KURSK, RUSSIA — FIFTY years ago Soviet and Nazi tanks tore up the rich, black earth in this southwestern Russian region during the largest armored battle in history.
The Soviet Army won that World War II clash, lasting from July 5-23, 1943, and thus sealed the Nazi military's fate. After Kursk, the Germans were on the defensive until they capitulated.
Now, as veterans from both sides prepare to commemorate the battle's golden anniversary, a fierce struggle of a different kind - but no less important for Russia's future - is taking place here. At stake is Russia's ability to feed itself.
The battle, sparked by agricultural reform efforts, is over soil; more specifically, who controls it and how it will be cultivated in the future.
The struggle is not limited to Kursk. It is being waged all across Russia. But since Kursk is one of Russia's most important agricultural regions, developments here could greatly influence the course of Russia's agricultural reforms.
Reformers in President Yeltsin's federal government are pushing hard to promote the concept of private property. They reason that private-property rights would allow for the development of a class of rural proprietors. Such a class, they say, must be the driving force behind Russia's efforts to increase productivity in the hugely inefficient agricultural sector.
But reforms that encourage individual farming are meeting resistance in the countryside, where traditional communal attitudes are deeply entrenched.
Kursk officials say about 2,000 people in the region of 1.5 million have struck out on their own, breaking with the collective farm system installed by the Soviet government 65 years ago. But the private farmers are finding the going difficult. Some have folded under pressure exerted by Russia's historical aversion to individualism.
"Traditional conservatism remains here," says Nikolai Shalapinin, director of the Medvensky State Chicken Farm, about 20 miles south of Kursk. "If someone becomes rich and begins to live well, others form a certain negative attitude. The people here are used to being equal." Defining `private property'
Radical reformers want to lift all restrictions on the purchase and sale of land by Russian citizens. Yet most Russians feel the definition of private property does not include the right to buy and sell property freely. Instead, they tend to define private property as the ability to cultivate land without outside interference.
This rural conservatism is reflected in laws passed by Parliament in late 1992. Private-property legislation evades the issue of buying and selling large tracts of land.
As for small parcels, known as garden plots, the current holders can "privatize" their land and sell it at will. Anything larger than a garden plot is strictly regulated, to be bought from and returned to the state.
"There is a lot of intellectual debate over this issue in government offices these days," says Vitaly Zhedov, deputy head of the Agriculture Department in the Kursk administration. The chief concern, he adds, is that if land was freely bought and sold, speculators would be the beneficiaries, while agricultural production would suffer.
"People are afraid that with today's inflation the land would end up concentrated in the hands of a few people," he says. "There would be no farmers, only large landowners."
Currently, agriculture is facing myriad problems, including the graying of farm workers, the chronic lack of fuel and equipment, and poor collection and storage methods.
For the government's private property/individual farming initiative to succeed in significantly raising productivity, old attitudes must change, reformers say. But to accomplish this, reformers must overcome not just the legacy of Soviet collectivization, but centuries-old traditions cultivated during the czarist era. Communal heritage
While private property existed under the czars, the primary orientation of agriculture - due in large part to Russia's harsh climate - has always been communal. Historically, that communal approach has perpetuated waste and mismanagement.
The last major effort to change the rural order was launched in 1906 by Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, who was assassinated five years later. At the time, Russia was able to feed itself, but was facing a severe land shortage.
Though the Stolypin experiment eased the land shortage somewhat, it failed to break the communal attitude. That fact, along with additional factors - including two wars and the Soviets' planned economic system - led to Russia's current situation as a grain importer, despite its capacity to be at least self-sufficient.
The current reforms could be headed in the same direction as the Stolypin experiment. Kursk officials say that most private farmers are pooling their efforts out of economic necessity, lacking the individual resources to afford equipment, fertilizer, and seed.
"In the end, private farming will take hold, but there will always be some sort of communal cooperation," says Pavel Koltunov, the head of the Kursk administration's agricultural section.
Although private farming is a key to the reformers' goal of agricultural self-sufficiency, the inability to expand land-ownership rights is hampering the emergence of a class of rural proprietors.
Many private farmers, for example, complain that they cannot raise capital because it is impossible to use land as collateral when applying for loans.
Some moderates in the Russian Ministry of Agriculture say it is too early to focus reforms on rural proprietors.
"It's necessary to have proprietors, but it's more important to develop infrastructure - to have the government create normal working conditions," says Vyacheslav Novikov, deputy chief of the ministry's policy directorate.
"We are pushing peasants towards private farming without any clear-cut program that envisages state support," he adds.