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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Transforminp the Farms

The program to transform 27, 000 large socialist collective and state farms covering 218 million hectares of agricultural land into 3 to 4 million family farms based on private property was, in essence, apolitical and not an economic objective.

The entire economic, transport and social infrastructure of the Russian and Ukrainian rural population had been tied to the giant collective or state farms. In 1991, 38. 7 million people (26. 1 per cent of the population) lived in the countryside in the Russian Federation. However, only 9. 3 million of them were directly employed in agriculture.

The government of Yeltsin and Gaidar aimed to eliminate socialism and introduce capitalism in the agricultural sector. They thought that the privatization of the village would be a far simpler task, with irreversible consequences, than privatizing industry. The reform, however, was conducted without analyzing all the stages which take place between sowing and harvesting agricultural crops and the retail sale of agricultural products to the urban population.

At the end of the 1980s the Soviet Union reached West European levels of production per person of grain, meat, milk and eggs. In the Russian Federation, for example, 54 million tons of milk and 49 billion eggs were produced per annum: 385 liters of milk and 350 eggs a year for each person. In Ukraine the level of milk was even higher - 480 liters per year per person.

But little of this reaches the consumer. Grain is lost during the harvest because of poor combines, insufficient grain dryers and inadequate machinery. More is lost in transit because of unsuitable trucks (for the most part seconded military motorized battalions and railway trucks).

Approximately 50 percent of potatoes and vegetables rot each year in the city storage facilities. Food-processing techniques have not moved beyond the technical level of the 1950s.

Finally, there are simply insufficient retail outlets in the towns. None of the new concrete jungles of high-rise estates in most large towns have enough shopping centers, supermarkets, restaurants and cafes.

Plowmen and milkmaids cannot solve the problems of transport, refrigeration, processing, conserving, packaging, storage or modern retailing facilities. These are essentially problems of the urban economy. and in these fields hardly anything has been privatized.

Almost the entire infrastructure of the production and sales process has to be re-created. and while young Russian entrepreneurs are happy to make deals, buy and resell goods and appropriate valuables, they show no inclination to undertake initiatives in the food processing industry where a long-term strategy for the future is required.

Expert assessments done for the Russian government reckon that it will be possible, at best, to buy no more than 20 million tons of grain for state needs from local producers in 1992. To supply the urban population of 113 million people, the army and the complex fodder required by the large specialized cattle and poultry farms, the state requires a minimum of 46 million tons of grain in its reserves.

It is proposed to import the shortfall of 26 million tons - 6 million tons from Kazakhstan (where a good harvest is expected) and the rest from the United States, Canada, Argentina and anywhere else where grain can be purchased on credit.

Apart from Kazakhstan, the other 13 republics of the former Soviet Union are also counting on importing grain. However, the very high price of dollars in Russia makes it extremely disadvantageous to import food for hard currency.

A new demographic trend will probably begin in Russia in 1993, as people begin to leave the towns for the villages. The growth in unemployment, reductions in the armed forces and the immigration of Russians from Moldova, the Baltic republics, the Caucasus and Central Asia are already creating attempts to direct these people to the countryside rather than the towns.

Because of the fact that the land in old Russia and in the Soviet Union did not belong to the peasants, the rural population was always prepared to abandon the villages for the towns. The growth of the towns in the 20th century was particularly fast in Russia and the Soviet Union. , increasing the urban population from 20 to 200 million.

Curiously, the common ownership of land might now ameliorate the looming catastrophe. It is possible that in the next few years 5 to 10 million people will move out of the towns into the Russian countryside. In the last two years alone the proportion of expenditure on food in the average budget of a Russian urban family has risen from 40 to 75 percent and it continues to rise. This has removed the main advantage of living in town.

Russia's immutable geography - huge distances, a severe climate and a poor road network - makes it senseless to consider increasing the movement of unprocessed and perishable agricultural produce around the country. The food and food-processing industries must be moved closer to agricultural producers. This is the only way that waste, the main cause of the food problem, can be reduced.

Russian rural socialism cannot be destroyed by decree. But it can be transformed gradually by supplying the villages with a modern capitalist food processing industry and a modern agrarian service.

Zhores Medvedev is a biologist and author who has lived in London since 1973.