Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Death of Russian Agriculture and Village Life

I was browsing Johnson's Russia List's Research and Analytical Supplement (RAS) #33 this evening and two articles on Russian agriculture caught my eye - Russian Agriculture Downsized and End of the Peasantry. Before I start writing about what was contained in these articles, I should make a couple of points or observations, regarding my own limited experiences with Russian produce, food, farms, and markets.

From what I have read in the past, something like 60% of the produce in Russia is from individual plots or home gardens. It seems that much of the produce in stores and markets comes from southern Russia, central Asia, Caucasus regions, and Turkey. Generally, I would say that in-season produce in Russia is of better quality than average supermarket produce here in the US. If you look hard here in the US, at farmers markets, or organic produce stores, you can really find excellent quality - those markets are just easier to find in Russia (or so it seemed to me). However, I also noticed a marked reduction of quality in Russia produce during winter months, versus spring/summer/fall.

Secondly, Russia, more than any other nation I have ever visited, seems quite contradictory in its enamor with city life (and the money and success it may hold) - while also holding all things "natural" in high esteem. People from the country or villages are sort of teased or ridiculed (in my experience) - no Russian wants to be thought of as being from a village or the woods (despite Katja's assertion that I speak Russian like a "dignified woodsman"). But at the same time, romantic images of all things natural being better, country picnics, dachas, picking berries or mushrooms ... are an indelible part of Russian life. So while Russia rushes towards an urban future ... it keeps an loving eye turned towards its rural roots. Not that it is particularly enamored with the realities of rural life, as the articles discuss.

Based upon these two articles, it appears that Russian farm and rural life is a rapidly dying thing. As cited in the first article -
The downsizing of Russian agriculture is dramatic, on a scale comparable only with ... forced collectivization under Stalin:
  • In 2001 output of grain was only 73 percent of the 1991 level, eggs - 74 %, milk - 59 %, sugar beets - 45 %, meat - 41 %, wool - below 20 %.
  • Between 1990 and 2002 head of cattle fell by 54 % (pigs - 60 %, sheep and goats - 75 %).
  • Average grain yield per hectare was 1.5 tons in 1999-2001, roughly 1/2 the yield in Canada and 1/4 of that in the EU. Average milk yield per cow in 2000 was just over 2 kg in Russia, compared to 6 kg in the EU and 7 kg in Canada.
  • According to various estimates, 20-30 million hectares, constituting 14-20 % of all arable land, has been abandoned. The author suspects the true figure is higher. Much of the abandoned land is situated in the most fertile regions.
  • In 1965-85 agriculture received 28 % of total investment in the economy. In 2001 it got under 3 percent of a vastly diminished total. Only a tiny fraction of outworn agricultural machinery is being replaced: e.g., in 2002 about 200,000 old combines were written off but only 8,500 new domestic ones bought (4 %).
Areas of agriculture that are cited by the authors as doing well include grain crops in the Kuban, grain and cattle in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, agriculture in Moscow and Leningrad provinces, and the areas closest to provincial centers. I would add that I suspect lack of transportation infrastructure in Russia is a primary reason for the last two points of success - proximity of markets is a much larger concern in Russia than in Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and the US (based on my experiences). Further, the article cites:
The dominant type of farm remains the collective farm and its successors, with 82 percent of total farmland. Household farms account for 11 percent of land, and registered family farms for 7 percent. One researcher has divided collective farms into the following four categories on the basis of their economic position:
  • viable market enterprises - 5 %
  • farms that could be made viable by means of reorganization - 15 %
  • farms that are bankrupt de facto (unable to repay their debts) - 25+%
  • farms that are bankrupt de jure - 50+%
Farms in the last category are unable to buy fuel, lubricants, and other supplies because their bank accounts have been frozen. This puts them at the mercy of ruthless middlemen ("treidery") who provide supplies in exchange for future crops on highly unfavorable terms. These middlemen make by far the highest profits in the whole food business.
The most successful of these remain agro-businesses. The authors cite problems even for these businesses, including high managerial costs and technocratic management unfamiliar with "agricultural practicalities" (accountants don't know how to farm) and above all else - rural alcoholism:
... we tend to see alcoholism as a less serious problem than, say, heroin addiction. Yet alcohol is also an addictive drug, and its consequences can be just as devastating - from the effect on labor output to poisoning by moonshine made from glass-cleaning liquid and the high proportion of mentally retarded children. Between a third and a half of rural adults are chronic alcoholics. The rampant theft in rural areas is mostly for the purpose of supporting alcohol habits.

Professor Ioffe recounts the following astonishing episode. In Pskov Province in summer 2000 villagers repeatedly pulled down electricity transmission lines to sell as scrap metal in order to buy alcohol. About 800 people got themselves killed in the process, and the electricity supply to dozens of villages was cut off.

Some of the methods used by farm managers to combat alcoholism are only a little less astonishing. For example, some skilled workers, whose incapacitation at critical junctures would be particularly inconvenient, have been forced to accept surgical implants that produce a severe reaction to the presence of even a small amount of alcohol.
Other factors that hinder Russian agriculture, including geography and climate were also discussed. Modest ambitions and wants of rural workers is also considered in the second article. Most of these rural people live simple lives with small plots of land for food - they don't require earning wages for subsistence.
On Saratov Province farms in 2003 the average daily wage was 40 rubles, compared to a subsistence minimum of 60 rubles. One of the authors' respondents told them: "We pay little. But not out of greed. If we paid more they would work for a couple of days and then even with dogs you couldn't find them."
Many of these farmers reportedly see themselves as "slaves" or "katorzhny trud". Less than a third of those registered as "farmers" actually own farms. The others have given their land and equipment to joint-stock societies that out of inertia they still call "collective farms." City middlemen buy up their produce at low prices, and farmers live with sub-subsistence level income.

To summarize the declining value of the rural village life, here is the following data from a questionnaire survey conducted in 1993 and 2003 by the Institute of Agrarian Problems in six villages of Saratov Province:
  • Prefer work in a cooperative (tovarishchestvo) or joint-stock society - down from 35.5 to 11 %
  • Prefer non-agricultural employment - up from 9 to 36 %
  • Reject working for a private employer for wages - down from 40 to 14 %
"What would you wish for your children and grandchildren?"
  • "To go to live and work in the city" - up from 14 to 33 %
  • "To remain working in agriculture" - down from 27 to 3 %
  • "To become farmers" - down from 7 to 2%
Children are motivated to do well at school by the prospect of leaving the village. Second grade children at a village school were asked: "What do teachers tell you to get you to study well and pay attention to lessons?" The most common response was along the lines of: "If you don't study hard you'll stay in the village and become an alcoholic" (alkash).

Another important factor in the degradation of village life is the accelerated departure for the city of members of the rural intelligentsia such as teachers and agronomists. The author gives three reasons:
  • Specialists are no longer needed after the reorganization of the collective and state farms.
  • They have "personal problems with adaptation to the process of capitalization of the village"
  • Members of the intelligentsia have lost their special status in the eyes of their neighbors because now they live in the same way as everyone else, surviving on the produce of their garden plots and personal livestock.
Perhaps as Russia moves towards a more prosperous and urban future, these changes are inevitable. Certainly, within the US there has been tremendous changes over the last 50 years in rural life and agriculture in general. I've seen small towns in America's heartland that are essentially empty ghost towns. However, those changes have largely occurred here due to economic pressures and agricultural efficiencies, with no subsequent loss in production. The forces at work within Russia seem more stark and rapid, at least to Western eyes.

Photographic Source:

William J. Ryan at GrantSterling


Raffi Aftandelian said...

Dear W.,
Thanks for the post. Very informative. Wonder what Sergey Belyakov at rublog would say about it.

I am thinking of organizing a blogging conference in Moscow this fall. I see that you are not Moscow-based. If, however, you would like to help in any way, or participating virtually, let me know.


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