Russian farmers sow capitalism, reap hardship--and bigger crops

June 07, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

NIKOLO-URYUPINO, Russia -- Alexei Vinogradov has the freckled arms and worn seed-company cap of a seasoned farmer, but precious little else: no red barn, no tidy white house, no pickup in the driveway, no water, no electricity.

He rides a bus for a half-hour to his farm, which right now is a big, brown dusty field hoping for potatoes to sprout. Mr. Vinogradov earns the equivalent of $10 a month and is deeply in debt.

"No matter," he says, smiling broadly at an approaching rain cloud. "Life is better this way."

Until 1 1/2 years ago, Mr. Vinogradov was one of 1,200 people working on a 6,000-acre communal farm here in the Krasnogorsk region, about 30 miles west of Moscow.

He took the first chance he had to leave the collective farm, known as the "kolkhoz," and persuaded nine other men to join him. The 10 families now share 120 acres, half of which they own and half of which they rent.

Mr. Vinogradov is well aware that the future of Russian agriculture is resting on his shoulders -- his and those of the 230,000 others who have set up private farms across the vast Russian landscape. Their numbers are growing dramatically -- about 50,000 new farms were set up in the first four months of this year.

It is up to these fledgling farmers to turn the nation's 30,000 huge and largely inefficient state and communal farms into manageable and profitable individual farms.

They face awesome obstacles. Tractors are scarce and very expensive; spare parts are practically non-existent. Inflation wiped away savings, and no one has any start-up capital for a farm. Property laws are confusing and easily thwarted by bureaucrats who want to keep control of the land. It took Mr. Vinogradov seven months of filling out forms and pushing them through various offices so he could get land.

Jealous neighbors burn barns and sabotage equipment. "You want to live better than us," one angry neighbor told Mr. Vinogradov in accusing tones the other day.

Last year, 5,000 of the new farms failed. Viktor Khlystun, Russia's agriculture minister, put some of the blame on the government, saying the farmers had not been given the support they needed.

All these pitfalls are complicated by fuzzy notions of property.

Last fall, the mayor of Moscow, worrying that manpower was insufficient to harvest crops, told city dwellers to go out and dig potatoes.

One morning, Mr. Vinogradov hopped off the bus to find his potato field full of diggers. "I had to persuade them this was our property," he said. "Here, people are used to everything being state property."

"You're lucky with your laws in America," he said, only half-smiling. "If someone comes onto your land, you can shoot them."

Like many of those going into private farming, Mr. Vinogradov was a high-level official on his kolkhoz -- he was deputy director. Being a high-level official was synonymous with being a trusted member of the Communist Party. "I graduated from the high party school," Mr. Vinogradov said proudly.

Head of party committee

As head of his local party committee for five years, he was trusted enough to be sent on a trip to Minnesota in 1990, where he got a look at U.S. farming methods.

The party training gave him just the preparation he needed to leap into capitalism when the opportunity arose. Accustomed to taking responsibility, better educated than most of those who worked on the kolkhoz, he understood what was wrong with the old ways, and he had enough self-confidence to believe he could adapt to the new ways.

"The original idea of the kolkhoz was a good one," Mr. Vinogradov said. "It's easier to work on a kolkhoz than on your own farm. It's stable, you have days off, vacations. But the idea was distorted. They put small kolkhozes together until they were gigantic."

His kolkhoz encompassed 12 villages, and eventually people didn't know each other anymore. The government told them what to plant and when to plant it. Individuals stopped thinking for themselves.

"It's impossible to manage a kolkhoz as big as ours was," Mr. Vinogradov said. "It had become a sort of monster, difficult to control. Whether people worked or not, they got money. I saw this and left."

Mr. Vinogradov didn't think he could afford to go into farming by himself -- this year one tractor cost 4 million rubles, and the average kolkhoz pay only recently rose from 6,000 rubles a month to 15,000. So he and the nine other families decided to pool their resources. They were prepared to suffer.

"When I organized this, I told the guys that at least for three years we would have to live on bread," he said. Mr. Vinogradov and his friends can afford to pay themselves only 10,000 rubles each a month -- $10 at current exchange rates, well below the national average of 25,000 rubles.

Crop output higher

But this belies their progress. They produced two and a half times as many potatoes per acre as the kolkhoz, and they were able to start paying back the 320,000 rubles they spent for a used tractor.

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