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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin Era Spawns a New Type of Farming

MIKHAILOVSKAYA, Russia -- A sign marking the population of Shanghai, Russia, might read:

Cows--75 Pigs--190 Chickens--2, 050 People -- 0.

That is because, in fact, Shanghai does not exist -- at least, not officially.

Shanghai is the name that residents of Mikhailovskaya -- a village of 3. 000 in the Yaroslavl region, about 300 kilometers from Moscow -- have jokingly given to a patchwork of shacks, barns and sheds that sprung up across the street from a cluster of five-story, Soviet-era apartment buildings.

Without any official permission, residents of the four apartment buildings are supplementing their diets, and their pocketbooks, by keeping pigs, cows and chickens on impromptu mini-farms.

They are the apartment-farmers of Shanghai.

"It is not necessary in order to live", said Ivan Smirnov, head of the regional administration and an apartment-farmer himself. "But it is quite helpful".

Shanghai is an example of the inventiveness spawned in many regions of Russia by the first year of President Boris Yeltsin's experiment in economic reform.

Breaking with decades of central command, individuals are taking control of their lives -- and often, in unconventional ways.

This process has been spurred by the effects of reform. Year One: falling real incomes, disruption of supplies, soaring food prices.

It is traditional in Russia for collective farmers to register small gardens located near their homes. But the Mikhailovskaya apartment-farmers are city folk who take an elevator to get to their flats, have indoor toilets, enjoy hot and cold running water, and work by day as doctors, lawyers, scientists and bookkeepers.

Most of the food the apartment-farmers raise in Shanghai is consumed in their own homes. But some is also sold to neighbors or at the market.

No one remembers exactly when the practice started. But everyone agrees that it started modestly and then blossomed more recently, as harder economic times set in.

With unused land surrounding the apartment buildings, residents began keeping private gardens. It was technically illegal but, as no one claimed the land, all they had to do was put a fence around a small plot and begin farming it.

As a driver at a local institute put it:

"A deed? Who needs a deed? Just build a shed and the place is yours".

Soon it was expected that if you lived in one of the four buildings, you also owned a plot of land across the street. Over time, these simple hobby gardens evolved into small farms.

"Lord, you really have to do some explaining if you don't have a place in Shanghai", said Yevladiya Gavrilova, one of the few residents of Mikhaiiovskaya who does not keep a mini-farm.

Shanghai is aptly named. Because of the improvised and unregulated manner in which it sprung up, it is a veritable maze of dead-end streets and footpaths that connect one wooden shack to the next, recalling its Chinese namesake in the early 20th century

Each morning the apartment-farmers stream out of their buildings carrying buckets of leftover bread and table scraps across the street to Shanghai to feed their livestock. After about 30 minutes of tossing feed and pitching hay, they return to their apartments to get ready for work. The process is repeated in the evenings.

"It is just a part of life now", said Smirnov. "I think it may actually be more expensive for me to raise eggs than to buy them, but I do it anyway. Besides, the roosters crow each morning. I've grown used to it".