This story is about a major Lithuanian textile factory which did not survive the “economic shock therapy”, and about its laid-off workers, who see the transition as “theft” by the new elites. It is still uneasy to criticize the new “capitalist period”, the author, a young Lithuanian trade-unionist, argues, and this, too, has nefarious consequences.
The interviews on which the text is based are about the closure of the main factory in a Lithuanian provincial town called Alytus. The factory´s story is not very special or outstanding from the general context – as most of the soviet factories in the country, it did not survive the free-market system and went bankrupt. However, while most of the smaller factories closed in the first decade of independence, the Alytus factory ran until 2007. It was one of the last “soviet” factories to go bankrupt in the country, just before 2008 world economic crisis began. You will find here gangsters, who figured out ways of grabbing the public properties (some of those who were not shot or bombed by rivals are the “respectful business leaders” of today); politicians, who tirelessly argued that ‘good times are right behind the corner’; and workers, who saw what was happening, but did not know how to stop it and were occupied with thinking how to survive the next day. A important hidden story is also one about gender roles – while many of the working-class men found refuge in alcoholism after losing jobs, the women were the ones holding society on their shoulders – feeding the families through a decade of economic crisis.
By working with small scale narratives, I refer a lot to Lithuanian dominant political discourses, according to which everything got progressively better after the country assumed independence from the Soviet Union. It is still uneasy to criticize the “capitalist period”, as if the critique itself can raise the “soviet zombie” back alive. While the country plunged into capitalist chaos during the first decade of independence during 1990-2000, there is almost no critical conceptualization of this period and its’ effects on contemporary Lithuanian society. Instead, the violence on the streets, the corruption in the political sphere are seen as a criminal history with no connection to the economic system or the structure of society that emerged out of this process. This is why, I argue, the people who lived through this period, understand the privatisation as “theft” and resent that for this theft no one has ever been punished and no politician has even been willing to listen to such stories of injustice. Why do privatisation stories not enter the public discourse, and what can this discursive silence tell us? (Introduction by the author)
Is “VP Market” the result of Nerijus Numavičius’ (“Numa”) tireless work? VP Market, or Vilniaus Prekyba (“Vilnius Commerce”) is the largest corporation of Lithuania, managing supermarkets in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Poland, and Sweden, with a yearly revenue of around 5.6 billion euros — Nerijus Numa (Numavičius), one of the nine original founders of VP, is currently its only financial beneficiary. And was it Lyda Lubienė’s sweat in the “Achema” factory that gave birth to her billions? She is the widow of the former Prime Minister of Lithuania Bronislovas Lubys and main shareholder of Achema, a chemical fertiliser plant in Jonava with yearly revenue of around 700 million euros — after his death in 2011, Lubienė inherited the shares. It is in fact an open secret that work — at least as understood by majority of our compatriots — has played a minimal, if not negligible, role in the stories of these and other richest members of our Lithuanian society. The main “stars” in the biographies of our early capitalists indicate shrewd exploitation of political change, good connections, ability to access useful information, and setting appropriate paths for their seed capital.
Today, entering the fourth decade of independence, the histories of prikhvatisation1 have still not received serious attention from public intellectuals or politicians. Apart from isolated cases and individual perpetrators, the scandals of the transition period are remembered only at family parties or by angry listeners calling the Lithuanian National Radio and Television (LRT) studio. I do not bring up this topic in an attempt to clarify who has stolen from us and how much, or who should pay for it, or to finally answer the question whether it was really Landsbergis who destroyed the collective farms when he was leading the country, or whether the farms collapsed on their own. I think that a much more uncomfortable and relevant question today is this: Why have the histories of economic theft never become a subject of public debate? In this text, I want to tell the stories of workers from the “Alytaus Tekstilė” factory and the privatisation of that company, and to ask: What political uncomfort could these stories bring up?
“Alytaus Tekstilė” employees talk about privatisation
The Alytus Cotton Combine (Alytaus medvilnės kombinatas), in the territory of which the burning down of a tyre warehouse led to an ecological catastrophe several years ago, was the largest textile company in Lithuania and one of the largest in Europe. Opened in 1969, this Soviet giant was like a city of its own, with a polyclinic, three 24-hour canteens, and a house of culture. Just before 1990, the factory employed 7000 people. Like many industrial enterprises, it was unable to cope with the new economic order and went bankrupt in 2007. Yet, unlike most smaller factories, the main nail in the bankruptcy coffin was not driven in by Lithuanian “investors”, but by the Singaporean company Tolaram Group. The latter acquired Alytaus Tekstilė in 1998, promising to invest in production and adapt it to the Western market. However, it neither made any investments nor took care of the production, and, in 2002, due to the breach of contract, the Lithuanian state bought back the shares. The factory gathered additional debts for another five years, surviving solely on state subsidies, and was eventually acquired by local “wastemen” of state assets: people from Žydrunas Buza’s circle, notorious collectors of investment cheques and real estate developers in Marijampolė, also previously convicted of deliberate bankruptcies of other factories. At the time, Alytaus Tekstilė still employed around 1500 workers. Many of them had not received any salaries for extended periods of time and, to my knowledge, as of today, some of them have still not recovered their earnings.
We first became interested in this story when we heard about an unusual hostage drama that took place in Alytus. In the summer of 2007, just before the factory declared bankruptcy, angry and tired workers, after having waited for the factory’s director outside the building, pushed through the security guards and broke into her office. There, they declared that they would not release her until she notified the court of the company’s bankruptcy. The workers had been waiting for this decision for a long time, as they had not been able to receive their severance pays and sick leaves. The impromptu hostage drama came to a head when the director asked to be let out to go to the toilet. The local newspaper Alytaus naujienos described the incident:
The crowd started shouting “No!” and that she should go in a bucket; a nearby dustbin was offered to the director. “Are you human or not?!”, said Kliučinskas [a police officer who observed the incident] in horror. “Not anymore, but we used to be”, they admitted.2
After promising to deal with the workers’ demand, the director was released in the afternoon, but the next day she filed for a criminal case for arbitrary restraint of freedom of movement. The director did not spare any bitter words for the workers: “Maybe some people are content sitting at home and getting their [downtime] pay. But you have to look for another job.” 3.
In 2019, my colleague Agnė Bagdžiūnaitė and I interviewed some former employees. We managed to reach five people: four textile workers and the former head of security. We also tried to reach one of the factory’s general directors, but he refused to meet us.
Female textile workers’ stories of the changes in the 80s and 90s were quite similar. Many of them were single mothers, their wages were always late and would not have been enough to support a family anyway, so they were forced to look for other, informal sources of income. When the factory closed, some retired, others emigrated, and yet others, with help from their acquaintances, managed to find service sector jobs. Today, they have occupational illnesses to remind them of their factory work: lung, spine, or heart problems caused by the machines’ vibrations, dust, and chemicals. Nevertheless, they spoke of the factory with some nostalgia. For them, the collapse of the textile factory was not only about economic change, but also, more generally, about the disappearance of their social status. One of the workers, Regina (name changed), told us how she and her colleagues tried to find new jobs and went together to the new “Iki” supermarket that was about to open. But the manager just laughed at them: “We don’t need old people like you here.” They were about 50 years old at the time.
Today, more than ten years after the factory’s closure, the main source of their pain was not the longing for factory work: they remembered the hardships, the reality of Soviet labour laws, and the inconsistency of official Soviet ideology too well. To them, the history of independence lacked justice: “Where is this freedom, where is it? Freedom for those at the top, and for us, the meek—shysh”, Jūratė, who had worked at the factory until 2004, asked rhetorically. “Has anyone ever listened to these people? No one!” , Regina said — she has still not recovered part of her salary. “The wound is still festering, but it’s shrinking, anyway”, Lionė said, summing up her relationship to the textile factory. The factory was her first and last official workplace. During the transition, they saw their friends and colleagues becoming poorer: family and friends were the only sources of security and support at that time, they tried to help each other, and many of them are still in close contact to this day.
However, they relate the economic changes with the other side of poverty, too: to the people who suddenly, as if out of thin air, built palaces for themselves, acquired never-before-seen luxury cars, and became the city’s new “bosses”. How to explain these sudden economic disparities? One of the more popular theories on the Eastern European economic transformation is that most of the wealth was appropriated by the former “communist” crème de la crème : people who knew the factories well, who knew about the privatisation in advance, who knew the economy. This idea is also quite popular in society, so much so that anthropologist Dimitra Kofti notes that today’s CEOs in Bulgaria are often still called “the communists” by workers.
Such stories are, of course, real, but the case of Alytaus Tekstilė hardly confirms this theory. When asked about the relationship with the management, the workers divided the directors into “Soviet” (“our”) and those who came later. This distinction characterised the changing working relationships after the factory’s privatisation. The Soviet directors were remembered as part of the collective, while those who came afterwards were seen as profit-seekers who did not care about the workers or the factory’s future. According to Lionė, who at one point became her department’s trade union chairperson, the economic situation at the beginning of independence was extremely difficult, but both the workers and the managers were in a similar situation: “It felt like the director wasn’t getting his money either, because his wife was working in the colouring department, I mean the director for production. You can see the clothes on the man, the way he dresses, the way he lives, everyone knew where he lived.” But, a few years later, when the factory turned into a public limited-liability company and the management changed, Lionė remembers a completely different relationship:
“We gathered in the director’s office, and there were all kinds of [questions] about what to do now, how to rescue [the factory]. So I said, let’s all move to a salary of 500 litas [~150 euros], and everybody will feel it. To save the situation, let’s cut the loaf into equal parts for all. So, of course, we laughed, then we left, and my colleague said: have you thought about what you suggested? Well, what did I suggest? Did I steal something from someone? If the situation is bad for everybody, let’s start with the director, 500 for everybody, so that they can survive for a certain period. In my mind, that is the best option if we want to survive, and if one person wants 20 000 and the other person only gets 200, survival is impossible.”
Other interviewed employees also categorised directors into “ours” and “not ours”. I have also noticed such categorisations in the narratives by the employees of Inkaras (“Anchor”), a factory established in Kaunas in 1933 that was manufacturing sports shoes and rubber products and went bankrupt in 2012. Yet, I cannot say whether this is a broader phenomenon. This is not to say that workers felt equal to the management during the Soviet era: workers recalled that the “Soviet elite” received better resort trips, better goods, and other privileges. Under socialism, workers saw very clearly that “some were more equal than others”. However, capitalist relations have brought in a different dynamic: economic differences began to form on the basis of conflict, and workers started to see poverty on the one side and unprecedented wealth on the other. An element of exploitation emerged between the workers and the factory bosses: now it was no longer the party that was expropriating and distributing wealth, but the factory shareholders and managers.
In the eyes of the workers, this change was immoral: they saw the emerging new capitalist class as a selfish group of people interested only in their own good, and contrasted it with the Soviet factory administration, which used to navigate between the interests of the party and the workers. The pursuit of profit was now freed from state restrictions, but the workers did not perceive this as liberation: they saw it as mere theft, and the factory shareholders and managers, who were embodying the new liberal principles, as thieves. One can understand why “Vagys!” (“Thieves!”) became one of the most popular slogans in workers’ protests. While, in capitalism, the pursuit of profit was legitimated as a source of progress, bringing prosperity to owners and workers alike, in bankrupt industrial enterprises the workers had not benefited from it in any way: their wages were delayed or disappeared into obscurity, the previously circulating capital of the companies went to safer offshore funds, and the machinery was sold off as scrap.
The story of the former head of security was markedly different from the other stories. He invited us to his premises on the factory grounds, part of which he rents out and the other part of which he has set up as a lounge for himself and his friends. Here, he showed us many of the artefacts from the factory, including busts of Lenin and a billiard table gifted to him by German engineers who had once visited the factory. On the subject of theft, he showed us photographs of all sorts of confiscated devices that workers had constructed to steal textiles: long ladders that thieves, hiding in the lofts, used to climb down to the warehouses at night; coats with sewn-in inside pockets; he also demonstrated to us how women would wrap fabric around their waists or tuck it into their high-heeled shoes. He also recalled the most emotional stories of catching thieves, e. g., how he would dress up as a cleaning lady to catch his subordinates involved in thieving schemes. He said that different economic systems did not have any effect on the thieving: both during the Soviet era and “after independence” the people would steal the same. The only thing that has changed is that it is now easier to fire such workers.
It is no secret that the workers were thieving, but we were interested to find out more about how the factory administration “hustled” during the privatisation period. As the conversation turned to this topic, the tone and the narrative would change: there would be more silence and repetition, his memory would falter, and the exact details of the stories, which he would remember so well when talking about the workers, would disappear. “Everybody hustled as they saw fit” , he summed it all up briefly. According to the security chief, the biggest thefts by the factory administration were “on paper” : the documents would have it that a truckload of oil left Kaunas, arrived at Alytaus Tekstilė, and… disappeared. No one would know whether the truck had actually left Kaunas and, if it had, where it had gone. When talking about large-scale thefts, he kept repeating that everything was documented. It was unclear whether he was saying this to corroborate his story or to avoid telling more than he should.
The textile workers spoke about theft from a moral standpoint, while the security chief said that all thefts were formally documented crimes, many of which were investigated and solved, but the perpetrators of some have remained unknown. However, he did not call into question the general sense of historical justice: “Everybody hustled as they saw fit” or, in other words, even if wealth was accumulated in shady ways, it was nevertheless accumulated by being clever, shrewd, and having an “entrepreneurial mindset”. The security chief did not have any emotions nor was he questioning social justice about these histories, he remembered them only as a bygone historical period that no longer had any political relevance today. At the end of the interview, he warned us to be wary of the stories of “those rabble-rousers” : According to him, the workers’ stories about privatisation were based on gossip and inaccurate information. “Such stories drift away and, in the end, you can find no truth in them” , he said.
Why are privatisation stories important today?
When the factory finally declared bankruptcy in 2007, the then Social Democrat Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas urged people to “forget” history and live for the future: “Today, there is no problem to create additional jobs in Lithuania and in Alytus, because there is a shortage of workforce. And there is no need to succumb to the agitation of politicians and keep turning back to the past. Unfortunately, this enterprise living in the past has ended: it cannot be resurrected as a textile manufacturer.” The Prime Minister stated that the past is overpoliticised: Why should one cry over spilled milk, over something that has already happened? Why cannot we just face the future? As we now know, the future, unfortunately, proved to be not as bright as the Prime Minister imagined at the time.
The only media narrative of economic theft — as far as I could find — is the liberal economists’ moralising about the still-existent “Soviet mentality of theft”, that workers are still used to taking things from the workplace because of the Soviet era. And what should people do with privatisation histories? So far, in our official history pages, oblivion is the only cure offered for such experiences. The stories of prikhvatisation, of who got their hands on what and from where they amassed their wealth, have never become the subject of debate in the public sphere, but they have remained in the realm of folklore, and have emerged into political life in the form of populist narratives of the nation’s struggle against the parasitic elite. The “liberal” or “conservative” side ridicules this narrative, considers it anti-state and, today, perhaps even “pro-Russian”, “a threat to national security”.
It is no news that history is political. The question of what we should commemorate and remember goes hand in hand with the other one: what we should eradicate and forget. This applies not only to official history but also to individual memory. The different ways in which the workers and the head of security tell the same story, the different moral and ethical statements they make, reflect their position in society today: some moments entrench themselves deep in the imagination, while others, which are considered to be insignificant, non-historical memories, fade away. I would like to believe that the security chief’s detailed memories of the employees’ thieving and his scarce recollections of the bosses’ machinations are not a lie, not a deliberate “cover-up”. That is indeed how he remembers this period, how he chooses which aspects to stress. And the nostalgia expressed by the workers for the former factory (embodied in various phrases about economic security and social status) comes as a response to the poverty and injustice experienced during the period of early independence. Memories of the socialist period are formed already during the period of independence and should be seen as a reaction to contemporary, post-Soviet Lithuania, not as remnants of Soviet “indoctrination”. If all people who feel nostalgic for the Soviet era had truly been indoctrinated by Soviet ideology (the way in which contemporary Russian propaganda exploits feelings of Soviet nostalgia is a separate topic), it is unlikely that Lithuania would have achieved independence, especially in such a peaceful way. In other words, if we consider Soviet nostalgia to be problematic, the root of this nostalgia is not the Soviet era itself, but what happened after it.
Can this sense of nostalgia lead to political activism? Today, we tend to forget that the promise of independence was not that of unbridled capitalism and transition to a new economic system. Privatisation of enterprises, liberalisation of prices, and other economic transformations were marked by conflicts, resistance, and, in the end, the defeat of workers. Workers in many privatised enterprises tried to resist and protest, called for help from politicians or tried to shame them. But, in the context of a collapsing economic system, perhaps the only effective protest was hunger strike. One of which was “successfully” used by workers at the Inkaras factory in 2000 (the “success” was conditional, because the workers’ hunger strike lasted for more than twenty days and the story could have had a very sad ending). In other words, the only assets that the workers had at their disposal were their own bodies. It was the successive defeats of the workers that led to general political passivity and indifference to politics. In the end, struggling for a better future became struggling for the past.
I am interested in these issues not only from a historical perspective. Born in 1995, I have little memory of the former period, only a few fragments, such as seeing the starving Inkaras workers through a car window, or my grandparents’ conversations about yet another factory that went under. However, when I got involved in trade unions, I inevitably came across the question: Why is it so difficult for workers in Lithuania to organise, why do we not believe in collective action, but rather in the prospect of individual success? The most common answer to this question is that our civil society has not yet reached the Western levels of development. However, this answer, I believe, only divides the older and younger generations, is completely wrong, and leads nowhere. Civil society and collective action were killed off by the shock therapy of the 1990s and by the politicians and cultural elites’ belief that the “free market” would sort things out, rather than by the Soviet era, which was buried a long time ago but nevertheless refuses to die. Starting from this point, we can shake off the stigma of “civilisational backwardness” and discuss what we need to do to regain a certain sense of dignity, of confidence in our own strength and in each other, to replace nostalgia for the past with determination to organise for a better future for all. Bringing workers’ stories into the debate on Lithuania’s path to independence, without seeking to moralise or silence uncomfortable issues, could contribute to this much-needed political change.
Jurgis Valiukevičius is a member of the May 1st Trade Union (Gegužės 1-osios profesinė sąjunga, G1PS) council. He also writes for the “Gyvenimas per brangus” (gpb.lt) portal on workers’ rights and the history of the labour movement. Translated from Lithuanian into English by Tomas Marcinkevičius.
- “Prichvatizacija”: Lithuanian slang for rushed and corrupted privatisation in the 90s and early 2000s. Stems from Russian прихватить (prykhvatyt), “to appropriate” (translator’s note).
- Alma Mosteikaitė. “Skausminga ‘Alytaus tekstilės’ agonija” (“The Painful Agony of ‘Alytaus Tekstilė’”). Alytaus naujienos, July 19, 2007.