As Moscow crisis builds, Russian troops serve their country in the potato fields

September 25, 1993|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

GORSHKOVO, Russia -- The rivals in Moscow have branded each other as outlaws. The parliamentary side has called on the nation's soldiers for support. Fears of a civil war abound. But Master Sergeant Dmitri Yevsaev of the Dzerzhinsky Division has been too busy digging potatoes.

While selected troops from the crack division were donning battle gear and taking up positions in a tense and troubled Moscow yesterday, others from the same unit were out in the timeless Russian mud, serving their country as millions of Russian soldiers have done before them -- bringing in the harvest.

Slopping through thick, cold, boot-sucking glop, 230 of the Interior Ministry's best soldiers were digging potatoes, sorting potatoes and loading potatoes.

Gorshkovo is only about 45 miles from Moscow, but from here the political struggle going on between Boris N. Yeltsin and his parliamentary foes looks awfully distant.

Three days ago, Mr. Yeltsin dissolved the parliament, and three days ago, Sergeant Yevsaev arrived at the Dmitrovski State Farm.

"It's better to work here than to serve there," he said, savoring his assignment despite the cold and muck. "Really, we shouldn't have anything like this. We should all just work harder."

The soldiers in Gorshkovo were clearly not eager at all to get involved in sorting out Moscow's political problems -- although if ordered, they said, they would do their duty.

The Dzerzhinsky Division, after all, is a virtual presidential guard.

But someone's got to keep the country going.

"People on the farm are probably working harder this week than ever before," said Alexander Bogdanov, the farm's planner. "If something like this is going on in Moscow, then people have started to realize we need to look after ourselves. We shouldn't expect to rely on help from the center any longer."

Are people on the farm taking sides? he was asked.

"Our chief task," he replied, "is to get everything in from the fields."

For years, Russian soldiers have helped with farm work during the busy seasons, and it is a tradition that has survived the downfall of the Soviet system. The farms get labor when they need it, the soldiers' divisions or regiments get to buy vegetables at a discount, and the soldiers themselves get a nice take-home wad of rubles.

A few miles down the road, in the village of Nizhny Sinkovo, lies the Yakhroma Tekhnikum, a sort of demonstration farm. Here 400 cadets from the Military Finance Academy in Yaroslavl were helping to bring in the carrots. They'll stay on the farm until the end of October.

They know that the parliamentary camp has called particularly on cadets, among others, to rush to its defense, but they have been unmoved.

"There's not much information out here," said Sergei Levitov, 19. together with the people; you could say that."

"But where are the people?" put in Georgi Yelushkin, 18.

"I'll tell you where," said Raisa Chernyakova, a farm official. "They're out in the fields, that's where."

Cadet Levitov thought maybe that was right. "We've been ordered to work with vegetables and keep our noses out of other business."

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