Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Locust Plague Bugging Orenburg

ORENBURG, Ural Mountains -- The enemy is dug into individual trenches, preparing for winter, having already devastated the Russian countryside from the air. The invasion had come from the south. Moscow ignored early warnings, and scrambled to launch a counteroffensive.

Local inhabitants fear it is too late. Terrain has already been lost. Citizens bitterly complain: This could never have happened during Soviet times, when the country was strong and purposeful.

Actually, it is unconventional combat that is being waged on the frontier near where European Russia meets Asia: Locusts descended on thousands of acres of fertile land, devouring wheat, millet, barley, corn and even weeds, and promising more destruction next year.

The assault took place this spring and summer along a 2,400-kilometer section of border separating Russia from Kazakhstan. Small, pinkish "Italian" locusts and green, sparrow-sized "Asiatic" ones fluttered in huge, cloud-like swarms. They alit on fields of all kinds, leaving behind acres of bare stalks. Stragglers were found everywhere: in porridge, in socks, in hair, in beds. By the end of the feasting season, the locusts devoured between 10 percent and 15 percent of a grain crop already reduced by severe drought.

"We've had not enough rain and too much, too much sun, and locusts are children of the sun," said Anatoly Garifulin, a farmer who manages the Steppe Collective Farm, which employs 2,200 people 240 kilometers west of Orenburg.

As in many cases of natural or man-made problems, the locust invasion provided fuel for the popular perception of a Russia going down the drain and a government unable to help. Here in Orenburg, a sleepy market town that was once the site of nuclear testing, the emotional landscape for such thinking is fertile.

It is a territory of weathered faces and brown forearms where farmers long for the Soviet days. Most farms are still run on the collective model, and pictures of Lenin adorn managerial offices. Officials move from meeting to meeting and, somewhat like locusts, when they reach a critical mass they lunch.

"The so-called new capitalists broke up the Soviet Union, let the army collapse, and now they are too busy stealing to fight the locusts. In Soviet days, it was state policy to control locusts. Now there's no policy for nothing," Garifulin said, to the concerted nods of other farmers and agriculture officials.

The locusts' appearance appealed to the Russian sense of millennial doom (along with the war in Kosovo, the locust infestation was seen by mystics as a sign the world was coming to an end). Reporters flocked to the border to describe the crunch of locusts under their feet and even to fry them up for a snack.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization issued a warning a few days ago noting that the locusts "have laid eggs over millions of hectares." Locusts, which are usually confined to isolated areas, began to get out of control three years ago, farmers say, but the government did not believe reports from Orenburg. Kazakhstan and Russia began to quarrel over who was to blame. The Kazakhs said the locusts were migrating south; the Russians insisted winds were carrying them from Kazakhstan.

Garifulin took a reporter on a locust tour, and each sojourn into an infested field seemed to increase his anger. It is now egg-laying season, when locusts burrow into the ground to deposit capsules bearing 50 eggs each. Farmers can't spray insecticides now because it's too close to the harvest. "We have to sit and watch while the locusts prepare for next year's war," Garifulin said.

Nearby, an unharvested field of millet waved in the hot breeze. Garifulin clapped his hands. The giant Asian locusts looked like miniature Harrier jump jets: They rose vertically, then flapped their wings and sped away.

"These things eat anything," Garifulin said. "Even poisonous weeds. Come back next spring when the new ones hatch. It will be dark at noon with them."