AFTER 60 miles of deep birch forest, the road southeast from Moscow crosses the Oka river, rises over a crest and divides. The trucks laden with steel rods and machinery continue south toward Voronez and Rostov-on-Don.The other fork turns east into a land of gentle rolling hills, of open wheat fields lightly crusted with snow or green with the first shoots of winter wheat, of empty roads broken occasionally by a sign marking a turnoff - the Karl Marx Collective Farm says one. Here the vast agricultural heartland of Russia begins, the eastern continuation of the food producing belt that begins with the rich black soil of the Ukraine. Here Soviet regimes have launched countless agricultural reforms to revitalize the stagnant farm sector. All have failed. "Today in Russia and in the Soviet Union, there is no other problem than ... food ... a normal supply of food so people won't be on the brink of hunger and of poverty," says reformer and St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak.
New radical plan Now the Russian government of Boris Yeltsin has yet another plan in hand - this time to reverse more than 50 years of collectivized agriculture and restore private farming. With it they hope to harness wasted resources and finally end the food shortages that have long undermined Soviet life and now threaten the reformers' political future. A visit to Skopin, about 180 miles from Moscow, provides a glimpse of how far the reformers are from their goal. The emergent market economy has almost no presence here, while the old state-run economy and its Communist Party bosses remain intact, albeit sometimes under new names. The dramatic anti-Communist revolution that swept the big cities last August after the failed coup has not reached Skopin, a dreary kernel of industry amid the collective and state farms of the region. A lone traffic signal dangles at the intersection of Karl Marx Street and Lenin Street, where the grocery store "Gifts of Nature" offers a meager supply of cabbage, onions, potatoes, liver sausage, and fatty bones. A faded billboard of Lenin set against a flowing red flag stands next to the Skopin regional executive committee building and proclaims: "The Road to Revolution is the Road to Perestroika." In the conference room a meeting of the Skopin agro-kombinat, the organization grouping collective and state farms in the region, is under way. Behind the collective farm leaders seated on the stage, stands a plaster relief of Lenin accompanied by the well-known slogan The Party is the wisdom, pride and conscience of our epoch testifying to the Communist Party functions that used to be standard fare here. The party offices are formally closed, as everywhere in Russia, but the party first secretary is sti ll in place - now called the chairman of the regional soviet (council). Alexander Yeroshin, the 34-year-old director of the agro-kombinat, still carries his party card as well as the ideas that went with it. Even as the central Soviet government is dismantled, the collective farms are awaiting their annual directives on how much to sell to the state, he explains. "Some sort of plan should remain to guarantee minimum provisions to the state," he says. "We can't imagine ourselves without the state. The state is our source of fuel, of equipment. We don't have any other source. There has to be some central regulator. Maybe that's our mistake, but that's how we were taught."
Privatizing farmland The Russian government law on farming passed last fall allows in principle for private land, provided it is resold only to the state. A more mild form of privatization, the long-term lease of collective farmland, is also encouraged. The Russian reforms are ahead of some more conservative republics such as in Central Asia but hardly comparable to the privatization carried out in the Baltic states, or in Armenia, where almost all the collective farms were disbanded earlier this year. Private plot agriculture - small gardens and livestock kept by collective farm members - has long supplied a large part of the fresh vegetables, potatoes, and dairy products consumed in Russian cities. But full-scale private farming in Russia is negligible so far. According to Mikhail Zaraev, a Russian journalist specializing in agriculture, private farmers number about 22,000 in Russia. Forecasts foresee some 50,000 to 100,000 in the next few years. But even that, he points out, amounts to about two to three farmers per collective farm. Skopin, for example, boasts 26 kolkhoz (collective farms) and five sovkhoz (state farms) with a total population of 29,000 people, but Mr. Yeroshin can only name five people who "expressed a wish to raise cattle." The Skopin farm chairman points to a problem found everywhere in the Soviet Union - an aging population that fears the uncertainties of private farming and youth who prefer to leave. For example, the Druzhba (Friendship) Kolkhoz, a profitable producer of barley seed and beef cattle, has 650 members, some 300 of which are pensioners and only 180 are able workers. "I offered people land but they don't want it," says Druzhba Kolkhoz director Viktor Guskov, sitting in an office decorated with red banners and prizes for surpassing their planned production levels. "Most of the people are over 40 years old and there are not many young people here. The youth all leave." Pressed, he remembers a few young men who rented some cattle a couple of years ago when land leasing began. After a year and half, they went back to being tractor drivers, he says with a shrug. The combination of resistance from the collective farm managers and reluctance from a peasantry that has lost its taste for individual farming, makes privatization a distant proposition, Mr. Zaraev suggests.
Free market distribution Instead, the farms themselves are entering the market as they are forced to seek independence from the collapsing state system. Across the country, collective farm directors are refusing to meet state orders. By mid-October, according to published data, only 38.5 million tons of grain had been purchased by the state out of a planned 85 million tons. This boycott is creating more shortages this winter than the drop in the harvest, which dipped to 165 million tons, compared to an average of almost 200 million tons over the past five years. The system of state orders still functions, in theory requiring collective farms to sell about 70 percent of their production to the state, 40 percent as product tax and 30 percent as state orders in exchange for supplies. In Skopin, the harvest this year amounts to 138,000 tons, down slightly from last year due to drought. Yeroshin denies withholding any grain, claiming to have given 45,000 tons to the state as grain and directing another 50,000 to produce 7,000 to 8,000 tons of beef, of which 5,000 ton s will go to the state. An additional 4,000 tons of grain were sold to the state at three times the state-set price, he says. Those state prices, though higher, are not even close to what the fledgling market economy can offer. The state offers an average price of 444 rubles a ton, but Yeroshin says a factory in Riga and brokers from the growing network of commodity exchanges came to region offering up to 6,000 rubles. He says the farms turned down the offers, preferring to keep their surplus as a reserve for their own use and for trading later. Withholding grain from the state is triggered largely by the collapse of the state-run supply system which no longer can be trusted to provide fuel, equipment, consumer goods and construction materials to the farms. Without guaranteed supplies, and with the value of the ruble dropping daily, collective farms prefer to use their produce to barter for what they need directly from factories and others. Over at the Druzhba farm, which boasts rarities such as indoor plumping and gas stoves in the homes of its members, the director explains how things work these days: "The director of a Chelyabinsk sovkhoz came here to this region and offered [gas] pipes in exchange for seed. We struck a deal: one ton of pipes for five tons of seed." Mr. Guskov received a shipment of lumber on a similar basis. He is getting some trucks, which used to come through the state distribution system, from the Bread Producers As sociation in exchange for grain. Guskov is unprepared for the Russian price liberalization due to start in January, freeing prices from state control on all but a few basic goods. "We are used to being state people," he says. "We don't know how ... they will plan these prices.... If the prices are very high, how will the working class live?" Guskov, who proudly proclaims his allegiance to "Lenin's Communist Party," offers the kind of circular logic which drives reformers in Moscow crazy. "We can't start practicing market relations when the market is empty. The market is good when there is a surplus of production. But we have a total deficit."
Third in a 6-part series. Part 4 on industry appears tomorrow.