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Blind Town Struggles to Carry on

Editor's Note: The following Associated Press article came to my attention when it was circulated on the NFB listserv. Blind Russians clearly face a daunting task as they try to survive in a country with a crumbling economy and a culture which incorporates all the stereotypes about blindness.

Rusinovo, Russia (AP)--At first glance, this small town seems a typical product of Soviet urban design, with just a few hints of its unique nature--guide rails along the sidewalks, rubber treads that serve as a road map on a factory floor, Braille on office doors.

Rusinovo is better known as the "City of the Blind," because about 300 of the 1,000 residents are without sight. In a country that traditionally has provided little help to people with disabilities, Rusinovo for decades offered the rare promise of meaningful work and a full life for the blind. But now it's all falling apart. The settlement, about 65 miles south of Moscow, dates to 1948, when the National Association of the Blind built a factory and apartment buildings to assist Russians who lost their sight to wounds and illnesses during World War II.

"It was a good intention--to create normal conditions for the blind, both for life and for work," said Viktor Kulikov, factory director and effectively the man in charge of the town's affairs. Over the past half-century, hundreds of blind people have migrated to Rusinovo. But like so many places in Russia, the town has been in sharp decline since the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, and the government in Moscow lacks the resources to help. "We have been left to our own devices," said Dmitry Terekhov, who has lived in Rusinovo for nearly 50 of his 71 years. "Pensions are unpaid for two, three months. They have basically abandoned us."

In Soviet times, the Rusinovo factory assembled parts for the country's Rubin television sets, but the plant folded several years ago. The factory switched to making lids for mayonnaise jars. An average worker can put together 1,500 lids in a day, earning all of three rubles, or about 50 cents U.S. Even those wages often go unpaid for months.

In a sign that reflects the desultory state of the Russian economy, a note in the factory hallway proclaims: "The barter shop can provide goods to the factory staff toward their wages for any month except the current one." "But they only give us junk there--canned stuff," said Nina Merkulova. "We would also like to buy chocolate for our grandchildren, but we never have any money at all."

To pass the time, blind men and women sit around wooden tables, playing chess in the shade of poplar trees in a small courtyard. The players gently move their hands over the board to feel the pieces, make a move and call it out for others: "Bishop, to E4"

The guide railings and a few signs in Braille--something not found elsewhere in Russia--are about all the special conveniences that remain in Rusinovo. No one has a seeing-eye dog--a luxury that's far too expensive. Disability pensions barely cover utility bills. Still, staying in Rusinovo has attractions for its blind residents. "When we are all together, it's easier for us, even in these hard times," said Terekhov. If nothing else, Rusinovo is familiar. A man walks briskly by, unseeing eyes staring straight ahead, apparently guided by an ingrained sense of his surroundings.

"The blind have lots of their private landmarks--a barrier, a pot hole, a ditch," said Nikolai Poputnikov. Now 60, Poputnikov lost his sight at age four due to complications from measles during the war. "I remember some bright colours--like red, or white--those that kind of stick in your memory," he said. He no longer remembers the colour of grass, but he does not need a cane to find his way about and says he can ever "hear" air drifting around him as he moves.

Kulikov, the factory director, hopes to revive Rusinovo's past, and is brimming with ideas. He has written to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov offering to supply plastic brooms--another of the factory's products--for sweeping Red Square.

Meanwhile, the lack of jobs has prompted some of the blind to beg. They take suburban trains into Moscow and hang out on street corners and in subway stations, or rummage through garbage heaps for scraps of food. "Even if I want to work very much, I can't apply myself," said Erna Strekalova--a university graduate in literature and one of the few people in Rusinovo who have been to college. Ms. Strekalova used to work as a local radio host, until the station closed in January for lack of funds. Now she spends most of her time reading Braille translations of Russian literary magazines and helping her 13-year-old son, Maxim, with school work. "You can sit, grow cobwebs and sink in the dirt in your dusty room," Strekalova said. "Or you can try to live. It is difficult. And often it hurts."