By James W. Seymore Jr.
April 06, 1987 12:00 PM

At the end of the day, seamstress Galina Fedyanina stands up from her industrial sewing machine at Leningrad’s Dawn of the First of May Dress Factory and dons another hat—or, rather, dress. After changing her working smock for an elegant green silk one she made herself, she enters the office of the factory’s Communist Party, which everywhere in the U.S.S.R. functions as a sort of parallel management. Fedyanina, a handsome blonde of 49, is both worker and politician, a member of one of the highest branches of the local government, and today she will hear the pleas and complaints of her constituents.

A woman in a print dress enters. For an upcoming holiday, special food deliveries were arranged at the factory so workers wouldn’t have to fight the city’s long lines. “The quality was good, but there wasn’t enough for everyone,” the woman complains. Galina promises change. An elderly woman wearing a turban replaces her. “I’m a veteran worker. My husband was killed in the war, and I get preferences,” she says, “but I moved to a new apartment and I can’t get a phone.” Galina will write to the phone company. Then comes a woman who seems distraught—and determined. “I want your help in finding a new apartment,” she says. She, her husband and their 11-year-old son live in one room. “We need more space,” she says. “We applied for a new apartment in 1978, and we’re still waiting!” Galina says she’ll check on it. Scarcely mollified by Fedyanina’s assurances, the woman leaves, and Galina soon heads home.

The hallway floor outside her apartment is bare concrete and the walls a muddy brown, but inside is the home of a successful Soviet. There’s a modern kitchen, bath, two bedrooms and a living room about 12 X 16 feet. Fedyanina shares the apartment with her husband of 30 years, Slava, 50, a lathe operator; her daughter, Svetlana, 27, a chemical engineer, and her son-in-law, Volodya, 31, an electrical engineer. “Whoever gets home first makes dinner; whoever gets up last makes the beds,” Galina says. “That’s where the men are unlucky.”

Galina’s busy days make the scheduling necessary. A model citizen who believes wholeheartedly in the socialist system (“We know that tomorrow and five days from now and five years from now we won’t have to worry; we’ll have what we need”), she is something of a Communist Horatio Alger whose drive has lifted her from poverty to relative comfort—and influence as one of 600 deputies of the Leningrad Soviet, a body similar to a city council that oversees living and working conditions in this city of 4.8 million.

Her own life was shaped by the terrible history of Leningrad in World War II. Besieged by the Germans for 900 days, much of the beautiful city was reduced to rubble. The people, if they had food at all, ate rats and glue. Nearly one million men, women and children died of starvation, disease and wounds. “When the war began, our home was nearby at Pskov in occupied territory,” Galina says, “and we joined a guerrilla group, living in the forest in mud huts.” A brother was killed in the fighting. Her father, once a forester, was wounded and paralyzed from the waist down. Another brother died of his wounds in 1952. “We lost everything in this war,” says Galina of memories that still bring tears. “Afterwards my mother [a teacher] had to work very hard to support us. I had to start work at 15. My dream was to become a seamstress to make my mother a dress.”

Active in Komsomol and a hard worker at the factory (she has won the Hero of Socialist Labor state prize), Fedyanina was chosen for the Central Council of Trade Unions in 1977 and elected to the Leningrad Soviet that same year. “People elect those who are good at listening to their problems,” says Galina, who was nominated by her fellow workers and then became the only candidate on the ballot.

Like any parent, she sometimes wishes her child would listen more. She dotes on her daughter (“My personal creation,” she smiles, stroking Svetlana’s hair, then adds with a wry smile, “my bloodsucker”), but wishes she’d hurry up and produce grandchildren. (There’s even an ideological reason for such nudging. Says Galina: “I don’t think any woman has the right to withhold heirs from the state.”)

Entertaining visitors at their home one evening, she and her family pour forth questions about the U.S. Galina’s view of the States would be unrecognizable to Americans. From her questions, she seems to see the U.S. as a violent, monstrously powerful nation in which the fabulously wealthy few keep the majority in poverty. The fact that the U.S. has a welfare system, for instance, is news to her. The fact that welfare is supported by income taxes is almost too much for her to believe. Her fear of another war is palpable, and she has a message. “I am very happy with my life, and I want Americans to know about it,” she says. “If we could be sure there would be no war, we would be very sure of our future here. We want us and the American people to come closer and understand our common goals.”