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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Private Farmer Still Russia's Black Sheep

In my last column, we met Vladimir Averyaskin, an agronomist who became interested in religion after he came upon a ruined Orthodox Church on the territory of the former collective farm where he worked. This week, he is with us again, along with a private farmer named Vasily Chernikh from the same Kolomna district in the south of the Moscow region. The two men are similar in many ways but their lives have turned out differently as they have chosen separate paths.

Vasily is also an agronomist by training and used to work on the Dmitrov collective farm, named after a Bulgarian revolutionary. But he thought he could achieve more by himself and so, in 1992, he took the risk of leaving the collective and set up his own farm, which he called Nikulsky, after the local village.

"Why do we need Bulgarian revolutionaries in Kolomna?" he asked.

Vladimir was more cautious. Never a red-hot communist, he nevertheless thought it would be safer to stay in a community. His collective farm, which used to be called Industria, is now A.O. Industria, a share company. Most of the giant Soviet-era agricultural complexes have been reformed in this way on paper, with the workers each receiving a share of the land. But the huge fields have not actually been carved up and are still worked according to a common plan.

So who do you think had done better, Vasily the private farmer or Vladimir, still effectively a collective farmer?

Vasily took me to see his fields. They were all neatly planted with potatoes. He has had some help from the Dutch government which provides technical assistance and seeds. When the crop is harvested, it will be sold in Moscow. Last year Vasily and the seven other people who work with him made a modest profit, enough to buy two tractors.

But there was something missing. Where was Vasily's farm house, built of painted clapboard, as in the clich??

"There isn't one yet," he admitted. "I can't afford one. I still live in an apartment in Kolomna and come to my fields by bus."

The collective farm at first lived up to the stereotype. The director gave me lunch in the stolovaya, or canteen, whose walls had been decorated by alcoholics on enforced labor therapy. He complained that the Yeltsin government had neglected agriculture and wanted more credits. The enterprise was making a loss.

But when he handed me over to the agronomist for a tour, I was in for a surprise. Vladimir showed me an estate of American-style, four-bedroom brick houses built with a grant the farm received four years ago. One of them was Vladimir's. He was doing all the woodwork inside very lovingly himself.

Vasily confessed there were days when he regretted he had branched out alone. "But I will press on. I will realize my dream," he said.

Vladimir was content. "It has got nothing to do with ideology," he said. "It's just easier when people work together."

So deep is the collective instinct in Russians, that they even have a saying, "To die in public is sweet." Which makes the Russian private farmer still seem very much a black sheep.