In July the wheat crop failed, roasted alive in the dust as the sun baked the hard earth of Russia's southern steppe to 160 degrees.
Soviet-era collective farms around here lie in ruins, the livestock killed and butchered, barns and dwellings pillaged by scavengers. The local administration of this isolated, semidesert area has run out of cash, and in the largest town, half of the adult population is jobless.
On the threshold of winter, when temperatures on the wind-scoured plains near the Kazakhstan frontier can drop to nearly 40 below, many families have no money and virtually nothing to eat.
Some have resorted to making gruel from cattle fodder, or expect to perish from hunger or lack of fuel. In a macabre coincidence, the movie theater in Pallasovka is featuring a Stephen King horror film, "Thinner."
"Maybe we'll all die in the winter," said Svetlana Karakusheva, a 44-year-old mother raising five children in a rural settlement. Her kitchen garden has become an infertile dust bowl.
Hunger and cold, ancient Russian fears that were supposed to be banished by capitalist abundance, are back to haunt many.
This year's harvest of wheat, rye, barley and other grains, withered by prolonged and fierce drought, was 49.7 million tons, the State Statistics Committee reported Monday. That was the smallest harvest nationwide since 1953, the last year of dictator Josef Stalin's reign. The committee also reported that more than 44 million Russians--30% of the population--last month were living below the poverty line of a meager $37 a month in income.
Government officials have been reassuring a population already jittery because of economic turmoil that the situation is under control and that there is plenty of wheat and other food in storage to feed the nation.
That may well be the macro picture. But the harsh facts of life in the Pallasovka region, 600 miles southeast of Moscow, show that the stomachs of some Russians are far from full and that many fear they will have little or nothing with which to nourish themselves and their families in the months to come.
"If you have money, you won't starve; if you don't, you will have problems, even in Moscow," predicted Andrei Y. Sizov, who runs a think tank in the capital that tracks the country's agricultural output. "To escape social shocks--hunger marches, hunger riots--we've got to take care of matters now."
Late last month, the Russian Red Cross and its international affiliate launched an appeal for $15 million in emergency aid. Millions across Russia--especially the elderly, the disabled, single-parent families, families with many children and rural dwellers--face the most trying winter in a generation, the Red Cross said.
To avert "human catastrophe," the Red Cross targeted 1.4 million people in a dozen regions, from the republic of Buryatia in central Siberia to Kaliningrad on the Baltic coast, as urgent recipients of food parcels, soup kitchen meals, warm clothes and shoes.
'You Can't Exclude Mass Starvation'
"With the indicators we have seen now, the crop failure and the financial crisis, you can't exclude mass starvation," said Borje Sjokvist, head of the Moscow delegation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Those predictions are much more dire than most, and forecasts of cataclysm in Russia have been made before without coming true. But few doubt that nearly seven years after the world's largest country abandoned communism for what was supposed to be the general prosperity of the free market, many people will have to suffer grimly through winter--an ordeal that may well further sap support for post-Soviet changes.
Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov said Wednesday that the government had allocated the sum of $600 million for the purchase of emergency food supplies--enough to feed a third of the population. Earlier this month, he had said he was counting on the private vegetable plots doled out to workers in Soviet times to help feed the populace through the long winter. The Defense Ministry has suggested that military units forage for berries and mushrooms, so soldiers who have not been paid for months don't go hungry.
How miserable life is for some is instantly visible here on the now-defunct Khutor Yesino farm, where 10,000 sheep once grazed.
"There is no coal, no firewood, no work, no money," said Aiman Zukieva, a 41-year-old shepherd's widow frantically trying to raise her two children and a nephew.
The petite Chechen-born woman heats her small brick house by burning sheep dung, and a sympathetic neighbor regularly donates a pail of watery whey--sour milk strained through a sieve--to nourish the youngsters. But it is not enough.
Zukieva keeps 15 chickens and trades eggs for other food. However, she has no feed to tide her fowl through the winter. Her children receive a single slice of bread each for breakfast, and one other scant meal a day. They suffer spells of dizziness.
"I don't like this life," said spindly Rakhmat, Zukieva's 10-year-old daughter, who nonetheless can manage a dazzling smile. "Mother says all the time we'll die in the winter. I don't want to die."
Anatoly I. Galichkin, head of government administration in Pallasovka, a rude border town whose 20,000 inhabitants have to fetch drinking water in buckets from tanker trucks, said he would not be surprised if mobs from the countryside arrive to loot shops and drag him from his office.
"Crowds of 200, 250 people come to me, and I try to feed all of them with a single loaf of bread, like Jesus Christ," he said gloomily.
More than a month ago, Galichkin and his counterparts in five other regions east of the Volga River, where drought singed an area the size of Belgium, sent an open appeal to President Boris N. Yeltsin, warning that the situation was now "a state of emergency."
To date, officials here say, they have received no reply from Moscow.
Authorities in Volgograd, about 120 miles to the southwest, have sent 200 tons of flour--a sixth of what Galichkin said he needs for the winter.
Meanwhile, the government official said, people are dying because they are not eating enough and cannot buy medicines.
"If there is absolutely no help from the government, then there is really just one option left for us--most people will simply starve," Galichkin said.
The food situation in Russia is a complicated good-news, bad-news story. According to Sizov and his SovEkon think tank, crop losses reached 68% in the important wheat-growing Orenburg region south of the Urals in what has been described as the worst drought in half a century. Outside Pallasovka, one kolkhoz, or collective farm, sowed 1,400 tons of seed and reaped a wheat crop of only 400 tons.
But this tableau is not as bleak as it appears, because roughly half of Russia's cattle, sheep, goats and chickens have been killed over the last five years. They were butchered for meat because increases in the prices of fuel and fodder, and the end of government subsidies for animal husbandry, have significantly raised the cost of meat and dairy farming.
So with fewer livestock, Russia now needs less grain. The country, which enjoyed an 88.5-million-ton harvest in 1997, also claims reserves of 20 million tons. The official in charge of coping with disasters, natural and human-made, has given his assurance that Russians will have plenty to eat for the winter.
"I am totally sure that there will be no sort of famine at all, since there are sufficient reserves in the country," Maj. Gen. Sergei K. Shoigu, minister of emergency situations, said this month.
That may be true, one Western agriculture attache in Moscow said. On the other hand, "no one has seen these grain stocks they talk about," said the attache, who estimated that the reserves total no more than 10 million tons.
Already strapped for hard cash, Russia will be forced to buy millions of tons of wheat abroad, the Western diplomat said.
Unpaid Salaries Worsen the Suffering
Whatever the reserves, Tamara Redin, 38, knows her five children are hungry and too thin. Her 36-year-old husband, a diesel locomotive engineer's assistant in Pallasovka, has not been paid for four months.
For want of anything else, Redin has had to give her children, ages 7 to 16, a porridge made from low-quality grain intended for use as animal fodder. They each get half an egg a day, along with a glass of milk mixed with water.
Day after day, the family, which lives along a dirt road near the town's grain elevator, has eaten an unsavory soup made from unripe tomatoes and boiled potatoes. It's been a month and a half since they've had meat. Redin digs her hand into a half-empty sack to show what's left in her larder--potatoes the size of big marbles.
The Redins are hardly an exception. Galina M. Milyokhina, head of family services for Pallasovka district, estimates that 70% of families in town are in similar straits.
Local officials say a good share of the suffering could be alleviated if payment resumes of salaries, retirement pensions and child support, frozen for months because the Russian government has been unable to collect taxes. Although this is one of Prime Minister Primakov's avowed priorities, people in Pallasovka have seen few results. The top local government official has not been paid since April.
Some specialists contend that the new Russian government also has been recklessly slow to purchase the grain needed to feed armed forces members, Interior Ministry troops, prison inmates and patients in state hospitals.
"The state needs to buy 4 million tons. It's only bought 1.3 million so far," Sizov of the think tank said. "Patients in hospitals can't feed themselves."
When the Russian market was opened to consumer goods from outside, imported food products--from French yogurt to Danish salami--flooded in. Annual sales reached an estimated $11 billion. For most Russians, frozen U.S.-produced chicken legs became the cheapest meat. Foreign suppliers were meeting 70% of the meat and dairy needs of the 10 million inhabitants of the Moscow region.
Now, deliveries of U.S. chicken, which had been running at a yearly clip of $800 million, have ground to a virtual halt. Along with other imports, they stopped in mid-August after Russia effectively defaulted on treasury bills, and the banks used for most commercial transactions shut their doors.
A simultaneous tumble in the value of the ruble means that, even if imports resume, U.S. chicken legs will be twice as expensive for anyone paying in Russian currency.
"We can do without animal products, but we can't do without bread," Dmitri F. Vermel, a senior member of the All-Russian Research Institute of Rural Economy in Moscow, said bravely. "We are not Americans, who cannot survive if they don't get their 300 grams [about 10 1/2 ounces] of meat a day."
To ensure basic sustenance for their people, at least 28 of Russia's 89 regions and republics have slapped embargoes on the shipment of grain and other foodstuffs.
In the Volgograd region, which encompasses Pallasovka, officials have effectively banned outside sales of sunflower oil, wheat and 12 other commodities grown by their farmers.
In other parts of Russia, that could make it even harder this winter for people shopping for food. And, with the drop in availability of other foodstuffs, bread should be in even greater demand.
"The grain harvest should be enough to meet food demands," Sizov summed up. "It's another matter how we distribute it. Winter will be difficult for Russia--very difficult."
Meanwhile, people already suffering from privations are struggling to get by, sometimes in circumstances that have more in common with Third World countries than the superpower that Russia once was.
Once-Thriving Farm Now a Shambles
Twenty miles outside Pallasovka, 38 extended families, totaling 200 people, are hunkering down amid the shambles of what was once a farm that had 500 cows.
When state financial support for raising livestock stopped, the animals of Khutor Novy were slaughtered or stolen. Farm managers, residents and vandals ransacked the place for anything they could use or resell.
As a cold wind blew from the east, Safkulu Guseinov, 61, wheeled a rickety wheelbarrow containing pumpkins, red beets and carrots down a road to his house. The small load, the grizzled man said, was all he was able to harvest from his drought-stricken garden.
Winter is shaping up as a time of hunger for the Khutor Novy man and the 10 members of his household.
"They all come to me and say, 'Give me bread,' or 'Give me milk,' but how can I?" Guseinov asked. "I have no money."
During the drought, a woman from a nearby village hanged herself and her 3-year-old daughter with clothesline after being jilted by her husband and then by a live-in lover.
"I can't live like this anymore," Olga Korobova, 22, said in a suicide note written with a mascara pencil. "I've got no way out."
State prosecutor Yuri A. Vlasov said that the single mother's troubles were personal but that the backdrop to her act of despair was depressingly common: no food, no income, no job, suspension of benefits for her daughter, Nina, because no government funds were arriving from Moscow.
"I'm frankly amazed that people are putting up with all of this," the prosecutor said. "We should have had an uprising a long time ago."
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These are the regions and republics in Russia for which the Russian Red Cross and its international affiliate have requested $15 million in emergency aid to help them get through winter.
6. Bashkir Republic
10. Khakassia Republic
12. Buryatia Republic