Soviet State Farmers Slog Through System

Collective still runs on a system of barter and back-room deals

ANATOLY POLTORIKIN is young, he is smart, and, for as far as the eye can see, he is all-powerful. Muscovites in their dachas by the Volga River invite him in for lunch and vodka, pressing packets of foreign cigarettes into his hands as he leaves. At the cow barn, women hauling heavy cans of milk pause to bow slightly when he enters. A young couple renting land from him praise his help but complain about being his ``serfs.''

Mr. Poltorikin is director of the Shoshanski sovkhoz or state farm, a 15,000 acre spread of cattle, potatoes, vegetables, and barley fields set among forested hills along the Volga. About 450 people, along with their families, labor there, living in wooden houses or in three-story apartment blocks.

By the standards of Soviet agriculture, Poltorikin is a benevolent and an enlightened despot. The loyal Communist has opened up his state farm to reform, to lease and maybe even sale of land. He wheels and deals to improve farm facilities and conditions.

Wearing a brown suit, sitting behind his desk on the second floor of the farm office, the 36-year-old graduate of an agricultural school eagerly tells of plans to develop his scenic property for vacationers, even for foreigners to rent dachas (summer homes) here. In another time and another place, Poltorikin would be building shopping malls in California.

Here in the Russian countryside, for all his plans and schemes, his power extends only so far. Despite talk of change, the men up the ladder set the prices for his products and tell him who to sell to and how much. The state bank controls all the farm's earnings. Poltorikin is left with a mere 25 rubles a day to spend on his own discretion for the farm.

``We are all, in some way, victims of the system,'' Father Sergei, the outspoken young parish priest, says philosophically when asked about the farm director. ``He is lord and god here but there are larger lords and gods over him. In contrast to them, he looks like a worm.''

State farms such as the Shoshanski sovkhoz control the majority of land in the Soviet Union. The state farm is the twisted outgrowth of a 60-year-long Soviet attempt to put agriculture on the same footing as industry, transforming farmers into wage laborers and putting farms under the aegis of ``agro-industrial complexes.''

The rest of Soviet farmland is organized into collective farms, or kolkhoz, which differ theoretically in being the joint property of their members.

Down the dirt road from the office, past single-story wooden houses with ornate painted window frames, are rows of drab concrete apartments. Laundry hangs from balcony lines, and Russian pop music drifts down from an open window as women sit on the stoop with their babies.

``You can't buy anything here,'' complains the wife of a tractor driver. She goes to Moscow a couple of times a month to shop, even for food. The farm's meat and milk go elsewhere.

Talking with Poltorikin about how his farm really works is like peeling an onion. In the past, he explains, the farm was handed a plan by the regional branch of the Agro-Industrial Complex, setting an order for so much milk and so much meat. The state, for its part, provided the fertilizer, machinery, fuel, in short everything they needed.

Now, after agricultural reforms promulgated from Moscow, ``we decide the volume of production ourselves,'' and the government has given incentives for higher production, in the form of higher purchase prices. According to this new system, the local government is supposed to make an agreement to buy all the farm's products and to provide the supplies.

All the proper committees have been set up, Poltorikin tells us. Unfortunately they aren't operating. ``We're all still learning democracy and other things,'' he says, a slight smile creeping across his strong, lean face.

After several questions, it comes out that, after all, ``we are still operating according to the old system.'' The farm has a ``contract,'' for example, with a meat-packing plant in the nearby city of Kalinin. The price is set by the government, varying according not only to quality but to the condition of the farm.

``A farm doing poorly, like this farm,'' he explains, ``is given higher prices to catch up with better performing farms.''

Next year, the director assures us though, they have been told they will enter the world of the ``regulated market.''

But ``there's still a lot of confusion about that,'' the director says. It doesn't mean the farm can rush off to sell its beef for higher prices in Moscow, 80 miles away. As far as the director is concerned, the meat-packing plant in Kalinin gets the beef.

Anyway, the director says firmly, now the farm can sell whatever it produces above the quota. But all the money, along with money from sideline production of bed linen, pillow cases and glassware, goes to the bank where it is ``calculated into fulfillment of the plan.'' He cannot manage this money, cannot decide to spend more for salaries or less on development.

This ``noncash,'' as Soviet bureaucratese so precisely terms it, is used to buy all their supplies, according to the plan. Well, not exactly. Because, it turns out, the farm can get only 10 percent of what they need from the state. The rest, Poltorikin finally admits, comes from ``racing around the country'' to make back-room barter deals with the producers of their supplies.

What does he trade? ``They will never give you anything for your beautiful eyes,'' Poltorikin says, with a twinkle in his eyes.

``I made a deal with a construction company,'' he says as he shows off a new concrete cow barn being built. ``They got a plot of land and built dachas there, and every year they have to build a half million rubles worth for us.''

The dachas spread down along the river banks.

``That's how we're preparing for the market,'' says Poltorikin. ``If tomorrow the state abandons me, I will survive on barter deals, by using our beautiful scenery, the green forests, and the water.''

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