Villagers tell of rural Russia's collapse Stalin's brutal legacy orphaned the land

October 21, 1990|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

PLOSKO-KUZMINKA, U.S.S.R. -- Last winter Father Ioann lay in the hospital for a while in the nearby city of Lipetsk after he fell from the roof of his house beside the village church.

He had climbed onto the roof to shovel off snow. This would by no means be remarkable in this tiny village in the Russian heartland -- except that he is about to turn 80.

Father Ioann, in the secular world Ivan Nikolaevich Skopintsev, is village priest and elder in this speck on the map, a friendly, tireless man with a white beard and the gentle skepticism born of a hard life.

A little more than a half-century ago, he was a country carpenter who thought he knew what was wrong with Soviet agriculture. He told his friends, and he was sent to a prison camp.

"I said life on the kolkhoz, the collective farm, was no good. I said collectivization was a mistake," he recalled. "They called it anti-Soviet propaganda."

The rulers of this country have finally admitted that he was right, but it gives him little satisfaction.

"There's no hope, because there's no faith," Father Ioann said, his tone factual rather than despairing. "People don't believe in God. They don't believe in the Communist Party. They've forgotten how to work."

Plosko-Kuzminka, population 100, with an average age not much younger than the priest's, sprawls around the church in a soft, green landscape 250 miles southeast of Moscow. It can stand as a symbol for the tragedy of Russian rural life, and perhaps for its endurance.

Josef V. Stalin's brutal forced collectivization of agriculture is not just history here but a daily, haunting presence. The neglect of the countryside by successive Soviet regimes is not a policy abstraction but an overwhelming physical reality.

In the fenced-off churchyard stands the main village well, where villagers crank a steel bucket hanging on a strip of tractor tire into the sweet water 10 feet down.

There is no running water in Plosko-Kuzminka. There are no indoor toilets or sinks, no natural gas lines, no telephones.

Homes are heated mainly by traditional massive Russian stoves, burning wood and coal. The one road to the village is in fact not a road but a rutted, hilly dirt track that becomes virtually impassable after a rain. After bird song and church bells, the most common sound is the whine of spinning tires as someone tries to extricate his car from the earth.

There are no stores. Villagers trek about a mile through the fields to a general store in the next settlement, Bruslanovka, where they also can catch a bus into Lipetsk. In the Bruslanovka store one recent day there were bread, milk, salo (resembling suet), fish and potatoes, as well as a random selection of garden tools, pots and pans, and boots.

There is electricity in Plosko-Kuzminka. Some people have televisions and can watch the parliamentarians in Moscow debate the catastrophic state of the Russian village, the 19th-century amenities and the "bezdorozhye," a uniquely Russian word meaning "roadlessness."

* The muck that traps unwary motorists in Plosko-Kuzminka is not ordinary muck. It is chernozem -- "black earth" -- some of the most fertile soil in the world. A chaos of wildflowers and weeds springs from every uncultivated patch of ground, posing the agonizing question: How can it be that such land fails to feed the Russian people?

The villagers, as they gradually open up to the first foreigner they have ever spoken with, offer answers remarkably like those of the reform economists 300 miles away in Moscow or the still more distant Sovietologists of the West.

The local people date the barren times from the "dekulakization," Stalin's war on the kulaks, or wealthier peasants, which turned collectivization into a cataclysm that destroyed millions of lives. With more to lose, the richer peasants naturally resisted more vigorously when the state ordered them to abandon their private landholdings. Stalin's answer was to demand "the destruction of the kulaks as a class."

Dekulakization "was tearing everything down and not building anything in its place," said Ivan Fyodorovich, 54, a hulking farm driver who heard about it from his parents and grandparents.

"The kulaks, they were the rabotyagi [hard workers]," agreed Maria Yakovlevna, 67, a retired dairywoman, who saw it happen. Both refused to allow their last names to be published. They were sitting in the sun on the porch of her little cottage, sipping the still-warm milk of her cow, Zorka, who was grazing out back.

So it was that in the 1930s, seven decades after Czar Alexander II freed the serfs, the peasants of Plosko-Kuzminka and the rest of Russia found themselves again in bondage. Not to the nobility this time, but to the state and its ideology in the form of the kolkhoz, or collective farm.

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