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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow goes back to the land

Valentina Sologub, a hoe in one hand and a bucket in the other, stands at one end of her small garden plot, her brow knit as she scrutinizes neat rows of young potatoes. She places the bucket against a rickety fence of bent branches and plastic twine and glances quickly around before raising the hoe. Rhythmically striking the caked earth, she seems oblivious to the army-issue trucks rumbling by on the highway 50 meters behind her.

The busy intersection of Kaluzhskoye Shosse, a main artery leading out of Moscow, and the city's outer ring road is an unlikely place to grow vegetables. But Sologub, a 59-year-old pensioner, takes the bus here every day to tend her garden.

"I was coming home from the cemetery one day and I saw people gardening here", she said, her arm sweeping across a sloping hillside checkered with roped-off plots. "So I figured I'd do it too".

Frustrated by food shortages, rising prices and stalling bureaucracy, Sologub is one of a growing number of Muscovites who are taking matters into their own hands. Like many, she hoped to get a garden when the Moscow City Council pledged last year to allot land outside the city to Muscovites for free. But when she learned that this could take years, she picked out two grassy plots on the hillside, got a shovel and dug in.

"I just took it", she said. "What does it matter? This isn't anyone's who needs it? "

This year she carved out a third plot in the hillside and says others are doing the same".

"The land here is good", she said, adjusting her pink and white cloth hat under the hot afternoon sun. "And it's nearby. The city is giving old people and invalids tiny plots 100 kilometers away. Who needs that? You have to ride all day on some crowded commuter train. That's enough to drive you crazy".

Instead, she travels two stops on the bus from her apartment on the city's outskirts. The food she brings home even though she loses some to roadside thieves - is enough to help her husband and daughter get through the winter, she says.

Virtually every open field along the outer ring road's 100 kilometers is covered this spring with squatters vegetables, berries and herbs. Inside the city, garden plots can be found on no-man's-land next to dumps, railroad tracks and river banks.

In a country that stretches halfway around the globe, boasting some of the richest farming land on earth, Valentina Sologub is growing her food by the side of the road.

"There are no rules to the game", said Arnold Litvinov, head of Moscow City Council's commission on suburban land use, which is overseeing distribution of garden plots. "Everyone understands what land ownership is, but it still doesn't exist".

The question is a painful one in a country which in its history has never come to terms with land ownership. Russia's only real attempts at land ownership, the Stolypin reforms, were quashed with the murder of their architect, Pyotr Stolypin, just before World War I. The 70 years of Communist rule that ensued brought Stalin's collectivization, a brutal land program from which the country is still recovering.

Tied to a tradition of collective ownership, many Russians admit they cannot grasp the idea of private ownership. Soviet and Russian legislators have suspended the land issue on the level of moral abstraction as they attempt to set a precedent for the country in defining ownership. After two years, they have yet to adopt a law.

But Muscovites were appeased last year when a plan was approved to give them land - for free - in the suburbs. While the plan could not allow them to own their own plots, by paying taxes they would be able to farm and build houses on it.

But the plan is fraught with obstacles. Without a Russian land law, Litvinov says, there is no guarantee that the land won't be taken away.

"The law says that the government has the right to take the land from you if you don't use it effectively", he said. "But who decides what effectiveness is? What are the criteria? "

Worse, conflicts between City Council and suburban governments, which control the plots directly, are blocking the transfer of land in several cases as the two governments struggle over putting a price on land that legally cannot be given a value.

"The local powers supposedly turned the land rights over to us", said Litvinov, "but in the end they have kept the final decision for themselves".

Moscow City Council compiled a map of land available for plots together with the suburban governments. Litvinov charges that the locals are ignoring their original agreement to turn over the land for a minimal tax. Instead, they are putting new price tags on their land by requiring settlers to fund expensive infrastructural developments hospitals, stores and roads.

The problem is all too familiar to Galina Frolova. A patent engineer, she and other co-workers at her factory jumped at the opportunity to acquire 38 hectares of land near the suburb of Naro-Fominsk. When their factory, which originally brokered the deal with the Moscow government, told the future landowners it was facing financial difficulties and couldn't pay for the land, Frolova and her comrades each plunked down 3, 496 rubles last December to reserve plots for themselves large enough for a small dacha and garden. "We collected all this money at the end of the year, when everyone knew price rises were coming", she said. "They gave everything they had left".

The Naro-Fominsk town government issued documents a few months later to Frolova's factory authorizing the land transfer. But there was a caveat: Presumably due to inflation, taxes on the property jumped tenfold. In addition, the local government demanded that the settlers, whom they argue must contribute to the development of the community's weak infrastructure, build a 150-bed hospital 40 kilometers from their land.

"Can we really raise the money to pay for something like that? " she said, her voice quivering. She estimates that the hospital would cost 80 million rubles. "There's no way we could do it. We already gave our last rubles".

Angered, Frolova organized her comrades to fight the Naro-Fominsk government. She obtained an order from the Moscow city government demanding that the land be turned over. Litvinov urged her to sue, but Frolova has concentrated instead on talking the local government down. They modified the hospital order to a pharmacy after receiving the Moscow government's order to turn the land over with no strings attached.

Determined not to give up, Frolova now is looking for a blueprint for a pharmacy that her group can afford.

"I'm spending all my time looking for this plan now", she said. "If we find one that we can afford, then we'll start looking for money".

She and her co-workers had counted on farming their land this summer.

"It's a disaster", she said. "People spent lots of money on seeds to plant their gardens, and now that's all gone to waste.

"We didn't insure ourselves at all", she said. "Now we'll have to buy food at commercial prices".

Taking a piece of property for herself occurred to her, but she decided against it, despite the financial obstacles she will face this fall and winter.

"I want to do everything legally" she said.

Frolova's struggle is too much for Valentina Foikina, a 77-year-old pensioner who also has a garden plot at the junction of Kaluzhskoye Shosse and the outer ring road. She has raised enough potatoes, greens, tomatoes and strawberries over the last four summers to lower her food budget. But the real reason she keeps her plot, with its trim flowerbeds, cherry trees and neatly manicured paths, is that she loves the land.

"I am used to the land", she said, her head wrapped in a white rag. "I grew up in the country and I love to be outdoors with plants".

When she measured out her little plot four years ago, the area was undeveloped. Now a former field about 100 meters away has become an illegal dump with hills of rusting metal scraps, cables and discarded furniture. As she waters her strawberries, a truck pulls up and dumps a load of debris onto one of the piles.

Foikina is not worried about the dump: She says the soil in her garden is fertile and yields good produce. Litvinov, who ordered a study of the area's soil last year, says laboratory tests showed the soil is free of hazardous elements.

While the dump doesnt worry her, a new garage on the other side of her plot does. Under construction by a cooperative, the garage is gradually closing in on her area.

"I'm afraid I'll show up one day to find my whole garden bulldozed and all my trees killed", she said. "I know how things are done around here. Those millionaires want that garage and they've got tons of money".

Like Sologub, she does not put any stake in the city's promise to give her a plot.

"They give people land so far away", she said. "I can't go that far just to water a garden. I'm old and sick".