Gorbachev Plants a Bold Idea, but Will It Yield?

<i> Marshall I. Goldman is a professor of economics at Wellesley College and the associate director of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University</i>

The drought in the American Midwest is something that we all worry about because of the effect that it will have on our food supplies. In anticipation, food prices in many parts of the United States have already started to rise. Fortunately, we have ample supplies in storage, so no one worries about food shortages.

In our concern with our own problems, however, we have failed to notice that the Soviet Union has also been plagued by heat and drought. The months of June and July were particularly warm. The Kazakh republic, an important grain-growing area, was beset by temperatures of up to 104 degrees for much of June.

One of the first hints of trouble came from General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Addressing a plenum of the Communist Party Central Committee on July 30, he warned that it was unlikely that the Soviet Union’s food problems would be solved this year because “many regions of the Volga, Urals, Siberia and Kazakhstan have been subjected to drought,” and, as a consequence, “if need be we will also use external sources to replenish the country’s food resources.” (This is likely to mean the purchase of more American grain.)

While these prime grain-growing regions were suffering from lack of rain, other important agricultural areas in the European part of the country, the northern Caucasus, the southern Ukraine and Byelorussia were drowning under “uncommon” quantities of rain and “gusting winds” that “have flattened the grain over large areas.” Gloomy news reports, which hadn’t been seen since the last serious harvest shortfalls, have appeared in the Soviet press.


The prospect that the crop this year might not be a good one comes amid widespread concern that food supplies seem to have deteriorated since Gorbachev became the country’s leader. One speaker at the party conference in late June complained that the rate of growth of national income during the past two years was actually lower than in 1980-85, which encompassed Leonid I. Brezhnev’s last years. More to the point, several speakers complained about rationing and food shortages.

Because of glasnost , everyone is bringing out into the open the shortcomings that previously were not acknowledged in public. But, as a consequence, those who thought that it was only their region that was hard up now discover that others have been equally affected, and this has caused even greater disappointment.

As a good politician, Gorbachev knows full well that unless he can change all this, and soon, his tenure as general secretary may be limited. This helps explain why in his more recent speeches Gorbachev has made improvement in the food supply his No. 1 priority. Heretofore, Soviet leaders (including Gorbachev in his early days) have always emphasized heavy industry, especially machine tools. After Josef Stalin’s death, Soviet leaders did begin to funnel more investment funds into Soviet agriculture. Recently agricultural investment has amounted to 17% of all Soviet investment, compared to less than 5% in the United States. But most of that investment went not into roads and barns but into large-scale drainage and irrigation schemes.

Much of that misallocation of funds is a consequence of centralized planning. The planners like to design big projects. Gorbachev has come to recognize that one good way of altering the pattern of investment and at the same time enhancing the present incentives is to break up the huge collective and state farms. That is the reason he has begun to urge that the Soviet peasants set up their own family farms on what previously were state or collective lands. Initially, each farmer could lease the land for five years or so. But, to Gorbachev’s surprise, there were few takers. It turned out that five years were too short a period to generate any real sense of pride or to induce investments and improvement in the land itself. But, as the food situation has continued to deteriorate, Gorbachev has now moved to the authorization of leases for as long as 50 years--something that not even the Chinese have ventured to do.


It remains to be seen whether this will be enough to attract Soviet peasants. The Soviet public as a whole tends to be much more conservative than the Chinese, at least when it comes to reverting to private and cooperative ownership. Soviet public-opinion polls show that only 15% of the Soviet people support private or cooperative ownership. This lack of enthusiasm also explains why those who do venture into cooperative activity risk opposition, and even arson, from those who are opposed to too much private initiative. That is exactly what happened to a cooperative pig farm set up in January a few miles outside Moscow. It took three fires, but finally this summer the piggery burned to the ground.

If he is to stimulate increased food out-put, Gorbachev will have to prove to the doubting Ivans that, once established, cooperative and family farms will not be re-nationalized as they were in the late 1920s. As much as anything, it will be on these growing fields that Gorbachev’s fate will be decided.