Grass-Roots Leaders in Russia Embrace Change
SHELL shocked by rapid changes, Russia is a country in psychological depression. Many Russians are passive and barely coping with day-to-day life. While Boris Yeltsin is important to the success of overall reform, so are the grass-roots leaders who are embracing private initiative. These nuts-and-bolts leaders are trying to cast off 75 years of mismanagement. Undaunted by continuing bad economic news, they are squarely facing change, and they need our help.
After driving past the small grimy towns of Lenin and Marx along the Volga River, we met one of these people, an energetic former senior communist who was recently hired as manager of the Sokol Farm. With advice from a successful Minnesota farm couple, he reorganized the farm into 13 small agribusinesses and 12 individual holdings. He linked up the former collective with a defense electronics firm to gain investment capital in exchange for supplying the plant's employees with quality produce. He reflecte d ruefully that he had wasted his most fertile years in communism and wants to produce concrete improvements in farm life and enterprise. He expects to work himself out of a job in two years, when the transition to profitable private ownership is complete.
Another leader of 8,000 private farmers in the Saratov region left a senior management position in a military firm in 1990. A United States volunteer is helping him assess antiquated crushing equipment for sunflower seeds to produce higher quality oil for a US joint venture in popcorn. He told of painstakingly training himself to take the initiative by looking into the mirror and asking his "boss" what he should do today. Neither of these private farm leaders have an agricultural background.
A few Moscow professors and students have formed Russia's first national consumer advocacy group. Wizards of media, they are publishing a magazine like Consumer Reports, advocating consumer protection laws and promoting consumer cooperatives and credit unions. Meanwhile, US credit-union staff are helping strengthen newly formed credit unions in Suzdal and St. Petersburg. The group's strategy is to work with regional and local governments to pass model credit-union laws, creating pressure for national leg islation. In a country where consumers are daily abused or ignored, have no recourse for faulty products, and have few places to save, these leaders are helping to start a grass-roots movement based on existing informal mutual-aid groups.
A banker in Podolsk near Moscow is receiving advice from seven top US farm- credit specialists on how to transform his bank into a central institution with branch offices to provide credit to Russia's 120,000 struggling private farmers. His is the only bank owned by private farmers' groups. He told us no one tells him "no" or "yes," so he just figures out how to move ahead on his own.
The elected head of a national research institute in Pushchino is a leading world scientist in the use of bacteria to detoxify polluted soils. He is creating high-tech commercial ventures and reorganizing his staff into a university to qualify for additional grants. He is helped by two US land-grant universities and a major California fruit and vegetable cooperative. He said the scientists under him support the idea of change, but not for themselves. One said that all he wants from a joint venture is eno ugh money to feed his family and to go on doing research.
LIKE plants sprouting in the cracks of a sidewalk, these leaders have made the complex mental shift toward initiative and self-reliance. They are under extraordinary pressure, working against the inertia, passivity, and fear inculcated by the old system. Given the Russian saying that "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down," their courage in exercising initiative in these uncertain times is awesome.
Organizations in Russia may at first look like those in the West, but they are built on different rationale and motivations. Banks are designed to disburse soft government credits and to collect private savings for government use while providing little interest, despite 2,000 percent annual inflation. So-called employee cooperatives are built on taking free goods from state supplies for private gain. US advisors need to delve deep into underlying assumptions before making recommendations. Our most useful
people-to-people help is encouragement, moral support, dialogue, and information on alternative ways to establish private operations.
Our task is to help these new grass-roots leaders reorder their country's rich human and natural resources. Our aid should help them imagine, create, and organize transitional and nascent organizations that promote private initiative and nurture trust. Countering the legacies of passivity and a dysfunctional economic system will take all the courage, patience, and energy these leaders can muster.