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Missing the Good Old Soviet Days

Reforms devastated many farms. But some residents, yearning for stability, will vote Putin.

March 08, 2004|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

KOLTSOVO, Russia — The former milkmaid spoke wistfully of the Communist-run farm where she lived in what she considered prosperity.

"The collective was so rich," recalled Alexandra Zelenskaya, now 64 and bundled against the winter cold in her barely heated home. "It had sleds and horses, and we would ride those sleds. There was manure for the fields, and everything was planted on time. There were a lot of cows and we had a lot of water."

Those simple days are a thing of the past. After the collective was converted into a company a decade ago, a rich Moscow businessman got control of the land. That's how it was with post-Soviet reforms: Some won, some lost. The people in this dying village lost.

"Now there are no cows and there's almost no water," Zelenskaya said. She and her common-law husband, Anatoly Grachyov, 53, must carry buckets of water several hundred yards up a hillside from a spring, although this village was equipped with pipes and running water decades ago. The village pump was stolen after the collective was dismantled, and it's never been replaced, Grachyov said.

Still, no one here thinks they can turn the clock back, and there's no stomach for even trying. Somehow, even the losers in the dramatic changes that have swept Russia seem to be accepting the new realities -- although they would welcome a renewed sense of stability and security.

So as President Vladimir V. Putin heads toward an expected landslide victory in his March 14 bid for reelection, he will have the enthusiastic support of this couple, who show little but contempt for his five rivals -- even the Communist nominee, whose party these days has considerable backing from big business.

"We will vote for Putin with both hands, and with our legs too if we can," Grachyov said.

"He's a very good man," Zelenskaya added. "He increased our pensions."

Grachyov continued: "The Communists have changed. That's why it's not right to vote for the Communists. We know what real Communists are."

Some in the village, like Alexander Kondrashov, 49, say they will boycott the balloting.

"I haven't seen anyone who would be good," he said.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, about 30 people lived in this village 125 miles southwest of Moscow, but now only 17 remain, Kondrashov said. He blames the downward spiral on the reformers who tried to remake Russia into a capitalist democracy.

"The so-called democrats have destroyed the country," he said, "and put so many people on the edge of survival."

Destruction came swiftly once Communist control of the farm ended, Grachyov said. "Everything was stolen and disappeared," he said, adding that tractors were even being disassembled for their parts. Now he earns about $25 a month as a watchman, working for the company that owns the land. But there's nothing to keep an eye on except an empty cattle shed, he said.

"Once in a while I just stroll to the shed to take a look that everything is fine there," he said. "We're just hoping for a lucky break, that nothing is stolen. But there's nothing to steal anyway."

The village is dying partly because the nearby fields were not particularly good ones, and when the collective was disbanded they weren't plowed, which allowed trees to establish themselves.

"Birch trees and poplars are growing there now," Grachyov said. "It's a real shame. We'll find ourselves living in the middle of a forest before long."

Vasily Kabanchenko, an official of the UGRA joint-stock company, the successor firm to the collective, said it was farming about 70% of the arable land. He confirmed that the rest was overgrown with trees, which would need to be cut for farming to resume.

"We have not been able to get to this yet," he said.

The changes haven't been universally bad. Thanks in part to more businesslike farming practices, Russia has enjoyed exceptionally good grain harvests in recent years, despite a decline in the area of land under cultivation. That is no comfort, however, to those who have lost their livelihoods.

In the nearby hamlet of Nikola-Lenivets, former tractor driver Ivan Sokolov, 50, is the only permanent resident left. His last neighbor, a woman, died four years ago.

A few Moscow artists have built holiday dachas in the hamlet, breathing in a whisper of new life and bringing occasional odd jobs. He likes it that the newcomers managed to get the road paved, and he likes the sense of a link to the capital. But, "of course it's a sad thing that the collective farm collapsed," he said.

Sokolov too will vote for Putin: "He's a young man. He's well educated. Who else is there to choose?

"I don't think the old times can be brought back," he added. "It's no use. It's a waste of time. If you attempt to bring the old times back, it will take another revolution to do it, another coup. I don't know any forces capable of doing that. And I wouldn't want it to come back. Why would I want a revolution?"

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