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A Need for Lessons in Hard Work

Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s campaign to reform the Soviet economy is bogging down on the Red Field Collective Farm.

The battle at Red Field illustrates a problem endemic to the Soviet system as a whole: Incentives do not always spur economic change. As Times writer Masha Hamilton said in a recent report, Soviet farmers are not racing to start private farms. Although Red Field’s director has offered employees land and equipment to start their own farms and turn their own profits, so far not one has seized the opportunity.

Gorbachev faces an old economic riddle: If you pay workers more, do they work more because their time increases in value? Or do they work less because they earn the same amount with less effort? Four years into Gorbachev’s campaign to restructure the Soviet economy, Soviet workers still seem to prefer the latter. “I don’t wantto have to work on my own land,” Anna K. Milyokhin, a Red Field milkmaid, said, “and Idon’t know anyone who does.”

There are two reasons for reluctance. The first is material: Earning more money in the Soviet Union gains one little these days. “Sure, I would make more money,” Milyokhin explained, “but what would I do with it? There’s nothing to buy in our stores.” Until there is more to buy in the stores, Soviet workers will consider time off more valuable than money.

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The second reason is more ingrained, particularly for the agricultural system. Russia does not have a tradition of proprietary farming. Even in the last century, peasants were organized into communes. Land was redistributed every few years, reducing incentives to treat land welland creating an atmosphere where individual success was considered self-promotion at the expense of the group. In many ways, little has changed. Russians still do not know how to be individual farmers and, moreover, there are still important cultural taboos against individual enterprise.

Ironically, many non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union do not have the same cultural traits and respond more readily to economic incentives. The proliferation of Georgian and Baltic entrepreneurs in Moscow attests to this. It seems as if Gorbachev may have to rely on such minorities to teach the Russian majority the value of hard work.


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