Travels with a Hungry Bear: a Journey to the Russian Heartland
By Mark Kramer
320 pp., $24.95
In the final years of communism, a substantial share of Russian bread was baked from American grain.
There's no natural reason, no limitation set by soil and weather, why the former Soviet Union can't feed itself. Before the Bolshevik revolution, it was even a major grain exporter to Europe. Politics killed that golden goose. For more than three generations since, Russian farms have struggled to eke marginal production from a thoroughly politicized collective system of agriculture.
Mark Kramer is a curious and well-informed explorer of this territory. His new book, "Travels With a Hungry Bear," is not a theoretical or a political book on Russian agriculture. It is much easier to take than that. Rather it is more a travelogue through the gigantic farms, dairies, and meat processing plants that have industrialized the Russian countryside with perpetually pitiable results.
His encounters add up to a very clear, very full, very human picture of how Soviet communist practicalities, politics, and even personal convictions undercut and defeated over and over any attempt at innovation or noticeable progress.
It is a different end of the story of the collapse of the Soviet Union from the one usually told, one that takes place far from dramatic events in Moscow.
In the countryside, it is not failed coups that herald the fall of the Soviet Union, but another patch of spotted leaves indicating misapplied fertilizer. He meets and humanizes, to some extent, even the most maddening bureaucrats. He chronicles the heroic feats of personal force, personal connections, and cheating within the system required by the always hearty, always beefy collective chairmen to reach productivity levels even half those of the American Midwest.
What makes Kramer's view interesting as he explores the gray heart of Soviet farming is that he knows American agriculture so well. He worked on farms in his 20s, and the farm has been his main subject as a writer. He knows what a wheat or cornfield looks like in Iowa and how much it produces; how dairy cattle are bred and fed in Wisconsin.
What he sees in the former Soviet Union is not just different. It is worse, in every way conceivable. Even the show farms, the ones with the best management and the best access to equipment and supplies, produced at a fraction of the level of the average Iowa family farm.
The odd aspect of the book is that it is not as current as it might be. Kramer's last trip to Russia was in 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the central authority in Moscow that both stifled and supported the Soviet collectives was fast losing its grip but no new system had taken root yet.
The main change is simply that the old system has fallen into deeper decay in a highly uncertain political climate that could turn in any direction on any day. Yet collectives gone private now number in the hundreds, and some are beginning to end-run the constrictions of the old Soviet system of one state supplier and one state market at one state price.
But Kramer's book is worth reading for what it is, which is recent history, especially because so many Russians in the countryside are yearning to return to that responsibility-free way of life.
Local sensibilities are formed around the same ideology.
A worker on a collective farm north of Moscow rented some land, some of the worst dairy cows, and a dilapidated barn from his collective in exchange for the right to strive for productivity and profit. He worked around the clock and raised productivity per cow by 30 percent within months. But the envy of fellow workers was roused. They dumped manure on his fields.
At the end of the first year, a new collective chairman forced him out of business. His profits, the chairman explained, were socially disruptive because they were improper. The collective, which was not meeting productivity quotas even with better cows, took over again.
Marshall Ingwerson is a Monitor correspondent based in Moscow.