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Only Misery Flourishes on Land of Russia's 'New Serfs'

Economy: Withdrawal of support for collective farms has worsened the lot of rural poor. Harvests are shrinking.


SYRKINO, Russia — The only crop in the fields is abandoned tractors rusting in the snow. The workers have not yet been paid the pittance they earned in November. Whole villages have emptied, rotted away or burned.

Whichever way he turns, "Uncle Kolya" Suslov can see only five or six sagging log homesteads, huddled between birch trees, where local people from his former collective farm are still struggling to force a living from the soil.

"Almost everything that we used to have on the farm has been wiped from the face of the Earth," Suslov says. "And what can we do? Nothing."

The misery of the vast Volga farm, about 100 miles north of Moscow, is the bitter fruit of post-Soviet agricultural reform begun five years ago by President Boris N. Yeltsin.

To his bewilderment, Suslov finds himself caught up in a giant social experiment. More than half a century after he grew up amid the cruelties of Soviet farm collectivization and the hunger and suffering of World War II, the weathered 68-year-old is now living through "forced decollectivization."

Agricultural reform's most visible result has been to create a new underclass of rural poor, tied to the land because they have no money to leave, with little more hope of freedom or well-being than their serf ancestors had more than a century ago.

"Now we have private property and democracy, but they haven't brought us anything except pain and poverty," farm director Nikolai D. Zhadkin says.

In one way, the "new serfs" of post-Soviet Russia are even worse off than their forebears, slaves who were tied to their masters' lands by feudal laws that, until 1861, deprived them of citizenship.

Under the czars, the countryside teemed with villagers, to the point where overcrowding was considered a problem. When the serfs suffered, they suffered in the company of families and friends.

But the survivors of this century's experimentation are watching the slow death of their agricultural system in increasing isolation. Anyone with the wit, the courage or the cash to escape fled to town long ago.

"There's no one left to do the work. Everyone's scattered. All the old folk have died, and city people have bought up half their homes as holiday cottages, and the rest of the houses have burned down. Even my children and grandchildren have all run off," Suslov says.

There has been no official census since Soviet days, but a U.N. report published in 1994, titled "World Urbanization Prospects," showed the Russian Federation's rural population dropping 1.5 million between 1985 and 1990, then shrinking an additional 3.5 million--from 38.5 million to 35 million--between the 1991 Soviet collapse and the report's projected figure for 1995.

The original idea behind the 1992 farm reform by Yeltsin's government was to kill off the pernicious Soviet state farming bureaucracy, which was strangling free enterprise in the countryside. Peasants would be given the chance to buy land and become private farmers.

Those who stayed on the giant collective and state farms of old times would see them transformed into modern free-market enterprises in which they would all have a share but that would henceforth be known as joint-stock companies.

But the reform was so badly thought out that it never brought the hoped-for flowering of new rural initiatives.

Loans were hard to come by, farm equipment and fertilizer even more so. Because the law still made it impossible for private farmers to sell any land they took on if they ran into financial trouble, hardly anyone wanted to take the risk of buying--about 95% of farmland in Russia is not in private hands.

Land privatization, a fashionable topic in the early post-Soviet years, has been eclipsed by more pressing problems. Yeltsin did not even mention it in his annual state of the nation address March 6.

Harvests shrink and shrink. Russia's 1996 grain harvest was 76 million tons, just a touch above 1995's 69 million--the worst harvest in three decades. In 1994, Russia produced 89 million tons, while back in the Soviet days of 1990, its output was 128 million. Imports of wheat, rye and flour grow every year, and the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences issued a report Sunday noting that agricultural operations nationwide posted losses last year of almost $3 billion.

The renamed state farms are in dire straits.

They no longer receive fat Soviet-style state subsidies, equipment or salaries. Thrown back on their own resources, they now pay their workers out of the money they earn from selling their produce to factories.

But the factories are caught in a vicious nationwide cycle of debt, and few of them have the cash to pay farms for their grain, meat and milk.

The Volga farm got its last tractor six years ago. It has been unable to afford new equipment since.

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