Towards private farms in Russia?

March 12, 1991

By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — In a number of sessions since mid-November, the parliament of the Russian Republic has intensively debated the "land question". Citing constant shortages of most food, right-wing liberal deputies have been calling for the swift, far-reaching privatisation of agriculture.

Agriculture is perhaps the worst crisis area of the Soviet economy. Deliveries to the cities of most food lines in 1990 fell significantly below those of 1989.

Labour productivity in agriculture is far below levels in the West. The backwardness of the countryside and the low earnings of most rural workers encourage younger people to move to the cities. In most areas of the USSR, the result is a situation in which agricultural land is abundant but labour acutely short.

The old system ensured that town-dwellers were fed, characteristically, through coercion. Farms would sow far greater areas than they could harvest using their own labour. Then the Communist Party would mobilise workers and students from the towns to work in the fields during harvest.

But in the course of 1990, the coercive power of the party collapsed. Bumper crops rotted in the fields, while the supply situation in the cities worsened.

A solution to the food supply problem partly involves drawing town-dwellers back into food production permanently or part time. Many industrial workers have close links to peasant life, and the shift would not be traumatic for them. Even at spade-and-hoe levels of technology, the incomes to be made from supplying vegetables to the major cities can be attractive.

(The workers who return to the country, however, will often do so from economic compulsion. As investment in capital construction is slashed, subsidies are cut and competition begins to bite, many industries will be laying off workers.)

Lagging investment

But really solving the problems of food supply requires raising the productivity of large-scale agriculture.

Some of the measures needed are inexpensive: giving the farms real autonomy in deciding what they produce and how, and ensuring that the equipment available corresponds to their needs. But, in general, there is no substitute for massive investments in infrastructure, equipment and training.

Sovkhozy (state farms) and kolkhozy (collective farms) are much less productive than Western agribusiness because of far lower levels of capitalisation.

Soviet rural roads, for example, are often impassable quagmires in in summer turn into rutted tracks that hammer vehicles into scrap within a few years. Farms have few silos in which to store harvested crops. The levels of technical supply are often pitiful.

For the firebrands of Soviet liberalism, the problem is nothing so prosaic as roads and welding rods. According to these prophets of free enterprise, the trouble is that socialism has sapped the peasants' will to work.

But there has been enough realism among the deputies to ensure that projects under discussion do not reflect the wildest fantasies of the privatisers. The projected legislation would leave state and collective farms as the basic forms of organisation of agriculture in the Russian republic.

Through local soviets, land would be made available for the creation of some 300,000 private peasant farms with an average size of about 50 hectares. If this program (which is referred to, in rather strained fashion, as "land reform") were implemented in full, about 10% of the rural labour force would become private farmers.

The land would be available for purchase by legitimate farmers over a period of five years; a further five to 10 years would then have to elapse before the land could be resold. Limits would apply on the size of individual holdings.

This program is likely to have only a marginal impact on food supplies. Production on the new peasant farmsteads will, if anything, be more technically backward than on the kolkhozy. The roads, meanwhile, will be the same.

The proposed legislation does, however, have some disturbing implications. Provisions are made for the reinstitution of private property not only in farm land, but also in land for the construction of homes, garages and suburban dachas. The logic of this is the development of a speculative market in real estate, and it is this prospect which has been the focus of much of the opposition to the projected laws.

Peasant resistance

Some of the sharpest opposition to private property in farm land has come from peasants themselves. The Russian government looks like setting aside one billion roubles for credits and technical help to private farmers — an inadequate sum. State and collective farmers are alarmed that when the problems of the private farms become apparent, the government will massively boost its aid to private agriculture — and that will come out of the funds assigned to help develop the collectivised sector.

In November, Pravda published the results of a poll of collective and state farm workers showing that 74% considered the land to be the collective property of the whole people, while only 17% supported the idea of private ownership.

Recent research in Kursk and Kuibyshev provinces showed that the peasants there were even less entranced by the thought of being privatised. Nine out of 10 interviewed were completely opposed to the hile of the remainder, only half thought they might try individual farming — if they could get modern equipment.

In part, this reflects the traditions of the prerevolutionary Russian peasantry, to whom private ownership of the land was an alien concept. But the hostile response to the liberals' schemes also reflects a good deal of hard-headed calculation. The peasants associate private farming with primitive, back-breaking, dawn-to-dusk toil.

Some of the more thoughtful writing on the Russian countryside in recent months has noted the demoralisation of many peasants, who fear that, just as in the 1930s, they may find themselves the objects of disastrous social experiments by doctrinaire rulers.

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