Just behind the glitzy Vegas shopping mall on Moscow's outer ring highway lies a huge island of Soviet socialism, the Lenin Sovkhoz.
This former state farm, with its broad fields growing berries, fruits, and vegetables literally amid the vast apartment blocs and rush hour traffic of outer Moscow, has maintained its collective roots and even prospered as everything around it has changed beyond recognition.
Some deride the place and its members' proud embrace of Soviet ideals and symbols as a "museum." But Farm Director Pavel Grudinin says it's more complicated than that. The survival of the Lenin Sovkhoz is an extraordinary post-Soviet tale of how the new freedoms afforded by capitalism can be harnessed to preserve a way of life that people here say they never wanted to give up.
"It turns out that survival doesn't necessarily go to the strongest, but to the one who can adapt to changing conditions," says Mr. Grudinin. "We have managed. Today ours are the only strawberry fields practically within sight of the Kremlin."
He claims that Lenin Sovkhoz is not so much a remnant of the past as it is a beacon for the future.
"We live quite well here. This is perhaps the way we would all have lived if not for the collapse of the USSR and all that mad privatization that followed," he says.
The5-sq.-mile Lenin Sovkhoz is today the only farm of its kind within 30 miles of Moscow, though just 25 years ago, 11 similar ones were its immediate neighbors.
Russia passed laws in the 1990s aimed at dissolving the country's 27,000 state and collective farms into shareholder societies, while additional legislation 15 years ago allowed the sale of agricultural lands for commercial purposes. Most have since been broken up into private plots, sold off to big agro-concerns or – for those near big cities like Moscow – carved up by real estate interests who bought out their shareholders and resold the land for lucrative urban development.
Today, Russian agriculture is gradually recovering from decades of communist-era torpor and post-Soviet chaos, thanks mainly to systematic state support for private farming over the past decade. The rebound has been impressive. For example, the USSR was once the world's biggest importer of wheat. But today Russia has become wheat's biggest exporter, overtaking traditional leaders like Canada, Australia, and the United States. The war of sanctions and counter-sanctions in recent years, along with the devaluation of the ruble, has further stimulated domestic farming.
But serious bottlenecks and systemic failures remain, largely stemming from the disorderly decollectivization of Soviet farms in the past 25 years.
"Here in Pskov region [western Russia], farming is completely depressed, people are leaving the countryside in droves," says Alexander Konoshenkov, president of the independent Pskov Farmer's Association. "If our state had thought about it soon enough, it might have created conditions for people to stay on the land and develop it. Now restoration would be too expensive. The state and collective farms were doomed because if everything belongs to everybody, there is no sense of personal responsibility."
A socialist enterprise
The Lenin Sovkhoz seems to have squared that circle through good luck, the determination of its members to stick together, and astute management. According to Grudinin, the farm has endured four campaigns by "raiders," or outside investors, who tried to buy up enough members' shares to force the farm's dissolution so it could be repurposed for urban development.
After the first attack, he says, they circled the wagons by concentrating all the shares in the hands of 40 core members. Grudinin says the shares do not yield dividends, which means that no conflicts of interest crop up between the shareholders and the approximately 300 other members of the farm. But under Russian law, that makes the farm a "closed shareholder society," which is a huge legal leap from the industrial state farm it was not too long ago.
"Many different forms of property can co-exist and be effective. If it isn't profitable, it goes bankrupt," says Nabi Avarsky, an expert with the official Russian Institute of Agricultural Economics. "The Lenin Sovkhoz is a successful and well-managed cooperative farm." He says there are other examples of working cooperatives in the world, such as kibbutzim in Israel.
"The management of the Lenin farm, led by its director Grudinin, were able to resist takeover bids and the lure of quick, easy money, and convince their members that by staying together they had better long-term prospects. They have since demonstrated that. I must say that we are surprised about the success of that farm. No wonder the Communist Party is holding it up as a great example," Mr. Avarsky says.
The Lenin farm's proximity to the huge Moscow market has proven a huge advantage; its fresh produce commands premium prices in city supermarkets. It was also able to avoid the debt trap that has ruined so many other Russian farms by hiving off parcels of valuable real estate and selling it for huge sums. About 20 years ago they sold a plot of land next to Moscow's outer-ring highway to Russia's "mall king" Aras Agalarov (of recent Russiagate notoriety) to build the Vegas shopping center, and used the proceeds to buy modern farm equipment. Last year they sold another parcel to the Swedish furniture giant IKEA, and built a school for 600 local children. The farm has also constructed new housing for all its workers, a children's amusement park that attracts visitors from all over Moscow, and many other amenities for its members.
"I could have been a multi-millionaire many times over, if I'd chosen that path," says Grudinin. He insists that, despite having acquired the form of a capitalist company to survive, the farm remains a "socialist enterprise."
"How are we different from all these new businessmen? Well, we do not send our profits offshore or line our personal bank accounts. We invest in development of our own people, and our own farm. We carry out social programs like the school, kindergartens, and medical clinic. We take care of our pensioners and children," he says.
'I feel secure here'
Workers on the farm, most of whom have been there – like Grudinin – since Soviet times, say they like the way things have turned out. The average salary on the farm, about 78,000 rubles ($1,350) per month, is three times the Russian average, while housing, medical care, and children's education is guaranteed.
"I feel secure here. I know I have a place to live, good wages and solid work," says Vladimir Dolgachev, an agronomist who oversees the farm's experimental orchards, where they are developing new strains of apples, pears, and cherries for the Russian market. "More than that, this is the kind of work I studied to do many years ago. So many professional agronomists have had to give it up, become salesmen or computer repairmen, or something, but I'm doing what I want."
The farm has also benefited from the growing wave of Soviet nostalgia that is reshaping Russian perceptions of the past. Politicians, especially from the still-powerful Communist Party, make regular pilgrimages to the farm and stage photo ops amid its Soviet-like surroundings.
"The days are gone when Russians think imported goods mean high quality. Nowadays nostalgia is a great marketing tool. People want to have a 'taste of the USSR,' and the Lenin Sovkhoz has certainly benefited from this," says Svetlana Barsukova, an expert with the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "Another recent trend is to promote Russian producers who are feeding the country with pure, Russian products. Opinion polls show that 90 percent of people, given a choice between similar equally priced Russian and Western products, would choose the Russian one."
Grudinin argues it's about much more than that.
"The future is with popular enterprises like this," he says. "All the world is headed this way. The inequalities between rich and poor lead to explosions. Russia has had its own history lessons about this, and more and more people are realizing that we have to find a different path."