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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reaping a Harvest of Independence

BURYATIA, Southern Siberia -- With its muddy roads and rustic wooden houses, the village of Galtai appears to sleep in a distant past.

As they have for years, Buryat families tend tiny patches of land where cabbage, potatoes, onions and beets grow in the dark earth. They milk their own cows, make butter and sour cream, and raise pigs and sheep to slaughter for meat.

There is no running water in any of the houses, and horses pull carts down the uneven dirt roads and through the village's single intersection.

The nearby "Banner of Lenin" collective farm has long been the main employer in the village. But against the somnolent economic backdrop of Galtai -- the village's name means "fire" in Buryat -- capitalism has begun to stir.

Adjacent to the kolkhoz's vast and rolling expanse of wheat fields, an upstart is building a profitable private farm for himself and his family by selling meat, wheat and freshly baked bread.

The farmer, Buyanto Tsydypov, 34, is one of eight brothers and two sisters who grew up in this small village.

For years he worked at the kolkhoz as an agronomist, organizing the planting and harvesting and then returning home in the evenings to his house in the village.

"Two and a half years ago, I had nothing," Tsydypov said of those days. "But when privatization of government lands began in the early 1990s, I had an opportunity to receive hundreds of hectares of land free.

"Then in 1992, President Yeltsin signed a decree stating that start-up private farms could operate tax-free for a period of five years. So I decided to start my own farm. Now we have 667 hectares of land, 120 cows and 300 sheep. And four of my brothers and their families also work on the farm," he said.

Looking out on his large holdings in this remote land, Tsydypov declares, "I am like the 'gentleman farmers' in English books."

The land where Buyanto's sheep and cattle graze is typical of the surrounding countryside of the Buryat Autonomous Republic: low, rolling hills and flat lands that stretch toward the horizon.

He and his brothers split the duties of the farm. One brother, a veterinarian, cares for the farm's animals; another manages the wheat harvest; another is in charge of building any new structures on the farm: a banya for the families, storage sheds for equipment. Buyanto manages the farm, researches the local markets and handles all official business with the local government, which he notes is very much opposed to private farming.

"The government of the Buryat Autonomous Republic would rather see everyone still working on the kolkhoz," he says. "The idea of private farming frightens them. They will do everything they can to make things more difficult for us, but one thing they can't take away is the tax law that made this all possible."

Risk-takers are few in this tiny village, and by local standards, Buyanto is already a legend.

His neighbors speak of him in glowing terms, praising the honesty and uprightness of his family, his abstinence from smoking, and his sobriety compared to many men in the village. And they admire his courage in starting his own private farm.

Few, however, express a desire to follow in his footsteps.

"People are afraid to do what I have done," the farmer says, driving out to the wheat fields to inspect the combines. "They are afraid of tomorrow. What if the communists come back into power after the next elections? Then all of this could be suddenly taken away.

"I went from office to office for a solid year to work everything out so I could have this land. This is my land. I am not afraid of what the future will bring."