REPORTAGE. Togliatti, a manufacturing city suspended in the destiny of Renault in Russia

In the reception of the Lada Resort, one of the best hotels in Togliatti, three clocks hang on the wall: one indicates the local time, the other two those of Paris and Tokyo. If this city of 700,000 inhabitants, 1,100 kilometers southeast of Moscow, is close to the main world capitals, it is because it has been home to the headquarters of AvtoVAZ since its creation in 1970.

More than a seat actually: a giant car factory, once one of the largest in the world under the USSR, now 68% owned by the Renault-Nissan alliance. Here, in this city renamed in 1964 in memory of the former Italian communist leader Palmiro Togliatti, Ladas are manufactured, from the mythical “Zhiguli”, and now also Renaults and Dacias, destined for the Russian market.

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But today, Renault under pressurewonders. And the city too. “We don’t know what the French are going to dolaments Zoulfia, stockist at AvtoVAZ, And of course that worries me.” Like many Russian women of her generation, this 40-year-old woman is raising her student son alone. “I will have to find a second job in April and May”, she breathes. A few days ago, Zoulfia and her colleagues found out that the factory was going to close again. With the sanctions, some components no longer reach the edge of the Volga. “We are forced to take our summer vacation in April”, plague Irina, a colleague of Zoulfia. They both said no. Life is too hard in Togliatti to sacrifice summer vacations, they explain. And too bad if his salary will be cut in half. They’re used to it. They will manage.

The war in Ukraine has put everything into question. And he seems to have broken a momentum that not even Covid had managed to stop. Since 2017, AvtoVAZ had returned to profit. However, it was far from over when the French took control of the factory in 2012. “The facilities were in very poor condition.recalls Piotr Zolotaryov, a former union leader who retired in 2017, after 33 years at the channel. Some machines dated from the beginning of the factory, the workshops were poorly ventilated, in summer we collapsed from the heat. We were very far from European standards.”, he explains. AvtoVAZ had attempted a first marriage with General Motors, which, in particular, had given birth to a strange car – the Chevrolet Niva. “The governor of the region had bought the firstrecalls Piotr laughing, when he came to take the delivery, in front of the entire factory, the doors refused to close!” The US-Russian union collapses. The French will be the saviors of the Russian industrialist.

On the streets of Togliatti, the birthplace of Avtovaz, you sometimes come across old Ladas still in working order, like this 1200 S model. (SYLVAIN TRONCHET / RADIO FRANCE)

But shock treatment is painful. In four years, the factory lost half of its 70,000 employees. “People were suspicious at first when the French management camerecalls Leonid Emchanov, chairman of the independent AvtoVAZ union. The first thing they promised is that there will be layoffs, but those that remain will increase. Only there was no real increase, just a few kopecks…” The unions are protesting at the time. But the management methods, inherited from the Soviet Union, are still extremely brutal. “While organizing a strike, I was kidnapped in the lobby of my building on my way to work early in the morning”recalls Pyotr Zolotaryov.

“AvtoVAZ security guards took us to the forest with a friend and threatened to attack us.”

Pyotr Zolotaryov, retired trade union leader

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Everyone agrees that the corporate culture has changed since then. And working conditions have improved. But life is still hard in Togliatti. Salaries are low, around 35,000 rubles a month (just over 370 euros). “It is less than the Romanians in Dacia”about Leonid Emchanov. “The French also sold the sanatoriums, kindergartens, vacation centers that we had”regrets the union leader. “The city has been impoverished since the arrival of Renault”analyzes Pavel Kaledine, a freelance journalist from Togliatti. “The factory got rid of socio-cultural facilities that the city does not have the means to maintain and develop. The French have changed suppliers and subcontracted companies have had to close here.”

Alexander Kalinin and Irina Perova at the premises of the independent trade union AvtoVAZ, in Togliatti (Russia).  (SYLVAIN TRONCHET / RADIO FRANCE)

Irina watches the decline of the factory town: “This city was built thanks to AvtoVAZ. People came here to make money. But now it’s not worth it, you can find work elsewhere with better pay.” In the independent union, Alexander Kalinin, a train driver, keeps the accounts: “More than half of the people I know at AvtoVAZ have a second job. They are taxis, delivery men…” In the city, advertisements for lawyers offering to consolidate loans to deal with over-indebtedness flourish on bus shelters.

But it is also thanks to Renault that the group occupies a position as a solid leader in the Russian market. the information that the French manufacturer could withdraw from Russia worry everyone. “It is very painful to read that Renault is going to leave because they have done a lot of good for AvtoVAZ.” laments Andrei Ivanoff, who runs a small painting company, supplier of AvtoVAZ, in the neighboring city of Samara. “I’ve already had to put five people on forced vacation. Out of 25 employees, that’s huge!”

“We don’t want the French to leave, even though they haven’t always treated us very well”tempers Anna Perova, who will retire after 32 years as a production operator. “Of course everyone feels bad today.continues this earthly woman who suddenly darkens and chooses her words carefully. The events unfolding in Ukraine do not please anyone. The Ukrainians are under the bombs. And for those of us who are here, we can see the consequences of this military operation”.

“We want this operation to end as soon as possible, for peace to return to Ukraine. And that we can return to work normally.

Ana Perova

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The calls for a boycott, the international sanctions that cut off the factory from certain essential components are not well understood in Togliatti. One of the few French still there, Jordan Delafosse, sees this every day right now. “Many of my Russian colleagues feel that they are being punished as if they have done something wrongsays this young engineer assigned to a Renault service provider for nearly three years. The people who call for a boycott do not see the reality of what Renault is here. We produce vehicles for a category of people who are not particularly wealthy. And people here say to themselves: but in fact, do you blame us? It’s very difficult to admit and understand.”

His partner, Yevgenia Slabienko, has created a small kindergarten with instruction in English. The first effects of the coming crisis are already being felt. “Prices are going up on a lot of productsshe explains, and some of my clients have financial problems. I am afraid that they will leave me because I will be one of the first expenses that they cut.”

The couple is especially faced with an unforeseen situation. Jordan has just learned that the development projects he is working on are frozen. If she no longer has a contract, she will not be able to stay in Russia. “I have two children from a previous union who have very strong ties to their father.Yevgenia explains. And I am attached to my country. The thought of leaving my family breaks my heart. I’m in a personal conflict.” The young woman contemplates the future with concern. “I am beginning to realize that we will no longer have good quality clothes for the children, maybe no good quality food either.she says. When I see all these stores close, it is as if someone told me: you are no longer welcome. And I take it very badly.”

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