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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Why Yeltsin Lost Farms

The first round of the presidential elections showed that the Russian countryside supported Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov. This should come as no surprise given that the communists and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's extremist party have found a welcome audience there since 1993. Several so-called democratic newspapers have cried out against the results in the countryside. Sevodnya and Moskovsky Komsomolets, for example, have even called for disenfranchising rural voters by suggesting that the right to vote should depend on the amount of taxes a person pays. Such a step would limit the rights of the majority of the country's population, because the average Russian voter is a middle aged woman -- polls show that female voters greatly outnumber male ones -- with a very modest income, who lives not in a big city like Moscow or even Tver, but in a raitsentr, or a district center, which has a lot more in common with a village than a city. So why did these voters choose Zyuganov? And have they always supported the communists?

A brief visit to the small village of Yeltsino (which bears no relation to the current president) in the Vladimir region in central Russia could provide some answers to these questions. Yeltsino is an average village with 169 inhabitants, 120 of whom took part in the elections: 47 voted for Zyuganov, 28 for Yeltsin, 25 for retired general Alexander Lebed, 8 for liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky, 5 for Zhirinovsky, 2 for former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, 1 for eye surgeon Svyatoslav Fyodorov and 1 for shadowy businessman Martin Shakkum. The chairman of Yeltsino's electoral commission, Gennady Shlepkov, notes that Yeltsin came in second only thanks to 14 dacha dwellers from Moscow, who took the trouble to obtain the necessary documents from the election commission enabling them to vote outside the city.

Shlepkov, who has been on Yeltsino's electoral commission for 15 years, remembers that in 1991 the town's inhabitants showed overwhelming support for Yeltsin, sweeping aside former Soviet prime minister Nikolai Ryzhkov. "The mood of the time was the one of discontent," Shlepkov said. "So they voted for Yeltsin because he was against the authorities."

The people are now once again dissatisfied with the current authorities. The reasons are primarily economic. The income of the peasants at the sovkhoz, or state collective farm of Yeltsino sharply fell after it was turned into a joint-stock company in 1992. Now Shlepkov gets about $50 a month in Russian money and considers himself one of the richest persons in the village. But the payment of even this small salary has been delayed. The farmers have not been paid for 4 months. The women who went to vote for Zyuganov complained that they didn't earn enough money to buy bread and had to survive on the milk from their cows. Unfortunately, even this final source of sustenance is running out. According to the local administration, the number of cows has fallen from 8,000 to 2,000. The district produces 3,000 to 4,000 tons of milk every year, down from 17,000 to 20,000 in 1990.

The stake that former prime minister Yegor Gaidar put on the private farmer in 1992 has proved to be misguided. Out of 130 farmers who were given government subsidies and plots of land of 70 to 130 hectares in this rural district, only three have been successful. The land that was allotted to the others now lies idle.

The economic reforms in 1991 and 1992 were carried out in response to the food shortages resulting from ineffective agriculture in the Soviet period. But to the farmers I spoke to, the solution proposed by Gaidar's government was all too simple: Raise the price of feed and agricultural machinery and import more products from abroad. Moreover, they resented the fact that private farmers, rather than entire farming communities, were subsidized by the state when the collective farms were privatized.

The fledgling private farmers were unable to compete with the avalanche of cheap vegetables from Turkey, wheat from Canada and beef from Holland. Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov does not conceal the fact that domestic producers provide about 25 percent of Moscow's food and that the domestic share continues to decline.

Again, the problems of the city seem to be solved at the expense of the countryside. Farmers complain of shuttle traders and the market mafia that has pushed them out of the market. But their voices were heard only after they voted the communists into the State Duma last December. Before this, the government called those who argued for restricting foreign imports "advocates of kolkhoz [collective farm] slavery." Yeltsin promised to support the domestic producers but did not go further than calling foreign potatoes "a plastic mass" and praising domestic ones as "excellent." As the liberal Nizhny Novgorod governor Boris Nemtsov has said, "The tragedy of Russia is the failure of two reforms -- that of the army and that of agriculture."

No wonder that Yeltsino's inhabitants elected a representative of the Agrarian party, Gennady Churkin, to the Duma, preferring him to Pavel Voshchanov, a political analyst at Komsomolskaya Pravda and Yeltsin's former press secretary.

Now Yeltsin has two choices. He can go on ignoring the wishes of the countryside or he can begin new agricultural reforms, taking into consideration rural voters. Trying to do something for the good of the people against their will simply does not always work.

Dmitry Babich is a correspondent for Komsomolskaya Pravda. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.