Who Is to Blame for The Russian Famine?

Gorbachev attacks `speculators' - agricultural entrepreneurs - for food shortages, but the real fault lies in his own farm-collectivization policies

IF official Soviet statistics are to be trusted, the Soviet Union's average annual grain production in 1986-90 was 214 million tons - 19 percent more than in 1981-85. In addition, 32 million tons of grain were imported annually (down from 42 million). Last fall, the Soviet Union produced more grain than the United States, and yet Western emergency food supplies were deemed necessary to avert famine. Why? Are black marketeers, saboteurs, and greedy farmers to blame, as Mikhail Gorbachev and the KGB claim? As the son of peasants, Gorbachev could be expected to detest the collectivized system of kolkhozes built by Stalin through elimination of 20 million of the best farmers of Russia and the Ukraine. In fact, in 12 years, Gorbachev made important additions to that system.

In 1977, while serving as the Stavropol territory's Communist Party secretary, Gorbachev managed to sell to Brezhnev the so-called ``Ipatievski method,'' according to which huge armadas of farm machinery were supposed to move from region to region. The Stavropol territory was blessed with a record crop, and Gorbachev was awarded the post of the Central Committee Secretary in charge of agriculture for the entire country.

In 1980 and 1982, Gorbachev published two articles in the Central Committee's magazine, Kommunist, advocating the creation of an agro-industrial complex called Agroprom, which could integrate production, processing, and distribution of food.

Brezhnev was finally convinced, and in 1982 launched the so-called Food Program - a program of massive investments in agriculture. In October 1985, a few months after becoming general secretary, Gorbachev began to materialize his vision. Twenty ministries and committees related to agriculture were integrated into a gigantic super-ministry, Agroprom. Such a massive centralization had not been attempted since Stalin.

Altogether, beginning in 1978, 392 billion rubles - one-third the GNP - were invested in agriculture. Yet 40 percent of all state farms do not have grain storage facilities, and, on average, have to transport the grain 100 miles to gigantic state elevators. Furthermore, 2,150 towns are not even connected by paved roads, and when the rainy season starts in September, only a tractor can get through.

There is another aspect of Gorbachev's agricultural policy: his relentless war against ``speculation'' - private food distribution. One of Gorbachev's first decrees after he became general secretary imposed stricter regulations on kolkhoz markets in the cities. Kolkhozniks were supposed to work on the state farms' fields, not ``speculate'' in the cities.

In 1988, Gorbachev assigned Yegor Ligachev, who favored building up the kolkhoz system, to supervise agriculture. In December 1988, Ligachev banned the wholesale cooperatives that were buying food in the countryside and reselling it in the cities. In March 1990 Gorbachev issued a draconian law aimed at ``speculators.''

``We must keep the distribution of the key food staples under state control,'' Gorbachev said last April. By the summer, police check points were established to stop ``profiteering on agricultural products.'' And new tough ``measures against speculation'' were adopted in September. In a year and a half, 39,000 people were prosecuted for ``economic crimes.''

Gorbachev has accused kolkhozniks of ``hoarding food to take advantage of higher prices later.'' In fact, Moscow city markets have a very limited number of slots for independent farmers and they are booked for weeks ahead. Thousands of farmers cannot sell their produce to city dwellers while hundreds of state stores have no food to sell.

Gorbachev has jokingly said that he cannot find a single competent economic adviser. He is obviously looking in the wrong places because the whole nation knows Popov, Tikhonov, Bunich, Emelianov, Shmelev, Bogomolov, Yavlinsky, Piasheva, to name just a few. But the best economists advocate private farming while Gorbachev adamantly opposes private ownership of land.

In October, while a million tons of grain were perishing every day in the Russian and Ukrainian fields, the government bought 8 million tons of grain abroad and used ships as storage facilities. Cooperatives, particularly from the Baltics, were offering to buy the grain for two to three times the state price and even transport it from the fields, but kolkhozes were banned from doing this. Now Gorbachev has ordered the KGB to supervise the distribution of Western food aid.

A member of the Russian Parliament, Valeri Riumin, has said: ``The power of party officials lies in their monopoly over food distribution, and they are reluctant to give it up.'' Clearly, a solution to Russian famine lies in dismantling of the monopoly. Grass-root organizations, not Gorbachev and his apparatchiks, should be in charge of Western food distribution to the needy.

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