Farmer Learns to Live by Rule of Armed Force

In a southern region of Russia I was on a train for almost 24 hours with a group of farmers. I asked them why they were having such hard times. They were not eager to answer. One of them advised me: "There is a gas-works engineer, a former farmer, who is spending the night in town at the hotel. Ask him. Perhaps he will talk to you."

I found the former farmer. Alexei, as he asked to be called, had been a kolkhoz, or collective farm, engineer before he started private farming. He took out a bank loan and built a small pig farm around his parents' house.

One evening he was eating dinner with his wife and son when Chernysh, their dog, began barking at three unexpected late guests. The conversation took place on the porch.

"Here is what is involved. We won't take a large cut," a man in a leather cap explained to Alexei. "On average we get 20 percent of the profits."

"What profits?" Alexei responded before fully taking in the situation. "I've only just begun."

"You took out loans," they answered. "We'll start with them."

Alexei drove to the regional police station the next morning. Just as he had gone to see the chief, he noticed he was being followed. The man holding the familiar leather cap smiled at him and left. Alexei started to describe the extortion attempt.

"Did the neighbors witness the incident?" the police officer asked. "No? Was the conversation recorded?" he continued. "Then how are we to search for the racketeers?"

"What is there to look for?" Alexei responded. "That's one of them. The person with the leather cap who just left."

"What are you taking about?" said the police chief. "Do you want to end up in jail for slander?"

Alexei returned to his car to find his four wheels had been punctured. When he arrived home, he found his dog had been shot. "They came again," his wife explained feverishly. "The one in the leather cap killed Chernysh. Now they've doubled the sum."

Alexei began by selling his tractor to pay them off. Then he slaughtered the flock, leaving only the mother pigs. Still, he barely met his payments. It was then that he started to engage in shady business dealings. He went around to factories to buy what he needed from the workers -- most often nails that had been stolen. Alexei would then bring the nails to the Moscow suburbs where New Russians were building their cottages. He used the proceeds from the nails to buy Snickers, running shoes and leather coats, which he would resell to kiosks back home.

At the time, Alexei's favorite occupation began to be cleaning his gun. Although he did this discreetly, his wife, Varya, guessed at what he might be contemplating.

"Lyosh," she pleaded with him, "don't even think about using the gun. God will punish them."

He began to consult with her about returning to the kolkhoz. Today, the kolkhozes are called partnerships or stock companies, but these collective farms run along old principles: You are paid a pittance for your labor whether you are industrious or lazy. Therefore, stealing is not considered a sin. The collective farmers mostly swipe feed. And every winter cattle perish from hunger on the kolkhozes. But in the barns of the farmers are cows, sheep and pigs that are full. This situation has always suited the collective farm management well. It was never ashamed to take bribes in the past and is even less so now. The directors take large bribes -- in the form of goods or money or, more frequently, building materials for their three-story cottages.

Alexei did not want to return to the kolkhoz. Moreover, right before Easter, his wife's prediction came true. The man in the leather cap had been shot dead with a machine gun. The two others were mortally wounded and died in the emergency room.

Alexei hoped that he would now be able to square his business. But these hopes were dashed. Within weeks, other men in leather jackets came knocking at his gates. One of them spoke calmly:

"Now you'll be paying us. If someone else comes, tell him you already have a roof -- Chibrei. And add that they should be more careful around here. The roads can be very slippery. Not long ago a car slid off into a ditch."

The family sold the farm and moved in with Varya's solitary aunt, 80 years old, in an outlying district. Alexei registered a gas-works firm that he set up and hired qualified workers. He knew that the secret ambition of every farmer is to have his house permanently hooked up to a gas main, instead of gas canisters.

Alexei's team was soon to discover so-called private gas service. The scheme usually runs as follows: Kolkhoz directors gather money from the population and use it to put gas lines mostly on their own streets. They tell the rest of the people that there aren't enough pipes, promise they will soon be installed and that the money they invested is "circulating" in commercial banks.

After Alexei appeared in a village with such a scheme, the inhabitants decided to gather money for a second time, knowing that he would finish the job. But Alexei first went to meet the chairman of the local "partnership," who lived in a three-story mansion already equipped with gas lines. Alexei named the sum that had been stolen from the people and threatened to go to court if the chairman did not return the money to him.

"If you want to know the truth," replied the collective farm chairman, "Chibrei's people came to see me and the partnership is short of money these days. I gave them the money collected from the village. You think farmers are the only ones to pay quitrent?"

When the chairman said he himself would call Chibrei, Alexei went out into the driveway and came back with his three guys.

"Now call if you're brave enough," he said as he laid his pistol on the table.

The chairman said, "What difference does it make where you get the money? The people were willing to take up a second collection."

Alexei could no longer hold himself back: "And your pensioners want to give us money saved for their funerals!"

The chairman then went into the next room and returned with a thick packet of money.

The pipelines were installed successfully. Some old village women decided that "God had made the chairman see the light." But most of the villagers understood that it was not God, but Alexei with his broad-shouldered men.

As I was leaving the provincial town for Moscow, it occurred to me that we Russians have the misfortune of having so often deceived ourselves into hoping for a just ruling power that we did not immediately recognize how such power can itself turn into arbitrary rule. I fear that the same is occurring with us ourselves.

Igor Gamayunov is a columnist for Literaturnaya Gazeta. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.