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A Farm Of His Own : On The Old Collectives, Private Farmers Are Planting The Seeds Of A New Russia

March 28, 1993|ANN IMSE | Ann Imse is a former Associated Press Moscow correspondent and co-author of "Seven Days that Shook the World: The Collapse of Soviet Communism" (Turner Publishing)

MISHA PASHCHENKO STUFFS THE ROOTS of a pair of cherry saplings into a canvas army rucksack and yanks the drawstring closed. It's a cold spring morning in the rural village of Nedelnoye, 75 miles south of Moscow. Behind Misha stands his small white-trimmed cottage, and across a muddy road, a similar cottage, where he grew up and where his parents still live. Just two years earlier, in 1990, Misha was a KGB major living with his wife and daughters in a Moscow apartment and spying on foreign journalists. Now he has left his family in the city and returned to his home village, as one of the first private farmers in Russia.

Cheeks reddening in the frosty April air, Misha hauls the heavy pack onto his back. Despite its weight, he lifts it easily. He is a strapping 6-foot-3; only his balding head gives away his 40 years. Up since dawn, Misha has already fed the 27 hungry mouths that greet him every morning: 10 goats, 7 sheep, 2 pigs, 7 purebred hunting dogs and a fluffy golden kitten. He has milked his nanny goats, and now he sets out for his cropland, a two-mile hike across the vast state-owned fields that surround Nedelnoye. With every step, the gloppy mud that stopped Napoleon and Hitler sucks at his rubber boots and pulls him halfway to his knees.

Half an hour later, Misha tramps through a dead village, its abandoned cottages gray and collapsing. He points out the remains of the house where he was born, its thatch-and-tar-paper roof caved in, its broken windows patched with layered shards of glass. "I hear some businessman paid 20,000 rubles for it," he says, amazed at the price in these hyper-inflationary times.

Moments later, he halts at the field that is his little piece of Russia. At one corner, there is a half-built, one-room cabin made out of tree trunks sliced vertically into inch-thick slabs. A dozen beehives lead away from the cabin toward a dilapidated truck trailer. Water drains from the lumpy field into a channel Misha has dug around the perimeter. Scarcely a dozen yards away, a creek burbles through straw-colored weeds, a convenient source of water. For now, the creek is the far border of his farmland--all one acre of it.

Misha's miniature operation is the reality of President Boris Yeltsin's grand plan to carve Russia's old, disastrous collectives into private farms. By the first planting season after the disintegration of the old Soviet Union, more than 82,000 Russians got up the nerve to try private farming. Today, they are struggling to obtain land, tractors, tools, seed, animals and know-how. If their dreams fail, Russia could starve, and so could its fledgling democracy.

On this morning, Misha is exhibiting the leap of faith required for his new career. He drops his rucksack in his unfinished cabin and hauls out a shovel to plant cherry trees that won't bear fruit for years.

Later, taking a break in the cabin, Misha sips hot homemade rose-hip tea from a thermos and snacks on smoked fat. As tiny as this plot is, he explains, it produced three tons of potatoes last year, and enough beets, cabbage, tomatoes and cucumbers to feed his family back in Moscow and numerous other relatives. This year, it could be even more productive: He has plans to make a chicken coop out of the beat-up truck trailer, acquired by trading a pair of his pedigreed German hunting pups to a colonel. Fourteen of his animals are newborns, and they will grow into excellent currency for trading--no one sells for rubles these days.

"Already, I'm feeding the family," Misha says. "That's really important now." His wife, Tamara, no longer worries about barren grocery shelves or if the food she serves has been contaminated by Chernobyl radiation or Russia's widespread chemical pollution.

But to make the break from this subsistence level into real farming, Misha needs more land. Just across the creek, he points out a vast, tantalizing meadow. It stretches under a lowering blue sky to a ghostly forest of birch in the distance. It is the land of Misha's dreams.

A few months earlier, Yeltsin had brought the dream closer, by ordering collectives to provide land to private farmers. Around Nedelnoye, that translated to as many as 120 acres per applicant. But what is allowed is not necessarily possible. For one thing, the bureaucracy that stands between Misha and the land is formidable. For another, without the money or the connections to get equipment, how would he work 120 acres?

"Why take the land when I can't get a tractor?" he asks. "I don't want to take the land and put my money and sweat into it, and lose it."

Some of the obstacles facing Misha and the other new farmers are practical, like getting a tractor. But many come from the slave mentality fostered by the Communists. The Communists controlled people through a monopoly on information, and everything was prohibited unless it was specifically allowed. Decades of this has left most Russians with chains not only on their actions but also on their imaginations.

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