The Blind Leading the Blind
Groping around in the dark, Russian style
Nov 16, 1998, Reuters News Wire
Kazakh blind lost in post-Soviet darkness
By Mike Collett-White
TALGAR, Kazakhstan, – Sabyr Sabasov, a 59-year-old Kazakh, flicks open the
face of his old watch, gently strokes the hands with his right forefingers,
and tells the time. ‘You have to stroke the watch like you do a woman —
softly, tenderly, so as not to move the hands,’ he says with a smile. Sabasov
is completely blind. He manages to keep his sense of humour despite the struggle
he and his sightless friends face.
As winter approaches, the small community of around 300 blind and their families
living in the suburbs of the small town of Talgar have no heating or hot
water because they cannot afford it. Their meagre pensions are being paid
two months late. The economic mainstay of the ghetto is a plastics plant,
where 170 of the blind are employed. The factory used to supply the Soviet
Union’s huge textile industry with buttons of all shapes and sizes, producing
up to 500 million units before Kazakhstan won independence from Moscow in
Its old markets all but lost, output has fallen to a fraction of peak levels.
Cheap imports from neighbouring China have further hit its ability to survive.
Management and employees alike see little hope of better times, yet they
still display the remarkable stoicism familiar throughout the economic wasteland
left across vast swathes of the old empire.
BLIND FEEL BETRAYED BY AUTHORITIES
‘The government has left us to fend for ourselves,’ said Kurban Kurakbayev,
a 48-year-old factory employee who belongs to the ‘group one’ blind category,
meaning he cannot see at all. ‘They pay no attention whatsoever,’ he added,
pushing plastic halves of clothes pegs into a machine which smoothes the
edges. Those lucky enough still to be working in the long, half-empty assembly
hall said they were paid around 800 tenge per month for a 40-hour week, the
equivalent of $10. The miserly sum is a welcome addition to their state pensions,
worth 3,900 tenge ($50) a month for ‘group one’ cases and 2,500 tenge ($30)
for ‘group two,’ partially sighted people.
Money aside, the work gives people a sense of purpose and welcome company
during the day. Pensions are two months late — September’s money will be
coming in November — and many people living in the blocks of flats surrounding
the factory buildings face a bleak winter. ‘There is no heating or hot water,
as we just cannot afford it,’ complained Sandugash Yelemesov. The 23-year-old,
who has partial vision, lives with her husband and three- year-old daughter
in a single small room in a shabby housing block next to the plant.
The climate is still relatively mild in this town in the southeastern corner
of the vast, steppeland state of 16 million people, but months of sub-zero
temperatures are not far off. Sabasov saved his most caustic comments for
the Kazakhstan Society for the Blind, which groups the Talgar community and
many others like it across Kazakhstan. ‘They receive millions of dollars
in aid, but looking around this place you would not believe that the money
is being spent honestly.’ For all the bitterness, the sense of solidarity
among the blind and their families is strong. ‘Of course, we stick closely
together, help each other out, and, most importantly, keep our sense of humour,’
And the few amenities which the factory can support offer some respite from
the day-to-day worries. A tiny library has a selection of classics written
in Braille and taped recordings of thrillers translated into Russian and
Kazakh. A doctor is on base until lunch every day for free consultations,
and a masseur, himself blind, treats fellow sufferers without charge.
PLANT CRUMBLES UNDER PRESSURE OF COMPETITION
The fate of the blind community in Talgar is linked inextricably to the factory
and the future does not look bright. ‘There are no prospects for this business
as long as the government turns its back on its own producers,’ said production
director Vladimir Yefimov, who has perfect vision. He said cheap imports
from China had forced the Talgar Training Company of the Kazakhstan Society
for the Blind to cut production drastically.
Only one of 20 or so huge presses was operating during a brief tour of the
main production line. An imposing, brightly-coloured mural of Vladimir Lenin,
former Soviet leader and revolutionary hero, covered the far wall of the
warehouse, recalling better times. ‘We used to make profits of seven million
roubles a month before the Soviet Union collapsed, and now we are making
one to two percent of that,’ Yefimov recalled wistfully.
The factory has the capacity to produce anything from buttons to chess sets
and school stationery to plastic airline crockery. But many products have
not been made for years as demand evaporated. Many employees, who have been
working there since childhood, cannot imagine life without the plant, which
was founded 67 years ago and facing its toughest times yet. As he followed
the alarm signals set up to guide employees safely around the site, tapping
the ground in front of him with a while cane, Sabasov said people refused
to give up all hope.
‘We all want things to get better. When that will be, nobody knows.’