'Masters of our own land' The farmer: A 'modern kulak' realizes his dream of private farming and becomes a model for others.

August 21, 1996|By CLARA GERMANI

PANTIL, Russia -- Miles down the muddy slather they call a road, past the tumbledown fences of the old Lenin's Path collective farm, the twin domes of a crumbling 19th-century church signal the spot where Viktor Bykov is trying to nurture the concept of a private farm.

"We want to be the masters of our own land," says the bleach-browed, solidly built 44-year-old whose dream of private farming became reality with the fall of communism five years ago.

It used to be a most dangerous dream, and if the Communists had won the presidency in June, it could have become dangerous again.

Josef Stalin's 1930s de-kulakization program of slaughter and imprisonment eliminated any individual initiative in the agrarian sector.

A kulak -- literally meaning "fist," or what a man could close his fist around -- was anyone in the richest layer of a generally very poor agrarian society. A kulak's wealth might have amounted to a single horse or cow, or control of land.

Bykov considers himself a "modern kulak."

He is a private farmer with his own land, equipment and animals -- which is to say, he is still an oddity in Russia. On his own very small scale, he is doing well.

And in the Russian agrarian landscape -- where large state farms and most private attempts at farming are limping along -- Bykov is even considered something of a genius for having figured out how to make a small farming economy work against all the odds.

Consider:

* The civil code -- full of guidelines about state farm holdings -- doesn't really define a private farm.

* Private ownership of land is not a settled issue. Bykov doesn't know for sure if he owns his. "Probably we do," his wife, Tatyana, says, weighing the contradictions in presidential decrees and parliamentary legislation.

* At interest rates of 160 percent, credit is practically unaffordable.

* Bykov's biggest customers -- public schools and hospitals -- almost never have the cash to pay for his produce.

But times, uncertain as they may be, have changed for farming. Communism is gone. A man can be his own boss now.

The state doesn't decide where Bykov will sell his potatoes and at what price -- Bykov decides. He decides when he will expand his greenhouse, and the designs come from his own drawings, not a centrally planned government blueprint.

He also decides what each employee's salary will be, based on output, not on just showing up for work -- a principle he adheres to so strongly that he fired his sister-in-law for being "lazy."

Difficult but interesting

"These are the proudest years of my life," Bykov says in a rare emotional pronouncement. "I could say we're living our dreams."

"Life is such that the more difficulty you have, the more interesting it is," he says of Russia's democratic reform. That's an exceptional point of view in a land where economic reform has left the majority of Russians -- both in the city and in the countryside -- trying to figure out how to prosper.

To understand Bykov's trajectory through Russia's difficult transformation, consider the explosive potential of an energetic and enterprising individual trapped in a regime that punished individual thought, comment and complaint.

From the age of 7 -- when he collected hay on horseback on a state farm -- till his days as a tractor driver on the Lenin's Path collective farm, Bykov says, "I kept my opinions to myself."

He grew so fed up with the low pay, lack of opportunity and general decay of Soviet farming that he quit. And bucking Soviet laws that compelled peasants to stay in the countryside by denying them internal passports, Bykov slipped north in 1980 to seek his fortune in the oil fields of Siberia.

In the relative freedom of Siberian isolation and boom-town economics, he created and managed a profitable independent team of 50 truck drivers, built himself a large house and set aside a large nest egg.

He had a slash-and-burn management style: He cut visits to the mechanic and had drivers come earlier to work on their own equipment. He eliminated the practice of a costly medical checkup before every long trip. The best workers got the highest pay.

'I had so many ideas'

But in 1990, he saw opportunity in the cracks forming in the Communist state. The government started to allow private individuals to own a tractor and privately farm large tracts of land. It also offered them tax holidays and cheap credits.

Bykov rushed back to the rolling green pastures and forests of Pantil, 650 miles northeast of Moscow, with his wife, Tatyana; two sons, Sergei and Alexander; and daughter, Olga. There he and four families of siblings and in-laws were allowed to inhabit the abandoned village and try their hands in fields that the troubled, underfinanced state collective could no longer cultivate.

"I saw this place, and I wasn't afraid to be left alone. I had so many ideas -- we started work immediately. And it was exciting to think about working without supervisors watching you," Bykov recalls.

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