Simple Capitalism in the Old Soviet Breadbasket

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We hear about the "New Russian" all the time. Newspapers and television are full of the image of the young, edgy entrepreneur, striding down boulevards with his cellular phone, accompanied by a troika of bodyguards, ready to make a deal.

Traveling in the countryside of recently independent Ukraine this summer, I felt like I was seeing the post-Soviet country cousins of this edgy entrepreneur - young people making their way into modern times on simpler terms.

In a voyage aboard the steamship Gluskhov down the Dnieper River, through territory of mixed Russian and Ukrainian heritage, I found people of great enterprise and industry, dealing skillfully with market reforms - not a one with a cellular phone.

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My ship pulled into the city of Kremenchug, a 15th-century city that was almost completely wiped out during World War II. About 150 miles from Kiev, Kremenchug is nestled among a string of hydroelectric plants built along the banks of the wide Dnieper.

To see a farm, a factory, and a school, I took an hour's ride into the rich farmland of the grassy steppe. The setting so reverentially evoked by Russian and Ukrainian writers is colored with soil as dark as mahogany, dotted with low-slung farmhouses surrounded by olive trees, and full of dramatic history. During World War II, and well before, the countryside and its people suffered massacres, forced deportations, and occupation.

Once consumed by huge collective farms, the land has been slowly distributed back, after the collapse of communism, to the families of the original owners. That is, if they can be located.

A three-acre farm where I stopped is absolutely up and running, and energy is in the air. Every inch of ground is used, or planted, often with stuff that will be that evening's dinner. I spotted two pigs, a goat, a mule, a handful of chickens, the necessary cow, and a vegetable garden of uncommon abundance. There was no hint of modern equipment, just a sense of enterprise. It's a tiny plot of land that sustains life for a family of four. It made me want to cheer.

The Ukrainian family insisted that we stop for something to drink at a table in the garden. I couldn't refuse.

A mile and a half down the road we drew into a two-story wood and tin structure that serves as a sunflower oil factory. Local farmers started it two years ago. The objective? Profit.

The farmers grow the sunflowers, and later, at the factory, they press the seeds and purify the oil. Then they pour it in wood vats and ship it. It's pure capitalism, including a loan from the local bank at an annual interest rate of 50 percent.

The farmers paid off the massively expensive loan in July.

It is perhaps the most appealing factory I've ever been in, run by a staff of 10 strapping young men, and watched over by a dozen cats languishing in the sun atop the wooden presses. The manager is a man of about 50, whose father had taught him how to process the sunflower oil. Older man's expertise, younger man's muscle; everyone's pride.

One more stop down the road, I came to a spare, bleak, concrete building, which is the village school. It looked like it might have been built in the old Soviet period, but the structure is only eight years old.

No money exists for maintenance, nor for teachers' salaries. No teacher has been paid for 13 months. Yet, 160 students come here daily, and the teachers have made the classrooms warm and attractive, with irregular tables, tattered maps, children's drawings, and the traditional samplings of leaves pinned to the pock-marked walls.

The principal is young and attractive, and unlike the men in the factory, he likes to talk. He told of the many deprivations that are suffered in the village due to the worsening Ukranian economy. Finally, I simply had to ask, "How do the teachers survive without pay?"

I learn that the village takes care of all 11 of its teachers, with donated food and clothing. Housing is offered where needed.

The barter system is back. Why not create a new currency, or in this case, bring back an old one, like goods for services? It is surely more stable than the wobbly Ukranian hryvnia, or the soaring Russian ruble. The school is open, and the spirit of inventiveness and creativity is keeping it going.

PERHAPS these examples suggest the return of some of the old survivalist ways of the 19th century - the well-known peasant craftiness, the ability to adapt, a simpler rhythm of life. It is moving to see the challenge of modernization being met, no matter how small the scale. And not a fax machine in sight.

Look carefully when you buy your next bottle of sunflower oil. It may say "Made in Kremenchug."

* Patricia Chute, author of "Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana" (HarperCollins, 1991) traveled down the Dnieper River during her research for a new book about Anton Chekhov.

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