AS a horse pulls a crude wooden sled stacked with hay through a dairy barn in this log-house village near the Volga River, Nina Stafyerova delivers good news and bad news for free-market reform in Russia.
On one hand, private ownership is working here so far: Ms. Stafyerova says that since her farm collective privatized two years ago, her earnings have improved, managers listen better, and her colleagues care more about their work.
Yet she voted for the Communists in Dec. 17 parliamentary elections, and she is likely to vote Communist for president in June - although their platform would bar this kind of privatization.
Like most Russians on farms far from Moscow, she knows nothing of the decree President Boris Yeltsin signed in March to speed the kind of land reform that made her a capitalist. She complains instead of the growing social disorder of the Yeltsin years: crime, hooliganism, and drinking.
The 12 million Russians living on some 26,000 collective farms theoretically have had ownership rights to their land and equipment since at least 1993. But only a handful of collectives - about 120 - have actually divided up their holdings and created real owners.
Three-quarters of the privatized farms have been in this province surrounding Nizhny Novgorod, where a reform-minded governor offers state credits to newly privatized farms.
The earliest farms to privatize, including the one here in Mogiltsy where Stafyerova milks cows, have a two-year track record that shows they are more profitable and pay higher wages compared with their collective neighbors.
"Their leaders have become businessmen," says Vassily Uzun of the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Moscow, who has studied the farms for the World Bank's International Finance Corporation.
The Communist-dominated Russian parliament is working on a land code that would allow collectives to privatize, but only by becoming corporations. By contrast, Mr. Yeltsin's new decree establishes individual owners with full rights to keep, lease, or sell land, and requires collectives to privatize by the end of this year.
Few experts who work with the farm sector believe that Yeltsin's deadline will be met. Most collectives will probably wait out the elections in June rather than relying on a Yeltsin decree that may be overturned if a Communist wins the presidency.
But if even 20 or 30 percent of Russia's collectives are parceled out to private owners in 1996, "it would be a huge step," says Mr. Uzun. And once collective workers become owners, he says, the land-code draft now in parliament would not pass "because the people themselves will be against it."
To Communists and their Agrarian Party allies, post-Soviet reform has devastated Russian agriculture, and Yeltsin's decree will only disintegrate it further.
As production has shifted from collective state farms to private farms, it has dropped as sharply as during Stalin's forced collectivization in the early 1930s, says Anatoly Shutkov, director of the Agriculture Academy. Pig production, for example, dropped by 68 percent from 1930 to 1933, and by 69 percent from 1990 to 1995.
Government figures are tricky in Russia, however. Yuri Chernichenko, chairman of the Peasant Party of Russia and a reform advocate, notes that 1,780 pigs were listed in the private sector in the southern Russian village of Kalinovka recently. But when veterinarians took enough vaccinations there for 5,000 pigs, they used them up and had to request 5,000 more. So private herds may be grossly underestimated in official statistics.
BUT production has plainly fallen dramatically, as Russian agriculture adjusts to market economics.
Nina Stafyerova worked as a milkmaid for 10 years at the Pravdinskaya collective farm before it divided into 11 private enterprises in late 1993. Like most new peasant owners, she leased her portion of the land (a little less than 15 acres) and her shares back to one of the new enterprises and became an employee there as well.
The director of her enterprise, Vladimir Gusev, was the chief accountant at the old collective. Last year, he turned a profit while raising wages to an average of a little over $70 per month - good by local standards. This year will be tougher, because costs for diesel fuel and electricity rose by 2-1/2 times, equipment and tool prices rose more, while milk prices rose only 40 percent.
He has cut costs by trimming his work force, mostly through attrition. And he has found a way around selling to the monopoly milk factory by opening three stores in empty buildings he found. There, he sells the farm's milk and beef, and other groceries, at retail prices. All the farm's profits now come from these stores.
In another village a few miles away, the ruddy-cheeked members of a local collective crowd into a small theater. There, they hear potential leaders of new enterprises make their pitch to these soon-to-be landowners. Retired pensioners as well as teachers and nurses will get some land, along with current workers of at least three years standing.
In a month, after the soil all over the collective has been rated for quality, the members will use their certified shares to bid for specific plots in an auction. Most will then lease their land to one of the new enterprises.
But collective members ask sharp questions about terms of leases and assuming debts. Privatization is a last hope here. Salaries have not been paid for six months, and equipment is falling apart.
"It worries me," says garage chief Alexander Maslanikov. "I don't see any prospects in these leaders." Wrestling with whether to lead an enterprise himself, he adds: "It can't go on like this."