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Moscow News
May 4-10, 2007
The Slow Extinction of Russia's Villages
MN correspondents investigate the condition of the country's agricultural lands, and found 30 million ownerless plots

By Lyudmila Butuzova and Pyotr Kassin (photo)

The fields in Russian villages are overgrown. Juniper was the first to appear, followed by little pine trees. A year later, and you will need a spade to uproot them.

Nadezhda, a former agronomist who used to command respect, is now an unemployed villager. Today, she spends her time pulling out little pine trees. Within three years, she has cleared half a hectare of land. She does not know who owns the field - it has changed hands three times during that time.

"I used to grow wheat here," Nadia (diminutive for Nadezhda) said, as if justifying such futile work."Every time I say to myself: If the owner turns up suddenly, he will start plowing the land."

Nine of the 12 farms in the Meshchevsky District of Kaluga Region are in the same situation. In villages elsewhere in Russia, the picture is even more bleak.

"It serves us right for failing to fight for our land," Nadezhda said angrily. "Let everything remain as it is."

The woman continued her hopeless struggle against the vegetation, and then continued. "I'm always pondering over this point: It turns out that peasants are not needed in this country. But how are they going to live without agriculture? Maybe they're preparing a replacement for us?"


Rumors that the district's kolkhoz [collective farm] members would be replaced have been swirling since 2003, when the first investor showed up in Meshchevsk. His name - Rajinder - was a bit strange for those places; so was his nationality - he was a Sikh, a member of a small but warlike tribe in India. The locals claimed that people in India did not like the Sikhs because, among other reasons, two of their fanatics had assassinated Indira Gandhi.

Long Russified and married to a girl from Moscow, Raj promised the kolkhoz members that he would not engage in any seedy activities. He would dedicate all the energy of his fellow tribesmen from India to the development of the farm. Because the Sikhs work in shifts, no one knew exactly how many of them were working on the farm. But everyone knew that the Sikhs at first tried to raise rabbits, but that experiment ended in failure. The same story with the chickens. However, they proved more successful with pigs, and soon raised 400 heads.When MN correspondents arrived at the farm, the main pig farmer was a Sikh named Hardiv, who lived in a tiny house near the pigsty. An outgoing man with a warm smile, he works for Raj but has yet to see a paycheck.

"We work for free too," Lyuba Kataskina says with a sigh, as she watches buyers flay the last cow at the kolkhoz."What else can we do? Others are worse off."

Yet, the poor investor owns 3,500 hectares of the best lands on different farms."Why grab so much land," asked Nadezhda Simakova, a specialist from Raikomzem (the District Committee for Land Resources and Land Management). "A little land is enough if it yields whatever you want to raise. At first, Raj agreed to lease the land, but he became anxious when he saw there was a land buying spree. He had no money left to develop the land he had bought. All our investors seem to behave in the same way."


In Meshchevsky District, more than a third of the 65,000 hectares of arable land has been bought up. There are 13 new owners. They are tactfully called "investors," although fewer than half of them have put money into production. Many just buy and keep land "as a reserve."

"I can guess how to call them," said district administrator Roman Smolensky. "But they are such big shots that it's best to leave them alone. Some of them like to talk on TV, saying that given the present state of agriculture in this country, Russian villages have little prospects. Such talk really upsets me. If things are so bad, why did they come here to dupe people?"

In the morning, Smolensky shouted at a Moscow banker who had called to ask, "Do the peasants have any shares of the collective left? I'm buying them.

I want to raise pedigree geese in your district." Smolensky is obviously tired of hearing such promises. At best, he says, investors come in and keep bears in cages or restore a village club to make it look like a manor house of old.

This is what farmer Alevtina Gavrilyuk, 60, did.

Gavrilyuk represents an exotic investor in Meshchevsk. Who is she? Everyone says she is "just a woman from Moscow." But she describes herself as a self-made person who finished just eight grades in secondary school, and that she had gained experience in many blue-collar jobs while accompanying her husband on business trips across the country. Their assignments enabled them to save their wages. With their savings they bought a store in the city of Tver and a restaurant in Moscow. They recently sold their businesses. Asked why, Alevtina's son Vadim, 40, (whom the villagers have nicknamed barin, a member of the gentry in old Russia) answered: "We have to revive the Russian village, don't we?"

For the sake of that noble aim, Alevtina bought up some 500 shares of land from the peasants, paying them 1,000 rubles per hectare. The villagers lined up to sell their plots, consoling themselves by reasoning: "To hell with our shares. Anyway the land will remain where it is. With this rich aunt around, it will be easy to develop the kolkhoz (collective farm)."

They have been waiting for four years now; only a few of them managed to get jobs from Alevtina. The majority of the villagers were refused work, being either drunkards or lazy. Ivanov, the former district administrator, got a job with Alevtina as her butler.


The heads of district administrations are mostly those who took office after the mass-scale buy-up of land. Dead set against the money-bag strangers, they fight with all their might for the interests of the deceived peasants.

Roman Smolensky, head of Meshchevsky District, says angrily: "They never worked on the land. On top of that, they contrive to evade the payment of taxes! Each landowner should pay 200,000 to 300,000 rubles in taxes a year to the municipality."

The trick is that the new landowners who have bought up land are in no hurry to register it in their names. The same is the case with the rich men's mansions in Moscow's prestigious Rublyovka area: Until the last knob is screwed on, the real estate is held to be in the construction stage, and it's not necessary to pay tax on the property. But land is not a mansion: You have to use the land for its designated purpose, or be deprived of it.

This provision of the law inspires Smolensky. He explains: "We travel around the noblemen's fields from sowing to harvest time, and note down what we see. And then we take the matter to court, with a request to return the uncultivated lands to the jurisdiction of the municipality."

That's just a pipe dream. Russia has no judicial precedent of a landowner being legally deprived of his land due to the misuse thereof. Judges are very cautious about such disputes, and the Public Prosecutor's Office finds no ground to consider any litigation. A person sells his plot of land to a buyer - this is no crime, is it? Even in the vicinities of Moscow, where dispossessing the peasants of land was most impudent, and the dispossession often resulted from collusion between business and the authorities, the dispossessed parties can prove nothing; they cannot even draw the attention of the Prosecutor General's Office to the issue.

"We must act," Smolensky told this correspondent with conviction. "In France, the least pressure on the farmers will bring them off the farm to demonstrate along the Champs Elysees."

"Why, then, don't you go to the Red Square?"

"We don't have enough fuel to get us to Moscow."

The only recourse is to wreak havoc locally on the nerves of the new landowners, forcing them to give the land back to its rightful owners. Solely out of class solidarity, this MN correspondent is supposed to side with the working peasantry. Besides, from a purely humane viewpoint, I don't like it when land is bought up just to increase one's wealth. After all, land is not a toy. But I don't know what approach I should take to the fact that besides the expensive and uncultivated lands totaling 20 million hectares (according to the All-Russia Institute of Agrarian Problems), there is another 30 million hectares of ownerless land. In principle, these vast areas should have owners - they have constituted land shares since 1991. But since then, some villagers have moved to town, others have died, and still others have forgotten that they have priceless land. In the Meshchevsk District of Kaluga Region, such ownerless land makes up a third of all holdings. Most interestingly, under the law, without the consent of the owner, who is nowhere to be seen, land can neither be utilized nor brought under the municipality's control. Legislators have obviously neglected this problem. Land legislation needs to be amended, but thus far the matter is still in the stage of correspondence with the State Duma.


The villagers here fly into a rage upon any mention of its former chief, believing he is to blame for the fact that the kolkhoz members have become landless. Anna Falaleyeva relates: "He scared us, telling us that if we did not sell our plots of land, they would be taken away by the state. When our kolkhoz went bankrupt, all its property disappeared and the villagers got nothing. We feared the same thing would happen to our land."

It happened in late fall 2004. January 2005 saw the completion of the procedure of issuing state certificates of land possessions; it was a tangled bureaucratic procedure which no one could understand properly, and for which you had to pay a rather large sum. The villagers were told that if the owner of a land share failed to obtain the necessary documents, his share would be placed under so-called trust management. Under whose trust management? This would be decided by the officials concerned. Hundreds of thousands of peasants across Russia fell for that trick. They sold their land for peanuts for fear that if they delayed, they would get nothing at all.

Under that procedure, Nesterovka was bought up piecemeal by the well-known film director Andron Konchalovsky. He did not come to the village in person. Only a photocopy of his passport was seen in the village. On his behalf acted Alevtina Gavrilyuk, who was now familiar to all the villagers. Former district head Ivanov provided some sort of ideological support for the purchase/sale transaction. By the way, this couple also represented the interest of other personalities, such as Draganov, State Duma deputy and son of the ex-chairman of Russia's Customs Committee. These men too own land in Meshchevsk.

Some members of the Land Committee took her side, saying, "At least she is doing some work on the land, plowing for appearances' sake, not all 5,000 hectares of course, but she has a grain field. She has bought machinery and some calves. She is throwing money right and left. Now she is building an ethno village for foreigners, now she plans to build a museum of the nobility. You see, she doesn't know where to keep her antique furniture."

The villagers were promised jobs and prosperity. Konchalovsky, for one, promised to build farms and processing plants and cultivate heavenly orchards in Nesterovka Village. Few could resist such tempting promises.

Tatyana Nazarova, former chief economist of the kolkhoz, told us: "I decided not to sell my land for any price, for it would provide my bread and butter in hard times. And I could at least use to graze my cattle."

The villagers now stealthily graze their cows in Konchalovsky's fields, where the grass is waist-high. For the fourth year, his land is lying idle, like a bank deposit. The peasants swear at the landowner and hold a grudge against him. They claim he cheated them when he said he would bring prosperity to them; he had cheated them into agreeing to a bad deal. The peasants seem to have a point: three years ago, a land share (11 hectares) sold for 10,000 rubles; now it's worth thousands of dollars.


It's somehow painful to see the lifeless fields of the new Kaluga landowners. However, it must be said that the former kolkhoz lands not yet bought don't look much better. The 11 agricultural enterprises are able to work an aggregate area of only 6,000 hectares; the rest is unused. You don't need to ask the reasons. Any kolkhoz chairman will tell you that he cannot make ends meet because of the disparity in prices, the exorbitant interest on bank loans, and the wrong policies of the state. You can't deny that this is how matters actually stand.

Pyotr Ryabovichev, chairman of Pokrovsky Kolkhoz, explains: "People are suffering because the country is thrown to the dogs. We have to bring back the days of socialism, when electricity cost peanuts, and we could exchange a liter of milk for five liters of fuel. Let land be common property, and let us chase away the so-called investors. They are not real investors." The bitter experience of Kaluga-style investment seems to have convinced kolkhoz chairmen that strangers come to the village not to work the land, but to plunder it. But examples of outsiders really investing in the land do exist.


In the Tula Region, the Samoshins are farmers who farm by scientific methods. They got hold of the bankrupt Maxim Gorky kolkhoz, and are bringing it back to life by growing potatoes. Although business in the village is slow, it received a processing plant of its own within just a few years. It is a modern-day, automated and spotlessly clean potato processing complex where Dutch potatoes are graded, packaged and sent to consumers. The Tula Packing Firm, having studied demand, persuaded the kolkhoz to accept it as a partner. Later, the Nizhny Novgorod AgroTrade, which sells potatoes to the army, schools, hospitals, and to GUIN (or the Main Administration for the Execution of Punishments), became a partner. AgroTrade keeps 30 percent of the potato harvest for itself, and faces no marketing problems, which at times discourages farmers from growing this crop. The agricultural holding company uses German equipment, which is serviced by a German fellow who identified himself as Shuman. The peasants have no idea why he has a vested in the company.

Nikolai Rogachev, a mechanization expert, says: "I think he is here just because he is interested. He would go home to his wife, and come back to us again - to introduce new technologies. I cannot imagine how we managed to do without them before."

Never before were the kolkhoz members able to get monthly wages of 10,000 to 15,000 rubles. The peasants say of their benefactors, the Samoshins: "They are learned people. They have no time for idle talk with us."

If you tell these hard workers to chase away the investors and reinstall the order of the old days, they will come at you with pitchforks.