Roots of Russian reform sinking deep on farms

January 24, 1995|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

VECHAN, Russia -- Kremlin intrigues come and go as Alexander Shipanov rises early and retires late, milking his cows and tending his fields on this outpost of reform 250 miles east of Moscow.

He watches television reports of those distant maneuverings with distaste, but little apprehension. President Boris N. Yeltsin can make war in Chechnya and drift away from reform if he likes, Mr. Shipanov said, but nothing will keep him from building his own farm.

"No one can send me back to the collective farm," he said, his warm brown eyes growing hard and steady. "I will take up a rifle to defend this land."

Here in tiny Vechan, and in the regional capital of Nizhny Novgorod 35 miles away, Mr. Shipanov's words resonated widely.

Village farmer and city businessman, factory director and municipal official alike concede that the political and financial expense of Chechnya could slow reform. But they refuse to believe that reform can be reversed.

Like Mr. Shipanov, they have invested too much of their sweat and too many of their hopes to turn back now. The past is so bankrupt, they say, that even Communists would have to turn to capitalism to fill their treasuries.

"If one of the conservative parties came to power, they wouldn't be able to give anyone a piece of sausage or a crust of bread," said Vyacheslav I. Bolyak, 44, mayor of the nearby town of Kstovo. "There isn't any money. There aren't any resources."

The old Communist factory directors who are hanging on, waiting for the red flag to fly again, will be bankrupt long before that happens, he said. The factories that have adapted are making money and want more reforms.

"Some regions will die, and some will progress," he said, "but it won't depend on what anyone in the Kremlin is doing."

"Every time we have a political crisis," said Boris Nemtsov, the governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region, "the West worries that reform is dead."

Nevertheless, Mr. Shipanov has been deeply troubled by the Chechen war.

Like many Russians, Mr. Shipanov fears crime, and he blames organized criminals based in Chechnya for much of it.

"It's quite clear the Chechen situation should have been solved a long, long time ago," he said.

And he is bitterly critical of how the war has been pursued.

"As for our government," Mr. Shipanov said, "they have a lot of different ideas but no good ones. They should be thinking about saving the nation's agriculture -- it's dying.

"But we private farmers are not going to go the way of the big state farms. We have our own plans."

For more than two years, Mr. Shipanov has devoted nearly every waking hour to wresting a farm out of his not-so-compliant 98 acres.

Without any savings -- everyone here lost theirs because of inflation -- Mr. Shipanov began by agreeing to let a factory grow potatoes on some of his land. In return, the factory gave him building materials.

He wanted a herd of 25 cows and bulls but so far has only managed 12. He grows his own feed for them, grows his own food for his family and sells milk and a few vegetables. Maybe next year, he said, his herd will reach 50.

On a frozen Saturday morning, Mr. Shipanov, who will be 46 in February, had risen at 4:30 in the cold dark of his apartment in a collective farm housing settlement about five miles away. He lives there, in three rooms in a crumbling tenement, with his wife, son, daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter.

He had to get up to milk his cows and work on the brick house he is building on his farm. It will be big, he said, six rooms and two stories. In the summer, he wants to rent rooms to city folk looking for a vacation with clean air and fresh milk. They can fish and swim in the nearby Kudma River. In winter, truckers afraid of city crime can spend the night.

He has schooled himself well the last two years, learning how to repair machinery and add up balance sheets, and how to invest any money in the farm before it's listed as profit and subjected to a 63 percent tax.

Mr. Nemtsov, the governor, said the Kremlin can still make it harder than it has to be for Mr. Shipanov and others in the vanguard of reform. And there are some serious dangers.

"If inflation goes out of control, that will create the basis for conservatives to seize power," Mr. Nemtsov said.

Loans from the International Monetary Fund are vital to avert hyperinflation, he said, and the IMF could very well decide Russia has become too dangerous a risk.

But Mr. Shipanov speaks with clarity -- for himself and many others -- when he says he can see his own future quite clearly.

"It's here," he said, "here on my land."

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