Racing against time,facing disaster,Soviets send scientists to pull carrots

September 27, 1990|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Sun Staff Correspondent

OZYORI,U.S.S.R. — OZYORI, U.S.S.R. -- Yevgeny G. Krastelev can ordinarily be found experimenting with high-current electron beams at Moscow's prestigious Lebedev Physics Institute, where he holds a senior research post.

But yesterday Dr. Krastelev was busy tugging carrots from a muddy field on the Yemelyanovka State Farm, 100 miles south of the capital.

Around him, shaking dirt from carrots and tossing them into wicker baskets, were five colleagues from the world-famous center of Soviet physics research, scientific home of the late Andrei D. Sakharov.

For the past week they have joined the helter-skelter national campaign to save the harvest, trying to ensure there is something for Russians to eat this winter and spring.

"I came because I was concerned about whether there will be any produce in Moscow," said Dr. Krastelev, 42, wearing a brown beret and a few days' growth of beard.

"I don't mind getting away from the hassles of the city for a little while. But from an economic point of view, this doesn't make much sense."

If any proof is needed that the old Soviet agricultural system is hopelessly unable to feed the nation, this fall's harvest should do the trick.

All the familiar glitches seem to be conspiring to create catastrophe: machinery sitting idle for lack of parts or gasoline; the mustering to the fields of thousands upon thousands of students, soldiers and city slickers; a bumper crop rotting in fields, railroad cars and warehouses; a distribution and sales network stunningly incapable of getting food from field to consumer.

To these time-honored traditions of Soviet agriculture has been added the rainiest September in decades, leaving fields so sodden that mechanical harvesters can't operate in much of Russia.

"In my 50 years on this Earth I can't remember such weather," said Nikolai N. Kirillov, director of Yemelyanovka since 1979, casting a dismayed glance across unharvested acres of potatoes. "We have about 20 days before the frost comes to save all we can. We have to get more people out here."

The mild concern of summer has turned into flat-out panic in recent days, as government officials have realized the severity of the crisis. Moscow needs 820,000 tons of potatoes to get through the winter; as of yesterday only 147,000 tons had been delivered and a mere 40,000 tons put into winter storage.

Emergency appeals for people to come to farms and harvest are repeated continuously in newspapers and on radio and television. The metaphors invoked invariably are military -- and not just the metaphors.

Defense Minister Dmitry T. Yazov assured parliament yesterday that rumors that troops were being moved into the Moscow region to prepare a coup d'etat were false: 23,000 soldiers, he said, had been deployed around the capital to pick crops.

Also yesterday, the beleaguered government of Prime Minister Nikolai I. Ryzhkov approved the latest "urgent measures to complete the harvest," calling efforts so far "absolutely inadmissible."

Politicians and the press variously blame the weather, organized crime, sabotage by Communist Party bureaucrats and the incompetence of newly elected radicals. All the accusations appear to be on target, but there is a broad consensus that the ultimate culprit lies elsewhere.

"Her Majesty, The System," wrote the newspaper Izvestia this week, answering its own question of who is guilty. "Who's going to open a criminal case against her?"

Here among rolling hills and rich black soil along the Oka River, Izvestia's answer seems just right -- because, ironically, Yemelyanovka appears to be a well-run operation by the terms of the Soviet system.

On 15,000 acres, the 800 workers of Yemelyanovka produce milk, meat, grain, potatoes, beets, cabbage and carrots, nearly 90 percent of it bound for Moscow.

Unlike many collective and state farms, the 67-year-old Yemelyanovka invariably fulfills its plan and runs a profit. Last year it had a 1.8 million ruble profit on 8 million rubles of sales.

Yet the production statistics Mr. Kirillov proudly cites are impressive only by the stunted averages of the Soviet Union. His dairy cows, for instance, yield 8,300 pounds of milk a year, 60 percent of the U.S. average.

Yemelyanovka, like virtually every other state or collective farm, can't get by without the labor of city dwellers, although its tTC regular work force is enormous by U.S. standards. Right now Mr. Kirillov has recruited not only the distinguished physicists but 400 textile institute students, 30 employees of a government canal-designing agency and four men from the Soviet equivalent of the Bureau of Standards.

It's not enough. At midday yesterday, by promising a reliable supply of produce to yet another Moscow institute, he persuaded its director to send nearly 400 more students.

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