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Flowers on a dung heap: markets, politicians and the demise of Russian rural life

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The economic and political transformations of the 1990s onwards have allowed much of the Russian countryside to die a slow death. Roman Yushkov and Vassily Moseyev ventured out of the city to examine the extent of the dilapidation and deterioration of rural life in their native Perm region.

Roman Yushkov Vassily Moseyev
26 January 2012

We both spend a lot of time in rural parts of our native Perm region, as well as in other parts of the country. We spend time outside the city for work and we travel around the region because we have friends and family who live in the countryside. But every year these trips into the countryside become more and more difficult to bear.

The deterioration of rural Russia is a painful sight. Fields have turned into wastelands of giant hogweed and sapling trees. Decaying cottages sag into the ground. Most of them are empty, but there are still some that show signs of habitation.

Rusted bars and ruined concrete slabs are all that remain of the abandoned farm buildings and the locals go around looking tired and apathetic, with any gleam of hope having left their eyes long ago. It is difficult to have a conversation with them because they ask you, as a sophisticated city-dweller, hard questions, to which the answer is either impossible to know or so difficult to deliver that it catches in your throat.

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The area of farmland in the Perm region has reduced dramatically since the early 1990s. Much of what 
remains has been taken over by giant hogweed or new trees.
(Photo: Roman Yushkov, all rights reserved)

People on the edge of worthlessness

The rural communities and industries of the Perm region are fairly typical of those in most other Russian provinces. While the steppe here was never the breadbasket of Russia, in Soviet times rye and vegetables were successfully grown in the region around the Kama River and there was a thriving beef and dairy industry. The land was rich enough to support a developing society. Nowadays, however, the dilapidated agricultural sector in this area is repeated in regions right across the country.

Almost half a million people have left the rural parts of the Perm region since the end of the Soviet Union twenty years ago. Most of them are young people. This exodus has been catastrophic for an area with a population of only 2.5 million. The region shows tens of thousands of tragic sacrifices to new, Russian capitalism.

The cities were not ready to accommodate the influx of people from the countryside. There is no employment or housing for them. Only loneliness and alienation awaits them in the city, which is a far cry from the tight social networks which they left behind in the villages. Most of them end up in crowded, filthy boarding houses on the edges of town and many of them turn to crime and prostitution for survival.

Staying in the countryside is not an alternative. The deadly emptiness and sense that nothing is ever going to happen is the worst kind of existence. 1,500 villages and small towns in the area are officially ‘dying out’. Post-Soviet economic reforms have left the infrastructure of the area in a post-war condition. Schools and kindergartens close down with alarming regularity and of the remaining 600 schools in the area, 468 of are literally crumbling to pieces. In the past 15 years, around 200 hospitals and clinics and 300 midwifery and paramedic units have been closed down in Perm’s rural areas. Rural paramedics have dwindled by 30 percent in the region.

The majority of remaining inhabitants of the countryside are old women. Only a handful of nuclear families remain. A few old collective farms remain from the Soviet era but they too are on their last legs, powered by nothing but a few old, dilapidated combine harvesters. Workers on the collective farms earn less than 2,000 roubles a month (under €50), a pittance far beneath any minimum wage threshold, but even these jobs are in demand. In the Perm region, the number of people laid off from jobs in the agricultural sector is 10,000 times the number of people still employed in the industry.

People buy food on credit because nobody has any hard cash. Of course many resort to alcohol as a way of coping with these circumstances. Alcohol is easy to get hold of if you are prepared to drink the cheapest kind of methylated spirit that is made available by criminal gangs who distribute alcohol throughout the whole area. The chemicals in this poison destroy the men who resort to drinking it; you can see the alcohol wreaking havoc on them as soon as they fall into the trap of addiction.

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Old women make up the majority of
native village residents, who have been
deemed by some to be 'economically 
passive and static'. (Photo: Roman
Yushkov, all rights reserved)

This particular phenomenon inspires some social analysts to suggest that the Russian, Udmurt and Komi-Permyak people of rural Perm are doomed, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. This theory is particularly pertinent when these populations are compared with the Chinese and Tadjik peoples of the region, who seem to be thriving. Their relative success is attributed to their ability to move from one town to another to look for work. They are more adaptable and have a culture of looking after one another within their communities, which helps them survive in difficult conditions.

Analysts believe that the people who are native to the area are too static and paternalistic; they are too passive and don’t have a competitive nature. We would suggest that if our people are less robust and more dependent on the state, then shouldn’t we give them work, provide hospitals and subject them to prohibition laws? ‘But why?’, the economic experts retort. ‘These people are hopeless cases.’ Our free-market experts are not ashamed of subscribing to social Darwinism.

Tales of an uprooted spud

For each rouble that is spent in the Perm region on food, only 9 kopeks go towards products that are produced in Russia. This statistic is extraordinary when you consider that almost one quarter of the population of the region (680,000 people) still live on agricultural land. In 1991, just before the economic reforms were brought in, the total area of farmland in the region amounted to almost two million hectares. Now only 800,000 hectares remain. 650,000 hectares of this abandoned farmland is no longer tillable because it has been overgrown by forests. The area of arable land and the head-count of cattle are steadily decreasing. The agricultural yield of the region is at its lowest in 20 years.

The fate of Russia’s ‘second bread’, the humble potato, is indicative of the trend throughout the agricultural sector. The potato has been declared a priority by the region’s authorities because it is so easy to grow in Russia’s earth and climate. However, the area of land devoted to this crop has been cut by almost 4 percent, to 4,000 hectares. The pitiful yield amounts to 95 hundredweight for every hectare (just under 5 tonnes). This yield of spuds could barely feed the inhabitants of the region.

Analysts believe our native rural dwellers are too static, passive and uncompetitive. We would suggest that those who are more dependent on the state should be given work and access to healthcare. ‘But why?’, the economic experts retort. ‘These people are hopeless cases.’

Common land for the cultivation of vegetables has been cut by five percent and greenhouse cultivation, an industry that had never been fully developed here, has effectively disappeared. The same could be said for dairy farming. The cattle count in the area has diminished by one third and meat-producing animals have been reduced by the same amount. Production of cattle and poultry feed has also been destroyed because of the reduction of grain harvests by over a third.

Nataliya Estemirova

Perm region is witnessing a steady decrease in the numbers
of cattle, while agricultural yield is the lowest it has been for
20 years. (Photo: Roman Yushkov, all rights reserved)

It would be unfair to say that the region’s authorities have ignored the agricultural sector. In the past several years there have been many initiatives to develop the industry. Projects have been introduced that approve the procurement of new farm machinery, job creation and the provision of accommodation that would attract agricultural experts to the region, but not one of these projects have been followed through. 5.5 billion roubles have been bankrolled for one such project that was drawn up over three years between 2007 and 2010, but official records show that 42% of this sum never left the city. Not one official in has been punished for this evaporation of funds.

When the rural people hear about this fraud, they begin to get sentimental for the Stalinist era, and who can blame them? Not one of the regeneration reforms has managed to put a halt to the shrinking of croplands and cattle herds, or the decline of healthcare and education in rural areas.

Anyone who grew up in a Communist country will understand the sentiment, ‘he who doesn’t work, shouldn’t eat’. This aphorism holds true whether or not you have been given work to do. In Russia, the consumption of milk has gone down by 40% since 1990, vegetables by 26%, fruit by 32% and fish by 44%. At the same time, 40% of the food consumed by Russians today is imported. The quality of this food is a subject for a different discussion but suffice to note that our quibble with food standards goes far beyond the European concerns about genetically modified corn and soya. In Perm it is an open secret that our meat production plants make salamis from criminally-imported by-products of kangaroo meat that has been deep frozen for years.

The Soviet authorities received a good deal of criticism for not providing sufficient food production in the country, but 20 years later, there is three times as little food production as there was before the reforms. The country now subsists on the sale of oil, gas and mineral fertilizers and it is clear from what we see on the shelves of our grocery stores, that Russia is helping the agricultural sectors of Argentina, Brazil, Denmark, China and the US. It is obvious that we have lost all consumer security in Russia and that our dependence on foreign food products is higher than recommended norms elsewhere. Food deliveries could be embargoed at any moment and food prices could skyrocket to the point where oil money will lose its purchasing power. After all, analysts tell us that global food supplies are decreasing.

We were told to collect birch twigs

Let’s pause here to remember how we got ourselves into this situation in the first place.

During the Perestroika years, there was a lot of heated discussion about the ‘peasant question’. The reformists insisted that the peasantry had become cut off from the land, that they had no access to authority and that they were no longer able to reap the rewards of their labour. The collective farms were called ‘Agro-gulags’ and the slogan ‘give the farmer back his land and he will feed the nation!’ was bandied about with aplomb.

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A meeting of Perm's Economic Forum. Are free-market economists writing off the lives of rural dwellers?(Photo: perm.ru, all rights reserved)

By the time public opinion had been sufficiently primed, the president, Boris Yeltsin, announced that the collective farms were institutions of the past and his words were quickly realised by a few regulatory adjustments. This is how easily the nation’s entire agricultural sector came apart. The State rationed out allotments of land to peasants, who had grown up and worked in Soviet conditions and had no idea what to do with private land. They inevitably sold off their plots for peanuts.

Did the farmer feed the nation in the end? At first many people rushed to join the new agricultural sector. Even city folk left for the countryside. They took out loans and bought seeds and cattle, but their euphoria quickly turned to despair as fuel prices increased and they began to feel pressure from tax collectors and racketeers.  The number of farmers diminished dramatically. They now produce less than 3% of the country’s grain yield and less than 2% of its meat and dairy produce. We are seldom reminded of these embarrassing figures by the authorities.

The mass de-collectivisation of agriculture that took place in the 1990s under the slogan ‘The market will regulate itself and solve all our problems!’ smacked of the worst kind of Bolshevism.

In the 1990s many economic experts were already warning that the aggressive introduction of agricultural reforms would lead to the inevitable collapse of the industry. They pointed out that private farming was not necessarily the way forward; that in the US, 80% of the country’s produce comes from large, industrialised farms. Unfortunately the radical free-market ideology promoted by the west proved more tantalising to Russia’s reformers than common sense. The remaining collective farms that struggle for existence in the Perm region do, in fact, produce a high yield in comparison to the private farming sector.

In the early nineties a group of market economists were invited to Perm to advise on the development of a new agricultural project in the climate of Russia’s economic reforms. We clearly remember how their conclusions shocked the local journalists at the time. They suggested that the sphere of meat, grain and potato production should be radically decreased and that technical agriculture, such as the harvesting of flax, should be shut down completely. It seemed to us that these proposals made no sense in terms of the financial stability of our region.

‘What will the million-strong rural population of the region do?’ The journalists demanded. ‘Well, they can preserve berries and pickle mushrooms and collect birch twigs for the banya’, was the response. ‘They could even work on some kind of traditional crafts’, added the team’s head, the well-known free-market reformer, Yevgeny Serov.

Perm’s press corps just laughed at these suggestions at the time, unable to believe that they should be taken seriously. Who in their right mind would give up their fields and their cows? 20 years later, nobody is laughing. Those who wanted to put an end to ‘ineffective’ collective farming as quickly as possible, succeeded admirably.

The mass de-collectivisation of agriculture that took place in the 1990s was steam-rolled across the country with a sensitivity that can only be described as Bolshevik. The reformers did not hesitate or tarry in their mission and they certainly didn’t refer to public opinion or established industrial practices. Even their primitive slogan, ‘The market will regulate itself and solve all our problems!’, smacked of the worst kind of Bolshevism. This was exactly how collectivisation was foisted on the people in the 1930s, but the results of those reforms were far less disastrous.

In today’s climate of spin and PR, our leaders are under pressure to demonstrate success. Our governors and ministers now appear on television with ostriches and roses. An exotic little ostrich farm and some rose plantations are all that they have to show for new agriculture in the region. The leaders of Russian reform conceal their shame with feathers and flower petals.

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