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Hunger in Russia's Heartland

Devastating summer drought caused worst grain harvest since 1953. Despite official reassurances, many in impoverished regions fear winter will bring starvation.


PALLASOVKA, Russia — In July the wheat crop failed, roasted alive in the dust as the sun baked the hard earth of Russia's southern steppe to 160 degrees.

Soviet-era collective farms around here lie in ruins, the livestock killed and butchered, barns and dwellings pillaged by scavengers. The local administration of this isolated, semidesert area has run out of cash, and in the largest town, half of the adult population is jobless.

On the threshold of winter, when temperatures on the wind-scoured plains near the Kazakhstan frontier can drop to nearly 40 below, many families have no money and virtually nothing to eat.

Some have resorted to making gruel from cattle fodder, or expect to perish from hunger or lack of fuel. In a macabre coincidence, the movie theater in Pallasovka is featuring a Stephen King horror film, "Thinner."

"Maybe we'll all die in the winter," said Svetlana Karakusheva, a 44-year-old mother raising five children in a rural settlement. Her kitchen garden has become an infertile dust bowl.

Hunger and cold, ancient Russian fears that were supposed to be banished by capitalist abundance, are back to haunt many.

This year's harvest of wheat, rye, barley and other grains, withered by prolonged and fierce drought, was 49.7 million tons, the State Statistics Committee reported Monday. That was the smallest harvest nationwide since 1953, the last year of dictator Josef Stalin's reign. The committee also reported that more than 44 million Russians--30% of the population--last month were living below the poverty line of a meager $37 a month in income.

Government officials have been reassuring a population already jittery because of economic turmoil that the situation is under control and that there is plenty of wheat and other food in storage to feed the nation.

That may well be the macro picture. But the harsh facts of life in the Pallasovka region, 600 miles southeast of Moscow, show that the stomachs of some Russians are far from full and that many fear they will have little or nothing with which to nourish themselves and their families in the months to come.

"If you have money, you won't starve; if you don't, you will have problems, even in Moscow," predicted Andrei Y. Sizov, who runs a think tank in the capital that tracks the country's agricultural output. "To escape social shocks--hunger marches, hunger riots--we've got to take care of matters now."

Late last month, the Russian Red Cross and its international affiliate launched an appeal for $15 million in emergency aid. Millions across Russia--especially the elderly, the disabled, single-parent families, families with many children and rural dwellers--face the most trying winter in a generation, the Red Cross said.

To avert "human catastrophe," the Red Cross targeted 1.4 million people in a dozen regions, from the republic of Buryatia in central Siberia to Kaliningrad on the Baltic coast, as urgent recipients of food parcels, soup kitchen meals, warm clothes and shoes.

'You Can't Exclude Mass Starvation'

"With the indicators we have seen now, the crop failure and the financial crisis, you can't exclude mass starvation," said Borje Sjokvist, head of the Moscow delegation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Those predictions are much more dire than most, and forecasts of cataclysm in Russia have been made before without coming true. But few doubt that nearly seven years after the world's largest country abandoned communism for what was supposed to be the general prosperity of the free market, many people will have to suffer grimly through winter--an ordeal that may well further sap support for post-Soviet changes.

Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov said Wednesday that the government had allocated the sum of $600 million for the purchase of emergency food supplies--enough to feed a third of the population. Earlier this month, he had said he was counting on the private vegetable plots doled out to workers in Soviet times to help feed the populace through the long winter. The Defense Ministry has suggested that military units forage for berries and mushrooms, so soldiers who have not been paid for months don't go hungry.

How miserable life is for some is instantly visible here on the now-defunct Khutor Yesino farm, where 10,000 sheep once grazed.

"There is no coal, no firewood, no work, no money," said Aiman Zukieva, a 41-year-old shepherd's widow frantically trying to raise her two children and a nephew.

The petite Chechen-born woman heats her small brick house by burning sheep dung, and a sympathetic neighbor regularly donates a pail of watery whey--sour milk strained through a sieve--to nourish the youngsters. But it is not enough.

Zukieva keeps 15 chickens and trades eggs for other food. However, she has no feed to tide her fowl through the winter. Her children receive a single slice of bread each for breakfast, and one other scant meal a day. They suffer spells of dizziness.

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