Almost 75 years ago, Bolsheviks intent on winning over the rural masses promised the long-suffering peasants of Russia they would become masters of the land they plowed.
Now, in hopes of feeding a country that appears to be on the brink of hunger, the Russian government is promising land to the peasants once again.
It may be just as hard to deliver this time.
Gathered in the Great Kremlin Palace are almost 900 delegates from the far-flung provinces of the vast Russian Federation, the Soviet heartland that stretches across three-quarters of the country.
Convened for an emergency congress on land reform, the food crisis and rural poverty, they began battling over the issue of private land ownership early this week and were still at it at week’s end, both from the podium and in nose-to-nose shouting matches in the corridors.
On Friday, the congress approved in principle the government’s radical plan to extensively sell off state land to private owners but then began work on amendments considered likely to strip the plan of its most crucial points.
Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, the most popular politician in the country, argued passionately for the selloff program as the only hope for Russian agriculture.
“The point of the reform is to make the worker of the land into its master instead of a cog in the bureaucracy,” he said, referring to the system of state and collective farms that dominate Soviet agriculture.
Russian Prime Minister Ivan S. Silayev cited statistics showing that every time Russia in the past has moved toward private landholding, production shot up, to the point that by itself Russia topped America, Canada and Argentina in grain exports by 28% before World War I.
Silayev claimed that public opinion polls show 64% of Soviet citizens support the Russian government’s plan, which would force collective farms to parcel out land to those who want to buy it and allow private owners to buy and sell plots after a grace period of five years.
For many at the congress, however, particularly die-hard Communists, the idea of turning land that belongs to the state--and thus, theoretically, to the people--into the object of capitalist wheeling and dealing is simply too much to stomach.
“The land is not a product of labor--it is a gift of nature,” said Gennady A. Sivchenko, a Communist Party official from the Altai region of Siberia. “Therefore, buying and selling it is impermissible.”
Sivchenko also argued that collective farms are more efficient than piecemeal efforts and complained that it would be foolish to give land to farmers who lack the equipment to till it.
“You can’t work the land with your hands and a shovel,” he said.
Boris Sarayev of the Ulyanovsk region on the Volga River warned that selling land would put it in the hands of black marketeers and speculators, rather than honest farmers too poor to afford it.
Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, himself raised in farm country, also spoke out this week against private land ownership. In general, he has found the question so difficult that in September he proposed a nationwide referendum on it.
No preparations have been made for such a plebiscite, however, and the Russian leadership, committed to more radical economic reforms than Gorbachev’s national government, cannot wait.
“Our country has reached the point when the food problem can obscure everything else,” Yeltsin said.
Still, debate this week indicated such a deep division among Russian deputies that the plan is sure to be watered down, perhaps to allow owners to bequeath their land but not to sell it.
Even if private ownership were introduced now, deputies said, it would be a long while before it had any effect on empty Soviet store shelves.
But if the Russian congress backs away from private land ownership, as the national legislature did earlier this year, “we’ll still be using ration cards 15 years from now,” lawmaker Yuri Litvinov predicted.