Russia: Return to Free Farming

November 06, 1993

High among this century's many crimes against humanity is the Soviet Union's forced collectivization drive in the 1920s and 1930s. It caused serious famine and claimed the lives of some seven million farmers and their families. A whole class of people knowledgeable about what their land could produce was wiped out. Cultivation schedules perfected over centuries were erased from the collective memory, proven farming methods outlawed.

After Stalin's merciless collectivization, cities were scrounged for manpower. Hundreds of thousands of urban laborers who had no connection to land or expertise in farming were sent to the countryside. They became the unmotivated and ignorant hired hands of communist collective farms, cogs in an unoiled wheel mainly responsible for the Soviet Union's permanent agricultural crisis.

This tragic experiment may finally be ending. If a recent decree signed by Boris N. Yeltsin is enforced, Russia's 26,700 huge, inefficient collective farms could be dissolved and replaced by commercial farms.

This move has uncalculable political and economic implications. Astronomical state subsidies to unproductive kolkhozes would end; so would their political clout. Russia's vast, primitive countryside and its dying villages could be re-populated and energized again. The communist-era satraps would be deprived of power.

Many questions remain about the decree and its implementation. In the past, whether under Mikhail S. Gorbachev's desperate bids to save communism or under President Yeltsin, efforts to reform agriculture were fought and sabotaged by politicians and officials loyal to the old order.

Even under the best of circumstances, the decollectivization Mr. Yeltsin is now attempting will be a daunting task.

It will require huge amounts of new investment in a country already desperately short of funds. It will require skillful farmers and cattlemen. Above all, it will require a new work ethic and change in the traditional Russian folk psychology that views all success with suspicion, regardless of how much hard work and sacrifice were involved. "One never errs if one doesn't do anything," proclaims a proverb that was elevated to a virtue.

Russia's psychological burden was not caused solely by seven decades of brutal and wrongheaded communist experimentation. Centuries of serfdom, which was outlawed in 1861 but ended only 11 years before the 1917 Bolshevik takeover, molded the people.

Yet during that short period, Russia managed to become Europe's breadbasket. A revival of the country's agriculture will not be easy. But if it succeeds, it could provide the economic and political stability so badly needed for future prosperity.

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