Reporting from Moscow — In what some claim is the result of a lethal mixture of poultry and politics, 400,000 baby chicks have been put to death this week at a central Russian farm, an additional 600,000 have died of malnutrition and the lives of 3 million more chickens remain imperiled.
Farm owner Alexander Chetverikov, a Russian parliament member, says political foes have "targeted my company," forcing it into bankruptcy over a $190,000 tax debt.
"We can't afford to feed the chickens any more, as we have no money, and we will continue to eliminate the remaining 3 million chickens if the unfair bankruptcy situation is not eased and the state doesn't come to our rescue," said Dmitry Noskov, spokesman for the Krasnaya Polyana poultry farm in the Kursk region.
Chetverikov, from the Just Russia Party, said officials of the United Russia-run regional government have been out to get him because he led an anticorruption campaign on behalf of regional businessmen two years ago. "Since then, they were looking for a possibility to settle their political and personal scores with me," he said.
Government officials disagree, saying Chetverikov is trying to turn his financial and management failings into a political issue.
"The owner of the farm is to blame himself for the farm's problems," Viktor Alyoshechkin, deputy head of the Zheleznogorsk district administration, said in a phone interview with The Times. "Instead of resolving the economic issues, he deliberately politicized the conflict, incited the workers and organized a demonstration."
The protest, in front of the district administration headquarters, was staged after the farm's electricity was switched off for a day last month for nonpayment. Later in November, masked riot police raided the farm's administrative building.
Authorities agree that the closure of the farm and the death of its remaining chickens — before they grow big enough to be slaughtered for food — would prove a major economic blow to the rural region. The farm employs 1,700 workers, mostly women, and its tax payments make up more than one-third of the local budget.
This week, farm workers sobbed as they dumped hundreds of thousands of baby broilers into rusty metal barrels, where they would quickly freeze to death in the snow-filled farm fields.
Water was later poured into the barrels to cover the bodies before they were taken to a nearby aviation plant to be processed into waste. By Thursday morning, the incubator was completely empty and its lights turned off, at a farm that has accounted for 13,000 to 15,000 tons of poultry meat a year, about 55% of the region's poultry production.
Russia already depends on imports for at least 70% of its food and 90% of medicine, said Gennady Gudkov, another Just Russia parliament member, in an interview with The Times. "Killing our own farms the way they kill Krasnaya Polyana now, we will very soon end up eating only the 'Bush legs' they don't want in America," he added, referring to frozen chicken legs from the United States that started being imported into Russia under President George H.W. Bush.
The farm's operators say they are trying to sell off their remaining stock of poultry, even giving some away free to farm workers. But that's a lot of chickens for a rural area with fewer than 19,000 people.
On Thursday afternoon, farm officials sought in vain to reach Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on a call-in TV show during which he took questions for more than four hours from the general public. In the end, they sent an open letter to President Dmitry Medvedev.
"This is the first time I've heard of this problem," Vasily Mezhevikin, head of the Russian Agriculture Ministry's food industry department, said in an interview with The Times. "I don't understand why they are killing their poultry and not selling it to the population as they should."
In coming days, the farm plans to lay off 220 workers as it prepares for liquidation. Svetlana Grivko, 50, a mother of two who has run the farm's incubator, said she cried at the death of the chicks. "It was breaking my heart seeing the little ones die like this in the frost," she said. "We worked round the clock to keep them healthy and comfortable and now we are killing them with our own hands."
The farm workers, who were making $300 to $400 a month, will have a difficult time finding other jobs, Grivko said. "Killing the birds means killing our jobs."