […]† All our relatives in Togliatti worked in the factory and I myself worked there. I had no other choice, everything has to do with the company”says Sergei Diogrik.
At the age of 43, he takes care of the Lada History club and brings together fans of the Soviet car from all over the world. Once a mechanic, he now devotes himself to restoring vintage Ladas.
“It was a powerful production. The record in the early 1980s was 720,000 cars per year”he says, against nearly 300,000 cars produced in Togliatti by 2021, according to the Inovev firm.
“It was fashionable to come here. Now the fashion is for young people to go to Moscow or elsewhere »regrets Sergei.
But he wants to remain hopeful, because Togliatti managed to survive the chaos and banditry of the 1990s.
Researcher Yakovlev predicts that Avtovaz “will focus on models whose production is completely local”he predicts, and she will contact the Chinese”†
But Avtovaz and its factory city may need two to three years to reinvent itself.