A FARM OF HIS OWN : ON THE OLD COLLECTIVES, PRIVATE FARMERS ARE PLANTING THE SEEDS OF A NEW RUSSIA

Ann Imse is a former Associated Press Moscow correspondent and co-author of "Seven Days that Shook the World: The Collapse of Soviet Communism" (Turner Publishing)

MISHA PASHCHENKO STUFFS THE ROOTS of a pair of cherry saplings into a canvas army rucksack and yanks the drawstring closed. It's a cold spring morning in the rural village of Nedelnoye, 75 miles south of Moscow. Behind Misha stands his small white-trimmed cottage, and across a muddy road, a similar cottage, where he grew up and where his parents still live. Just two years earlier, in 1990, Misha was a KGB major living with his wife and daughters in a Moscow apartment and spying on foreign journalists. Now he has left his family in the city and returned to his home village, as one of the first private farmers in Russia.

Cheeks reddening in the frosty April air, Misha hauls the heavy pack onto his back. Despite its weight, he lifts it easily. He is a strapping 6-foot-3; only his balding head gives away his 40 years. Up since dawn, Misha has already fed the 27 hungry mouths that greet him every morning: 10 goats, 7 sheep, 2 pigs, 7 purebred hunting dogs and a fluffy golden kitten. He has milked his nanny goats, and now he sets out for his cropland, a two-mile hike across the vast state-owned fields that surround Nedelnoye. With every step, the gloppy mud that stopped Napoleon and Hitler sucks at his rubber boots and pulls him halfway to his knees.

Half an hour later, Misha tramps through a dead village, its abandoned cottages gray and collapsing. He points out the remains of the house where he was born, its thatch-and-tar-paper roof caved in, its broken windows patched with layered shards of glass. "I hear some businessman paid 20,000 rubles for it," he says, amazed at the price in these hyper-inflationary times.

Moments later, he halts at the field that is his little piece of Russia. At one corner, there is a half-built, one-room cabin made out of tree trunks sliced vertically into inch-thick slabs. A dozen beehives lead away from the cabin toward a dilapidated truck trailer. Water drains from the lumpy field into a channel Misha has dug around the perimeter. Scarcely a dozen yards away, a creek burbles through straw-colored weeds, a convenient source of water. For now, the creek is the far border of his farmland--all one acre of it.

Misha's miniature operation is the reality of President Boris Yeltsin's grand plan to carve Russia's old, disastrous collectives into private farms. By the first planting season after the disintegration of the old Soviet Union, more than 82,000 Russians got up the nerve to try private farming. Today, they are struggling to obtain land, tractors, tools, seed, animals and know-how. If their dreams fail, Russia could starve, and so could its fledgling democracy.

On this morning, Misha is exhibiting the leap of faith required for his new career. He drops his rucksack in his unfinished cabin and hauls out a shovel to plant cherry trees that won't bear fruit for years.

Later, taking a break in the cabin, Misha sips hot homemade rose-hip tea from a thermos and snacks on smoked fat. As tiny as this plot is, he explains, it produced three tons of potatoes last year, and enough beets, cabbage, tomatoes and cucumbers to feed his family back in Moscow and numerous other relatives. This year, it could be even more productive: He has plans to make a chicken coop out of the beat-up truck trailer, acquired by trading a pair of his pedigreed German hunting pups to a colonel. Fourteen of his animals are newborns, and they will grow into excellent currency for trading--no one sells for rubles these days.

"Already, I'm feeding the family," Misha says. "That's really important now." His wife, Tamara, no longer worries about barren grocery shelves or if the food she serves has been contaminated by Chernobyl radiation or Russia's widespread chemical pollution.

But to make the break from this subsistence level into real farming, Misha needs more land. Just across the creek, he points out a vast, tantalizing meadow. It stretches under a lowering blue sky to a ghostly forest of birch in the distance. It is the land of Misha's dreams.

A few months earlier, Yeltsin had brought the dream closer, by ordering collectives to provide land to private farmers. Around Nedelnoye, that translated to as many as 120 acres per applicant. But what is allowed is not necessarily possible. For one thing, the bureaucracy that stands between Misha and the land is formidable. For another, without the money or the connections to get equipment, how would he work 120 acres?

"Why take the land when I can't get a tractor?" he asks. "I don't want to take the land and put my money and sweat into it, and lose it."

Some of the obstacles facing Misha and the other new farmers are practical, like getting a tractor. But many come from the slave mentality fostered by the Communists. The Communists controlled people through a monopoly on information, and everything was prohibited unless it was specifically allowed. Decades of this has left most Russians with chains not only on their actions but also on their imaginations.

JOSEF STALIN STARTED FORCING SOVIET farmers into collectives in 1929. Kulaks, private farmers rich enough to have hired hands, were eliminated as a class with a bullet in the brain or a one-way ticket to Siberia. Farm output plummeted, and famine resulted when even seed grain was confiscated to feed the cities and to export; 10 to 14 million died.

Misha's father, Fyodor, now a 74-year-old pensioner in Nedelnoye, remembers being a child of 11 when three men came to his family's small farm in Ukraine and ordered his father to join a collective. "My father said he wouldn't go into the collective farm because there will be hunger there. 'You can do whatever you like, but I won't go.' They pointed a gun at him and placed him, me and my elder brother against the wall. But they saw they couldn't do anything, and they left," the elder Pashchenko recalls.

A week later, threatened with confiscation of their property, the Pashchenkos left their home and Fyodor's father went to work building railroads. It was a good decision; so many people starved in Ukraine in those years that the 1933 census calculated average life expectancy at just 11 years.

After fighting in World War II, Fyodor landed at the Nedelnoye collective when "a relative grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and took me to a village there and said, 'Here's your bride,' " he says, smiling at his wife, Alexandra.

They joined a system where bureaucrats in Moscow decided what each farm would plant and when, regardless of local weather and soil conditions. Farmers were paid whether they worked or not, and their offspring were guaranteed jobs, regardless of the farm's needs. There was no incentive to do anything better, cheaper or faster. In fact, there was no incentive to do anything at all. Much later, Mikhail Gorbachev would admit: "We changed them from masters of their land into day laborers."

No one noticed the mounting losses because no one calculated profit and loss. By 1991, it cost 7 rubles to produce 2 rubles' worth of meat. Officials hid their failure to feed their own people by importing Western grain--$70 billion worth in the last 30 years--and naming the program "bread exports."

In a study last year, the World Bank showed with devastating detail that no part of the collective system had ever worked. En route from field to market, the report said, Russia lost 30% to 40% of its food. Grain rotted in open air for lack of storage or was lost to dampness and rodents in what storage did exist. Fruits and vegetables spoiled in unrefrigerated rail cars that took 10 days to reach the northern cities at an average speed of 6 m.p.h.

For 60 years, the only private farming was in gardens around peasant cottages. These fraction-of-an-acre plots produced more than 25% of the nation's food on just 3% of the farmland. Despite such statistics, Communist hard-liners kept privatization at bay until well into Gorbachev's era of reform, when a limited amount of state-owned land was leased out. It wasn't until after the failed coup in 1991 that Yeltsin took the first steps to dismantle the collectives: cutting their subsidies, forcing them to "reorganize" and to transfer portions of their vast holdings to virtually any individual who applied. Farmers may buy or lease the land, but prices for the exchanges have yet to be established.

Already Yeltsin's reforms are paying off. Food supplies to the cities have improved and the specter of starvation has passed, says Izvestia farm reporter Valery Konovalev. He credits the private farmers--there are now nearly 200,000 of them--the free market in food and the freeing of collective farms from the control of Moscow bureaucrats.

In Nedelnoye, in five crumbling stores arrayed around the grim square in the center of town, the lines are long, the goods are meager and the prices just keep getting higher. The new economics are distinctly unpopular here. "Family farms won't work," says one of the collective's middle managers. "You need at least 10 to 15 families working together on one farm. What if someone gets sick?" And a dairymaid, complaining about prices, is more emphatic: "They should shoot the people who brought on these times!" she says. "Shame! Bring back Brezhnev!"

In Nedelnoye, in five crumbling stores arrayed around the grim square in the center of town, the lines are long, the goods are meager and the prices just keep getting higher. Yeltsin's reforms are distinctly unpopular here. "Family farms won't work," says one of the collective's middle managers. "You need at least 10 to 15 families working together on one farm. What if someone gets sick?" And a dairymaid, complaining about prices, is more emphatic: "They should shoot the people who brought on these times!" she says. "Shame! Bring back Brezhnev!"

BACK AT HIS COTTAGE, MISHA RUSHES to keep his seedlings from freezing by stoking the dwelling's only heat source, a traditional brick stove the size of a room. It's homey but primitive at Misha's house. The interior walls, carefully wallpapered, are warped into waves. A 1977 Sears catalogue sits on a side table, well-thumbed with wishing. Misha cooks on a hot plate and washes up in a bucket of water. The only luxury here is a sauna he built at the back of the garden, complete with a tank of water on the roof for a freezing shower afterward.

Tamara Pashchenko and daughters Natasha and Lena are less than charmed by these living conditions. For now, they visit mostly during the warm summers of the midnight sun, leaving Misha to travel to Moscow on occasional weekends once the snows begin. Tamara has kept her relatively high-paying job at the margarine monopoly and the girls are still in school. "It would be much better if Tamara and the family would come," Misha admits, "but she likes her job and the city. She wants a heated bathroom!"

Misha's move back to the farm began with an impulse purchase one day in 1987. The family was driving from Moscow to Nedelnoye to visit his parents. At the urging of his daughter Natasha, Misha stopped to check out some goats for sale at the side of the road, and then found himself stuffing a nanny and two kids into his Russian Fiat, already crowded with four people and two dogs. He left the goats with Fyodor and Alexandra, but the idea of becoming a farmer had taken root.

The next year, when I met Misha, he was still a KGB captain. As an American correspondent in Moscow, I was "guarded" both at home and at work by intelligence officers in police uniforms who questioned my Soviet visitors and telephoned headquarters every time I came and went. Unlike others stationed at my apartment building, Misha greeted residents and helped start frozen cars. When I came home at 2 a.m. from reporting on the disintegration of the Soviet Union, he would ask me the latest news on the incredible events unfolding in his country--but only under cover of darkness. In daylight, he was formal and aloof.

Eventually, we traded gifts: honey from his parents' beehives in Nedelnoye; a blue bikini from the West for his 16-year-old daughter. He even worked up the nerve to invite my husband and me to dinner with his family. And, after the failed coup, he finally felt safe enough to come to our apartment.

When Misha and I spoke on the phone, he used a code name. "It's Doctor Zhivago," he'd say. Like the protagonist of that classic Russian novel who headed for the countryside during the revolution, Misha had begun to think of escaping the mounting chaos in the Soviet Union by going home to Nedelnoye. He feared that people in his position would wind up in street battles. In the country, he could avoid the violence and provide food and a refuge for his family in the event of civil war.

His worries about his job and civil unrest were giving him ulcers. "I felt so pressured and obligated to certain people. I would not tell the top people what they wanted to hear. I just told them what happened, and no more. So they didn't like me," he explains. In 1990, he won a medical retirement from the KGB.

At about the same time, he asked the Nedelnoye village council to allot him some land. Though Misha had been born on the collective, had helped build the family cottage in Nedelnoye and had married a local girl (Tamara grew up in the cottage where he now lives), he was treated as an outsider. The council refused to give him land because his internal passport said he was a resident of Moscow, and he didn't dare jeopardize the family's Moscow residency permit by transferring the registration.

Although the council denied Misha's request, his wife's grandmother--85 years old, barely ambulatory and also living in Moscow--was found eligible to claim land because she still owned the family's cottage in the village. In her name, Misha qualified for a half-acre peasant plot. By the 1991 growing season, the council granted Misha a plot in his own name. Another half acre. Luckily, it was adjacent to the first.

Sitting in his cottage, Misha says he is confident that transforming his life was a good decision. His KGB pals back in Moscow have offered him a job in a new security guard firm at 10,000 rubles a month, a far cry from his 300-ruble-a-month pension, which was set before prices--and inflation--were freed. But he's not interested. "I'm a peasant at heart," he explains. "I'd get enraged in Moscow. I'd say, 'What's the point of standing in line two hours for a piece of butter?' "

Not that life as a farmer is any easier. Because seed, feed, tools and tractors were all allocated to the collective farms, there are no shops where you can buy or rent such items anywhere in Russia. When Misha needed sheep shears, he couldn't even find them in Moscow.

According to Izvestia's Konovalev, the way to get sheep shears is to go straight to the factory and offer meat in trade. But Misha didn't know the name of such a factory or how to find out. Until recently such information was kept secret, and phone directories had yet to appear. He finally made do with a pre-revolutionary wool scissors, while Tamara held each squirming sheep for two hours.

Sometimes the obstacles--and the old slave mentality--stop Misha cold. When his family wanted to tap into the natural gas line that runs past their home, they assumed that they had to get permission from the farm director. It took years of pleading before the line was approved and it was only when they went to the gas monopoly that they found out that the rules had changed along the way. "Why didn't you just come here? It's none of the collective's business," they were told.

Now, a similar situation exists with the water line that runs down Misha's street. Asked why neither he nor his neighbors have installed the 20 or 30 feet of pipe needed to hook into the line and give their homes running water, Misha gets a little defensive. We don't know that we can, he says. "There are still lots of laws we don't about."

Still, Misha's greatest problem is getting a tractor so he can apply for more land. In the past, it took connections for one of the few independent farmers to get a tractor, explains reporter Konovalev: "Someone from the Communist Party had to call a collective and say, 'Sell him a tractor.' " Now it takes connections or lots of money. Tractors went on the open market at the same time prices were freed--within months, their price soared from 15,000 rubles to 250,000 rubles, about 70 times Misha's annual pension. (It is virtually impossible to assign a constant dollar value to the ruble these days because of inflation that has hit 2,000% a year.)

Misha has thought of stepping backward in time, and resorting to horsepower to help him take on more land. But in Nedelnoye, there are no horses for sale. He has asked the farm to let him and the 12 other private farmers in the area set up their own small equipment cooperative, but the farm barred even brief rentals, fearing that its shoddy equipment would break. Nearly a third of the farm's equipment is already unusable for lack of spare parts. "Right now, nobody has anything to share," Misha explains.

NEDELNOYE IS A VILLAGE OF MUD AND PUDDLES and poverty, its wooden cottages leaning like drunks from the heaving of the earth as it freezes and thaws. Traditional lattice work window frames show pride, but behind each cottage, there are outbuildings scrounged together with bits of broken asbestos and scrap lumber. Saplings grow from the roof of the disintegrating village church, once the heart of the community. Pillaged by the Communists, it is now a greasy garage.

The collective farm still runs everything here. It sponsors the Saturday night disco, the movie club and Nedelnoye's one bright spot: a kindergarten furnished charmingly with hand-painted child-size chairs. Continuing the socialist tradition, parents pay just a ruble a day per child--the farm absorbs the rest of the 27 rubles it costs to run the school.

Out in the fields, Anna Punina, the farm's chief accountant, picks through a mess of mold, bacteria and mush. Along with a dozen other middle managers, she is salvaging seed potatoes from winter storage in straw-and-dirt mounds.

When Misha and his father stored his seed potatoes last year, they washed and dried each one to prevent mold and rot. The collective farmers dumped their potatoes into storage holes mud and all, so nearly half the potatoes Punina finds amid the muck are spoiled. The economics of this are not lost on her: "If this were private property," she says, "this wouldn't happen. You'd take better care. You'd go bankrupt fast if you didn't." Then she sighs. "In one year, you can't change people's mind-set."

At the farm's chilly tractor repair barn, the potatoes Punina and her colleagues salvaged are being sliced in half for planting by 25 people wielding paring knives. Watching the laborious work, anyone could envision a better way: perhaps a trough funneling the potatoes to a miniature guillotine. Supervisor Valentina Gurianova dismisses any idea of mechanization. "It's impossible. It has to be done by hand."

None of this inefficiency is lost on the farm's new director, Nikolai Arzhent, who has shifted seamlessly from Communist Party honcho to capitalist CEO. The big, bluff 35-year-old, once a party secretary ("I loved it!" he booms) now dismisses the traditional side of his empire with contempt. "18th Century," he calls it.

Instead, he and his aides have turned to "commercial activities" that have very little to do with agriculture. Their wheeling and dealing has brought in 5 million rubles for the collective in just three months--about what the entire collective earned in the same amount of time last year. Arzhent won't give details, except to say he has great connections and that it is now possible to buy raw alcohol for 250 rubles a bottle and sell it for 500 rubles to people who actually drink the stuff. Until a few months ago, that was a crime called speculation. Now it's legal, and with everything in short supply, it's easy to become a ruble millionaire.

Sitting in his office adorned with a classic Soviet painting of happy peasants scything flowers, Arzhent explains that the collective complied with Yeltsin's order to reorganize by voting to become a corporation. Each of the farm's 450 workers and 400 pensioners is now eligible for 10 acres of land and 20,000 to 25,000 rubles worth of the farm's capital. They can leave it in the hands of the corporation and hope to earn a profit, or they can take the land and capital private. A year after Yeltsin's decrees, however, only 13 had opted for private farming.

One of those who chose independence is Alexander Chernov, the object of Misha's envy because he is the only private farmer in the area to have acquired a tractor. He just happens to be the former director of the collective.

When Chernov took his shares private, he got a tractor as his cut of the farm's capital. Then he added to his 10-acre allotment by applying for land under the national privatization process. Though his tractor is actually 8 years old and broken, and though it took him six months and six different approvals to end up with a 128-acre spread, most everyone thinks the ex-director got a sweet deal. On top of everything else, Chernov signed a contract that obligates the corporation to help him with supplies and equipment and to buy his produce at market prices.

Arzhent defends the contract. His farm is making a guaranteed profit on it, he says. For example, it buys Chernov's milk for 3 rubles a liter and sells it to the dairy for 4 rubles. In the farm's own dairy, the cows eat feed that is worth more than the milk they produce.

"My head doesn't hurt if Chernov doesn't have enough feed," Arzhent says. "He takes care of it himself. Every day, I have to worry about whether there is enough food for all those cows."

Arzhent would much rather spend his days transforming the farm completely. Eventually, he envisions the corporation as a conglomerate providing marketing, transportation, construction and other services to new private farmers. In the meantime, he is expanding the farm's "commercial interests" where he can. He recently obtained three trucks. ("Someone just gave them to us, you could say.") And Arzhent plans to sell off some of the farm's property, starting with 26 concrete duplexes that in previous years would have been allocated to the director's buddies on the staff. Half of the duplexes will be offered to weekenders from Moscow at a price of 1.5 million rubles each--a mind-boggling sum in a country where rent has been a token 20 to 40 rubles a month.

One night, Arzhent is taking a break at a nearby resort owned by the local atomic power plant, and dreaming of his own little piece of Russia. In the past three months alone, he has made 100,000 rubles based on his 2% of the collective's profits. Now he gazes around the resort's charming private lounge, decorated with carved bears, gold and red tables and elaborate fairy tale murals. "When we get rich," he confides, waving his hand to include his smiling wife, "we're going to buy this place."

AS THE FROST DISAPPEARS, Misha's mood swings wildly between optimism and despair. "Yes, Chernov got a tractor," he says darkly. "But for me, they wouldn't have anything!"

Sometimes he worries that the whole foundation of his new life will crumble. Tamara has told him about a professor from Yeltsin's team who visited her office and offered his opinion that a hard-liner would oust the president. The expert suggested that "as soon as they have sold the factories (to private interests) and gotten the money, they'll nationalize again and we'll be back where we started," she said. Such talk, says Misha, "makes everyone afraid."

At one point, he considers buying more animals and letting them graze on unused collective land. "If I get my own land, the farm can take it away from me. But if it's state land, they can't," he figures. It's the same twisted logic that allows Russians to deal with the shortage of windshield wipers by stealing them off another car. "It's socialist property," they shrug. "He can take some from the next guy."

Once again, Misha's thinking is mired in the old Soviet ways, assuming that there are no opportunities when in fact the rules of the game are changing daily. He and his parents were vaguely aware of the collective farm reorganization, but he was startled to hear that pensioners are entitled to land and capital. His head jerks up. "Can elderly people take the land and let me work on it?" he asks.

When the answer is yes, he starts to make plans. "We have to have a family meeting," he says. His four brothers--three of them in the police or the military, one still a farmer in the collective --will certainly expect a share of the newfound legacy. Maybe, he hopes, "they can take the rubles and I can take the land."

A few days later, Misha has yet another strategy to consider. Alexander Kutuzov, a national Peasant's Association representative, tells him of a new government grant of 75,000 rubles for people moving from the city to the country to become private farmers. It's far short of the 250,000 rubles necessary for a new tractor, but it might buy something used.

"You mean it's without interest?" Misha asks suspiciously.

"Yes, its a gift," Kutuzov replies. "Absolutely free of charge to anyone who becomes a farmer and intends to live on his own farm."

Pashchenko is not convinced. Does he have to change his passport registration from Moscow to Nedelnoye? "Everyone tells me to get registered here," he complains. "This means I'll have to divorce, to come and live here alone. And my wife will be visiting me as if she is my girlfriend. That's the way the law is."

But Kutuzov protests that this is no longer necessary. "Probably we will soon have no residence registration, just as in other civilized countries," he adds.

That evening, he brings out the vodka to brainstorm with his new neighbor, a refugee from the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. Maybe they could pool their resources. "If I get 75,000 rubles and you get 75,000 rubles, that's real money!" he tells Lyosha Antonov over a dinner of Uzbek-style dumplings.

In typical Russian fashion, they are drinking to get sloshed, and at least for the moment, Misha is happy. He may or may not have found a partner, but he has found a friend--another outsider.

ONE WEEK INTO PLANTING AND MISHA Pashchenko has yet another reason to be happy and hopeful. Alexander Chernov has finally gotten his famous tractor up and running. Perhaps he can talk the former collective director into loaning him the tractor.

For this growing season, though, he admits that his dream of the land across the creek will have to wait. "I'm already too late," he says. "I'd have to do it in two weeks and it'll take three months just to file all the documents."

But there is always next year; Misha hasn't given up.

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