Pray for Nitrofert to resurrect. Again

Anneli Ammas
, reporter
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Photo: Matti Kämärä / Põhjarannik

This year, Kohtla-Järve missed its celebrated Chemists Day, a joy of the whole town. The chemists of Nitrofert the fertilizer maker, waiting for their lay-offs announced, think back to the glory days of folks bringing the families and having lots of fun. 

«Over here life did not get better after independence of Estonia,» says Jevgeni Solovjov (41).

«The industry is languishing. When we had the mines, the large enterprises, there were events organised, competitions, life was interesting, but as these started to be closed down, there are no more events, you just walk to the grocery store and back, and the town is like dead in the evenings, actually during the day too,» describes Sergei Trjassorukov (55).

Julia Leontjeva (46) tries to calm the guys down: «There have been the bright moments also.»

Ljubov Sitnikova (56) would also argue with the boys: «They built Kohtla-Järve this nice kids park, with merry-go-rounds and everything.»

Friday afternoon, downtown Kohtla-Järve is quiet. A couple of bars in the centre are in preparations for reception in the evening, a few teenagers chill out on the renewed playground. At the edge of town, a large mall is closed down, but the one across the street is open while the car park has plenty of spots to spare.

In the afternoon, in the modest but nicely renovated Stalinist-style VKG headquarters, we meet with four people who worked at Nitrofert for decades or begun the career there.

Fertilisers from very beginning

Every weekday morning since 1979, Ljubov Sitnikova (56) has taken the trip to work at what is now called Nitrofert, once under supervision of Slantsõ-Him in Leningrad Oblast. I36 years in a row, with a three-month pause in 2002 when Ljubov was first laid off as the work at the factory halted.

Pat the moment, the plant has the look of a Soviet time industrial museum. It is the third time the work is at standstill during these past twelve years, and every pause has lasted for years. Nevertheless, the Nitrofert workers have not fainted. The more so that competitive wages – for Ida-Virumaa – have been paid even for cleaning the yard.

In her white Lada, water shop-floor operator Ljubov will keep driving to the plant till end of October – to a facility where not an ounce of fertiliser has been produced since end of 2013. «There’s something to do every day, the water shop-floor must be in working order – even if in case it will rain,» explains Ljubov.

«The gals at our floor were trained in two vocational schools in Leningrad Oblast – specialists for fertiliser plants. These were the Soviet times and the girls never left – all these decades they’ve worked at the same place,» says Ljubov. Personally, having moved to Kohtla-Järve with parents at the age of one – the mom and dad used to work in the selfsame factory –, graduated from Kohta-Järve Tech.

Responsible for equipment, Jevgeni Solovjov (41) comes daily to check out the quiet floors – to see if all is in place, and no one has stolen non-ferrous metals. Over these 1.5 past years, never happened.  

Jevgeni arrived in Estonia at the early age of two, in 1975. «Back then, it was better in Estonia than where we used to live in Russia. Here, it was easier for a young family to obtain an apartment, especially when. My dad worked here at the plant, and I was lucky: after graduating from the local tech, I promptly landed a job here,» tells Jevgeni, also a representative at the trade union.  

During the last Nitrofert crisis of 2002, Jevgeni had to seek other employment as well. For a couple of months, he worked at an electric tools store. But as soon as the plant got going again, he returned upon invitation. «The conditions are better in industry – I have had raises and rose to the maximum at my specialty,» he says, drawing a parallel to the bleaker world of retail.

In Kohtla-Järve, Nitrofert was a job of dreams. Even while the plant was not in operation, they say the average pay stood at €700. Not all make as much and Ljubov rather refers to the minimal wage. But even with lower wages, there have been the perks – extra vacations, tickets to sanatoriums, parties. «At Nitrofert, this is the way it was up until now,» said Sergei.

A trade union leader for Kohtla-Järve chemists, Julia Leontjeva (46) started off at Nitrofert as support hand 31 years ago. She assures us that the salaries have been the best among Ida-Viru industries. Jevgeni would like to specify: «Over here, the industrial enterprises offer more-or-less equal conditions and it makes no sense to swap jobs. If they pay, who move.»

That explains why over 400 people have been willing to wait for years, hoping the factory will roar into a new life.  

«It was back in 2007–2008., and Mr Nikolajev (Nitrofert’s director Aleksei Nikolajev – edit) actually got decorated by President, he was to Tallinn to be honoured as the head of an especially good company,» notes Sergei Trjassorukov (55).

Sergei came to Estonia from Leningrad Oblast 30 years back, as a young lad. To begin with, he worked in the forests, and as the jobs were thinned out, he laboured in a mine till it was shut down. As the new owner kick-started Nitrofert again in 2003, after a year’s pause, Sergei ended up in the water shop-floor. Now, it’s time for this job to die.

«Quite a terminator, you are!» jests Ljubov.

No surrender

So what will be happening if Nitrofert locks its gates in the fall and the year covered by unemployment insurance comes to an end?

Jevgeni: «We’d like to keep working in the current factory. We will be looking for the same kind of work. Around here, once you are past 50, you won’t find a job.»

Julia (untouched by lay-off as trade union chief for chemists): «Ida-Virumaa has precious few jobs, ladies over 50 will not find work.»

Ljubov: «Töötukassa [the unemployment insurance fund – edit] said there’s no problem, all will have work. We will not say no to any job, whatever they will offer.»

Sergei: «I’d like stability. With experience, one can do any job. My partner went to work in Finland to construction – there, they do not look at how old you are. They paid him a thousand euros in advance, he is asking for somebody from here to come partner up. One can always find work here, but in a small company you may have a job and wages one day and not be needed the next.»

Ljubov: «Psychologically we are ready already, no surrender, we will seek us a new job.»

Julia: «It’s tough when someone has worked at the same place for decades and has been appreciated as a specialist, but then suddenly she isn’t needed any longer.»

Ljubov: «Töötukassa promised information days in the plant, to invite employers over. Let’s see what they will offer, what we are needed for.»

Julia: «It’s good when the employers come. Should they offer jobs at Iisaku or Avinurme, say, and would take us there and back in the mornings and the evenings – the jobs over there might fit.»

Ljubov: «Health allowing, I may do any job. I’ve got two years till retirement – I’d like to reach that, raise the grandkids.»

Ljubov: «We have not lost faith yet. It’s the worst when people become angry. Until there’s hope, that will not happen.»

Julia: «It should be like we are not working to buy food, but to live and use the life’s comforts.»

All four realise that under capitalism it is the market that decides the fate of an industry, and if the produce can’t be sold, an industry won’t operate. They find fault with the state for not having an industrial policy, that the enterprise in trouble have not been helped – whatever that would mean. Julia hints at Russia: there, state authorities do help companies in trouble, someway.  

Jevgeni: «Our personal problems are caught up in the general. Until these get solved, our life is not good either. This is vegetation, not life. We don’t know what will be, we only hope for the best.»

Never ever been to Pühtitsa!

While three of the four have acquaintances working abroad, they have not thought about the option too deeply. Ljubov’s daughter, highly, educated, is living in Scotland for over a decade – working and studying. The mother knows it ain’t no bed of roses for the daughter. The other daughter, also highly educated, dwells and works at home place thank God. Another «factor» tying Ljubov to Kohtla-Järve is her own mother aged 91 – no forsaking the old lady. As for Julia’s son, he did try his luck in England, but promptly returned – he has work here and it’s way cheaper to settle down in Estonia, knows the mother. So it’s the young who go abroad, those with no family. And the older ones who have no-one to look after.

Julia thinks that should their family be offered a house and a job in Võru, for instance – they’d consider the trip.

Truth be told, the Kohtla-Järve guys do not know too much about the rest of Estonia at all. Never do they think to just up and take a bus of drive the car to go discover Estonia. Ljubov is sorry to observe that many have not ventured as far as the Pühtitsa Monastery in own county...

As one, the quarter grumbles about local public transport. The schedules are bad, and the destinations not always what people need. Even to the classy new hospital (this is how Julia refers to Ida-Virumaa’s modern central hospital) it is hard for the elderly to travel. To say nothing about the fact that in city buses, the ride is only free for those aged 70 and above, and only for a few hours during the day.

Still, most of them have been to see the new promenades in Narva and Narva-Jõesuu. They recall the trade union tour to Lääne-Virumaa – there were manors there, and what’s more, the locals live way better. About Tallinn and Harju County, they know the people are prosperous there – whoever goes to work there, will leave Kohtla-Järve for good.

One would guess there are those in Kohtla-Järve who take a look around, but, as sayeth Sergei: why not take a pleasure trip, but no way the others can teach them how to live. «We know for ourselves.»