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Washington Post
July 25, 2003
A Survival Mission in Rural Russia
To Keep Farm Alive, Director Keeps Money and Vodka Away From Workers

By Sharon LaFraniere
Washington Post Foreign Service

GORLOVO, Russia -- In his battle to keep the 6,500-acre cooperative farm he manages from following thousands of other Russian farms into oblivion, Ivan Matantsev has survived economic panic, a killer drought and endless breakdowns of his fleet of 15-year-old tractors. Whether he can survive Galina Belikova is still in doubt.

From a coffee-colored cottage nicknamed "the pit," built on an asphalt lane with no name, Belikova dispenses bottles of rotgut vodka to any of the farm's 80 workers who can muster 30 rubles. By Matantsev's reckoning, nearly a third of his workers would gladly give in to the incapacitation offered by Belikova and the other vodka vendors.

To counter that danger, the farm's 53-year-old director says he decided to take drastic action. For the past seven years, he has refused to pay cash salaries to his workers. Instead, they receive scrip that is good for purchases at the farm's own store, which sells food, toiletries and other staples, but no booze. Some workers are grumbling, but Matantsev says the main purpose is temperance, and his tactics seem to be working.

Alcohol "is the number one problem in Russia," Matantsev said in his simple wooden home, located about 10 doors down from Belikova's shop. "You can see it with your own eyes. So many ruined, abandoned villages. So many unemployed people. Now that is frightening."

Matantsev is battling not just for the farm, but for the survival of the village of Gorlovo.

Measured by yardsticks such as the growth of gross domestic product and the opening of boutiques in big cities such as Moscow, Russia is enjoying a boom. But the countryside offers another measure of the social and economic state of the country. In rural Russia there is endemic unemployment and a rising death toll from alcohol poisoning and suicide. Agriculture is in crisis and the government is struggling with crushing new responsibilities, such as the operation of ramshackle power plants inherited from bankrupt Soviet-era factories.

The challenge is simply too much for many villages. The preliminary results of last year's census showed that, since 1989, 17,000 Russian hamlets have become ghost towns, as people give up and move to cities. About 38,000 villages have no more than 10 inhabitants and are likely to disappear, according to the nation's chief statistician.

But Gorlovo survives, and Matantsev's determination to curb access to alcohol has brought a measure of attention to the tiny community, located about 480 miles east of Moscow, and to nine nearby settlements where the rest of the farm's laborers work and live. At one point, the regional authorities questioned whether his measures constituted a violation of human rights.

But Matantsev sticks to them, saying that desperate measures are called for if the farm's employees are to survive the economic experiment of the post-communist era.

In Soviet times, his farm was a classic communist collective, owned by the state and tilled by worker-farmers. After the fall of communism, it became a cooperative, with its workers receiving shares in the enterprise.

Some 12.8 million Russians own such shares today. Theoretically, they all enjoy the right to break away and create their own farms, or to sell their land to big commercial farms that some analysts describe as the future of Russian agriculture. But in most cases they cannot actually do so because the land of the collectives was never divided -- even if a farmer owns, say, 5 percent of a collective's shares, those shares do not correspond to a particular plot.

By some estimates, 90 percent of Russian farmland is still controlled by former collectives or the state, meaning that much agriculture remains locked in the inefficiencies of the Soviet era. At the same time, farms have had to make do without many of the subsidies that used to flow from Moscow.

The Gorlovo farm has had little or no profit for years, according to Matantsev. It produces just 350 tons of milk a year, compared with 500 to 600 in the early 1990s. That decline was caused in part by a severe drought that killed a fourth of the milk cattle last year.

The past decade has also exacted a bitter toll on adjacent farms. Many fields have turned to weeds, barns have collapsed into disorderly heaps of boards and jobless men subsist by stripping copper from electrical cables during the area's frequent power outages. The Ponazyrevo region that surrounds Gorlovo has lost 16 percent of its population over the past decade, dropping to 9,704 inhabitants.

In interviews over the course of two warm July days on his farm, surrounded by stands of birch and glorious fields of purple lupine, Matantsev said paying his workers in barter makes economic sense. It allows him to use the farm's scant income for basic needs, such as spare parts for the tractors and goods for the company store.

And he argues that it helps him preserve a mostly sober workforce to till the fields and feed the cows. A diary he has kept during his 25 years as director documents how drunkenness has crippled production in Soviet and post-Soviet years alike: "What a trouble," reads one early entry. "They are paying me this salary and the entire collective farm did not work for two days."

He also contends there is a moral imperative not to put cash in the pockets of men who will drink the family income and perhaps end up in an early grave from alcohol poisoning, like the husband of a local schoolteacher, buried less than two months ago.

"It is a painful issue, for every family," he said.

It is a lesson he knows in his own home: He has watched both of his sons battle vodka. Two months ago, he lost one of them to suicide.

Matantsev has taken other steps to make the most of the farm's meager resources. He has opened a bakery to use surplus grain, and set up channels by which the farm sells half of its milk directly to local stores. He also started a meat-processing operation, although it consists mainly of one woman with a set of knives.

In interviews, some of Matantsev's employees called his method of compensation a throwback to the paternalistic days of communism, when lives were controlled by the dictates of party bosses. Workers say that they can get cash for emergencies or for purchases other than food, but they add that they must ask Matantsev as a child would ask a parent, justifying every kopek.

"You cannot say give me money to buy pants, for instance, because it is embarrassing. So we have to say, give me money to buy a pig," said Berta Arnst, 43, who works as a milkmaid for Matantsev in neighboring Mundyr. "It's very good for the boss, because we are all dependent on him," said her husband, Anatoly.

At the one-story, run-down barn in Gorlovo, a half dozen rubber-booted milkmaids hauling buckets after their evening work said Matantsev's tactics accomplish little. "We don't have cash, but they still drink," said Galina Verkova, 38, brushing away flies as she rested on a wooden bench. "My husband drinks, too. He steals from our home. He can take the last thing we have."

But other employees support what Matantsev has done. At the farm's store, Svetlana Beloborodova, 39, praised him from behind a counter, adorned with a simple abacus, for marrying the communist dream of a cashless society with the demands of capitalism. "We have communist capitalism here!" she declared proudly.

Other supporters of Matantsev point out that the workers are hardly powerless to stop him.

He owns less than 3 percent of the farm; the rest is divided among the workers, a majority of whom could fire him. The cash-vs.-scrip debate rages whenever the workers gather for a meeting, but Gennady Suvorov, who heads the village's local government, said, "In the end, they say, 'Well, he is a good guy after all.' "

For his part, Matantsev says people need look no further than the nearest ghost village to justify his measures. "It is obvious that if we hadn't done what we did, it would have been worse. Those who didn't do anything, their villages do not exist any more.

"If we don't solve the problems in a year or two," he added, "then we will cease to exist."

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