Nikolai Obushenkov (re agriculture), 1994

Professor Obushenkov interviewed at IMEMO, Moscow, March 1994
Interviewer — Metta Spencer
Interpreters — Julia Kalinina, Viktor Sumsky

OBUSHENKOV: Two years ago I visited China, as apart of a Russian Delegation to study the agrarian reform there. We visited Shen Lu Cover who had been the houses of the peasants, visited their fields and so on. We had many conversations with peasants, with the leadership of agricultural units at all levels, and with people prominent in agrarian resurgenceship. As far as the agrarian reform with Russia concerned had direct relation to them. I used to be part of the working group of the “Istabeldov”. This was the person who chaired the Agrarian Committee of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR during the last period of the USSR’s existence. This group, of which I was also part, prepared a draft law of Agrarian reform in the USSR. As you know, the USSR disappeared, and nobody needs now this draft. After that, I was part of the working group of the World Bank, which prepared blueprints for presidential orders and administration orders in 1991. Lately, almost these days, I have been a participant in a group preparing presidential orders. Unfortunately, I can’t speak now about this last project. Still this Friday I had the impression that I can talk about it. Our president is not very supportive and doesn’t like it when the contents of the documents, still unsigned, become known to the public. Nevertheless, I can give you my general impression comparing reforms in China and Russia.

M: So perhaps later I can ask Ms. Kalinina, who is my interpreter, to speak with you in a month or so… so you could add something.

OBUSHENKOV: Yes. So, it will go to the Chinese… to this issue or China’s village where my first impression is that China’s [village] is heavily overpopulated. Almost too much work force there which is ready on any patch of land. Second, China’s Communist party has a predominant role in any social activity in the countryside. [tape pause] China’s agriculture is still largely primitive. There are very few cows, for instance, who would carry a certain device to work the land behind them. I haven’t seen any horses at all used to cultivate the land. But I would see that from time to time young strong man who would pull behind them a primitive plow. Just once I saw a small tractor push and pull a huge stone, and in such a way, I don’t know the right word… was working the wheat in a matter used in ancient Egypt. This set of methods allowed the Chinese Communist party in the past to unify their presence in communes in a very easy way. Also the importance of this primitive methods allowed easily to switch their equipment from huge estates to working small patches of land. These days, China, typical Chinese family which consists of three people, normally has at this point [Chufsandee], which is a major wheat-growing area in China, just as much as twenty ‘ares’ now. Again, these pieces of land, 20 ‘ares’ are worked in a very primitive way.

M: Interrupt, this terms, 20 hours?

OBUSHENKOV: Ares, not hectare, but are. One hectare is about 100 ares.

M: I’m trying to imagine how much that is in any units that I know. In terms. Compare it to hectare.

OBUSHENKOV: 0.2 of a hectare. [Metta: 100 square meters = 1 are — World Almanac 1992 – A Christmas present from you]

M: Okay.

OBUSHENKOV: Nevertheless, they work it very firmly, and they harvest several group, and the soil is fertile. So whatever share the state has to receive — they give it at a very low price. And they are very glad to be able to feed themselves, to have a house of their own, and this satisfaction of the peasant is a huge success. But the reform managed to feed the whole population. Of course, at the rather initial level, and as a result of this they managed to create state reserves of wheat policy where many more even input on [polistate?] because wheat prices paid by the state are much lower then the market price. Those families which we interviewed were proud to have one sack of wheat for the purposes of sale in free market by the end of the year. That means, just particulars of that… so they were terribly proud to have that sack of wheat all for the purpose of sale in the free market. And of course, they had some possibility to make money in other secondary sectors of agricultural production. And they had the impression that purchase of a tee shirt, or shorts, for the head of the families is one major problem during the year. So these are some very simple impressions from the reform, from the Agricultural reform in China. So, the interests of the farmers in their harvests is truly great. And of course, this mistake is exploited by these… Just giving them a small opportunity to market their product. This is a combination of peasant interests and exploitation. This is the European situation of the 15th or 16th century.

Now let’s switch to Russia. It is almost universally acknowledged that the Agrarian reform is collapsing. One major reason is the presidential decrees or presidential orders are recorded by local administrations and of course by the leadership of the kolkhoz, sovkhoz, and other administrations. When I speak of the leadership of kolkhoz I speak about 15 to 20 people who are in charge of different fields of production. And most important is general apathy of the rural population. Alcoholism is very widespread in the rural areas. A lot of tension is residing there and almost no act to work with people. Nobody wants to take the responsibility for running their own farm. In this situation it would begin in ’92. Many kolkhozes and sovkhozes formally will change their name. Now they call themselves “corporations,” like American farming corporations. But these corporation comprise of up to one thousand people on three hundred [farms] and they are still bigger. Having proclaimed themselves as corporations, they refrained from privatizing land and property. And today the major problem is to find some stimulant for the rural population to come back to active economic life. According to presidential decrees, each peasant, each farmer, has the right to leave the kolkhoz or sovkhoz and to get a share of property and of land. And because of the general apathy of the rural population and also because of the resistance of the leadership of kolkhoz and sovkhoz, practically nobody wants to use this right. That is why we have in Russia right now not more than 300,000 private farms. Many of them go through terrible difficulties created by neighboring kolkhoz and sovkhoz which they just left. These new farms are badly put in a technical sense. Not always do they have the necessary fertilizer or energy supply. That’s why they need their neighbours’ help and these neighbours are his former kolkhoz and sovkhoz and local purchase. And now the problem is purely psychological; many people in these rural areas who are incapable of doing something on their own [hate?] these new farmers, and sometimes these farms are burned down or their home is [not of any use]. This is no coincidence that our government has allowed the farmers to carry firearms. There’s a special administrative order. I just want to say that this process of social disintegration in rural areas after fifty years of good [fertilization] has acquired major proportions. So these days one of the major tasks in the rural areas is to identify and support prospective centres of growth. During the last several weeks in the Moscow newspaper [Stuvista]. (This is the official government paper) they publish some of their unsigned own commentaries about making kolkhoz less big… making them small. This stuff is really run by one of the important people within the presidential administration. This was approved by the president.

M: Was this man/person part of your committee or task force?

OBUSHENKOV: No. I was say he is still too high in the Presidential administration, but I work with his group.

M: And you have sympathetic ideas?

OBUSHENKOV: Yes, of course. We have assistance of the World Bank and the international financial corporations. A big experiment is going on in Nizhny Novgorod.

M: Yes, I have heard about it and I hope I could get some papers about that in English, if that is possible.

OBUSHENKOV: Just a few days ago, Prime Minister Chernomyrdin visited the area and he promised to spread the experience accumulated there throughout the whole country. The presidential order banned deepening of Agrarian reform, which I mentioned earlier, is also largely based on the experience of Nizhny Novgorod and also the experience of the Shophascoze region, next to Moscow, where Nikolai Travsky has the local administration. So it is supposed that voluntarily, kolkhoz,sovkhoz and these corporations, each of them will be split into, say, twenty small units, and the division of land and other properties will go through auctions. But price of the land and other properties will not be in rubles, it will be in shares. But…

M: Is there a…

OBUSHENKOV: Just a moment, I have to consult about this last ‘share’. The right on the part of landlord… So practically, it means that the price for this piece of land will not be in rubles but in some other symbolic measures. There is individualism. It is very complicated. They work with a very complicated way of estimating the value of land, because each hectare has a value of its own, a ‘characteristic value’, and this will be… so there will be very tricky measurements for the value of each piece of land.

M: Let me ask: There is a book called “The Red and the Green”, about socialist agriculture along the []. It’s the fairly new book. I can’t think of the author’s name, but I actually have the book in Moscow. This author proposes that a good transition for people who are afraid to go into farming independently for other reasons, that a good transition system would be share-cropping. And that is not something, so far as I know, that has been practised at all. This is really a kind of new book, and [Julia arrives] unfortunately, (Victor has been translating very well). As far as I know, it has been frowned upon, by I think Marx himself, who said that sharecropping is terrible, so nobody has ever done it. Now what I am wondering is whether when you refer to shares, could there be any similarity between the system you just began to describe and share-cropping? [As I recall, he shakes his head no. But Julia has arrived and there is a transition as she begins to translate.]

OBUSHENKOV: So, last year, on the 28th of October last year, the president permitted the peasants who own this piece of land. He permitted them the sell, to rent, actually to do anything they want with land piece, and it was done especially to provide opportunity for the peasants to join several pieces of land and to create a bigger piece of land. So it will be possible to plant something sufficient to use these big machines so it will be more efficient.

Translator: (Victor Sumsky): I will leave you now. If you have some time you can drop by 1110.

M: 1110? Are you going to be out?

Sumsky: I will still be there for a while.

M: Thank you. Great to see you. Thanks so much. Bye.

(Interview Resumes)

OBUSHENKOV: So according to this decree, every peasant, actually every one is given a certificate that confirms his right in terms his ownership actually, so at any moment, a peasant can go out of this company or kolkhoz where he is a member and take his piece of land away. And it is planned for 1994 to hold a mass campaign in their villages and to give these certificates to peasants. So in that collective farms, they will decide to distribute everything that they own so they will organize auctions, so just not distribute, but sale. And while these distribution, this process of distributions, small pieces of land will be defined, especially, to organize, just small-scale peasant.

M: Larger than their current private plots, though?

OBUSHENKOV: Larger than?

M: Every farmer now has his farmer plot?

OBUSHENKOV: Inside of that, yes, little, small, small pieces of land will be defined, especially for organizers, so those who want to start his own business on a small, they will have this site. And all kinds of small-scale industry and enterprises in the villages, like milk farms or workshops and all these small things that are so needed, so the peasant will be able to buy them — well, some of these certificates. They will be handed out this year, so it is a kind of coupons. Vouchers. And so the leaders of those kolkhozes and sovkhozes who will decide to distribute the ownership, to make their production small scale, they will get special privileges, so it will be encouraged. The same as the leaders of the enterprises that also get privileges during privatization of the enterprises in industry. And those who will initiate the new small auctions in the villages, they will also obtain privileges. I speak about that so openly, because all these things were published already in the newspaper or on radio.

M: So you are saying that this gives a preview of the decree without breaking any of your promises?

OBUSHENKOV: Yes. Now you know about Nizhny Novgorod?

M: Yes. Especially if I could get some papers about it.

OBUSHENKOV: Russian agriculture, Russian life in the village is very specific for a moment because it is needed, a Renaissance, the life there. Their president of the government used of course, their power to solve the problem of reforms. It turned out that freedom is not enough to develop the countryside. What is needed is assistance and stimulation and incentives and very energetic policy of the state. Well, when I was young, I was teaching in the Moscow University and he was pregnant with this freedom in village, and for that I got six years in prison, and five years of exile.

M: You were?

OBUSHENKOV: Yes. Well, and now, after all of these things I say that freedom is not enough to provide capable of life, society in village. Power is also needed, because unexpectedly, the system of sovkhoz and kolkhoz turned out to be… capable to live, or vital. So the main reasons of this situation are: Absence of energetic initiative persons in the village. The village is hardly alive; very highly level of automation and mechanization and dependence of the workers on these centres of machinery. It is extremely difficult to establish a new modern farm in Russia like a Canadian or American one. Any new farm is in deep dependence on the centres of mechanization, and also of the centres that provide technical support. [end side] …persons in the village decide to start their own little small-scale business. The leaders of the previous kolkhoz and sovkhoz who are now the leaders of these auction societies, still keep real power. Well, December 12th, they got very strong support in the elections.

M: Those people supported somebody else? I’m not sure what that means, strong support.

OBUSHENKOV: Actually, their representatives.

M: The representatives of the bosses, the agricultural bosses?

OBUSHENKOV: Yes. They won lots of seats in parliament.

M: So in parliament, they are now well represented?

OBUSHENKOV: Yes. After that, I met with the people in the ministry of Agriculture and also with members of this agriculture committee in the Duma, in the Parliament, and he was just surprised by their euphoria after the elections. So now [our?] main goal is to break the resistance of the agrarian bosses and to start these centres of growing, of development.

M: Legally, is the presidential decree able to be implemented if the people in the [duma] vote against it?

OBUSHENKOV: Well, according to our constitution by president have equal power, the same as their laws adopted by Parliament.

M: Suppose they say different things. If they are equal, then what? If the president’s power is equal to the duma, and the duma is opposed to the president, what happens? What is the result?

OBUSHENKOV: Of course. But there will be no new shooting. But the terms are provided by the Constitution and the conditions for that are so far exist.

M: So, will the reforms that you are suggesting be implemented?

OBUSHENKOV: Yes. In the village there will be great resistance and there probably will be boycott of the administration or the president. But their reforms will have partial results. When four years ago we were working in the supreme council about the new Agrarian law we did not expect that in five years we would have 300,000 farms in the country, we just didn’t expect this which has been expected, such numbers. So the reform will go on. It will continue, with resistance, with very lots of difficulties and problems but it will go anyway. During two to two and a half years, until the president… has to give up his power. And for next four or five years, the agrarian reform can be delayed of course, if the more conservative… So it will slowly go on, into the year 2000, so success will be achieved. When I was young, I supposed that if we wished, it would take only two to two and a half years to achieve democracy in the country. Now when in fact we are winners I think we will need at least twenty years— with a shooting in the parliament.

M: Can I ask you something about the past? I became interested in a book by Alexander Yanov about the Link reforms, the Zveno reforms under Khrushchev, which I think that Khrushchev did not approve, but it was like a social movement that became very popular. And he says that it was very successful. It was also very similar to Khudenko’s reform and I know that Gorbachev used it in Stavropol; he implemented it there. And every time, it was successful, but when Gorbachev tried to introduce as the “collective contract brigades,” it was not successful. Now it was successful in Hungary, and it sounded very similar to the reforms in China and of course China was successful, but when Gorbachev introduced the collective contract brigade here it was not successful. Why?

OBUSHENKOV: So in the ’60s, in [Sistive], our village was destroyed actually, still destroyed, but the leaders of the kolkhozes had real power. One kolkhoz included several dozens of villages. And their attempt to install somehow this system of collective contract, that actually means collective interest did not work because it was impossible to find a collective interest for several villages. They all had different… I can tell you about my own private experience. My own village before the war had 25 houses were private. And it was one kolkhoz. Everybody worked actively because if two or three persons worked badly, it was evident. And 1939, our kolkhoz united with another one that counted one hundred houses, families. And well, private interests of our families just disappeared. Immediately, it became large abd uncontrolled, so the interest disappeared and the attitude towards the machinery. So Khrushchev was famous not only for his Link system but also because he proposed, he started to make larger these already large kolkhozy, and he recommended to build agrotowns. He recommended to eliminate little villages. And lots of distant fields and pieces of land that were processed privately formerly, they were just thrown away. And when ten thousand or twenty persons were working in the same kolkhoz, the work of one of them, and the dependence of any one of them was not evident. Nobody noticed. In the sixties, kolkhozes and sovkhozes got from their states lots of new machinery, and lots of fertilizers, but all these things could be effective only if money were raised. And in this system, every new investment of money didn’t give a result in the increase of production. The more we invested in agriculture, the less benefit it brought. And so this deficiency, this lack of productivity in agriculture, it actually helped in failing all of their reforms in the 80s.

M: That was my theory. My theory was that the success of the collective contract system would depend on what point the people were starting from. When the agricultural reforms in China were introduced, the Chinese peasants were very poor and these reforms made it better for them, but that under Brezhnev, with high prices for products and guaranteed wages for the kolkhozes, that to introduce the responsibility system after that was not attractive to them, and that they would be better off under the old system than under a new collective contract brigade, which is what Gobachev tried to introduce. Is that consistent with your explanation?

OBUSHENKOV: I think that the main reason of the failure of this contract method was that the leaders of the kolkhoz and sovkhoz were not able to accomplish what they promised to the contract brigades. And the second reason is that the leaders continued to disturb these people all of the time. Formally, all the responsibility was on this contract brigade, but in spite of that, the leaders still continued to disturb in all the fields.

M: You say they could not deliver what they promised. What did they promise what they couldn’t keep?

OBUSHENKOV: They promise to deliver in time, oil, and feed.

M: You were in trouble for your own proposals. What were your proposals? Why did you go to prison?

OBUSHENKOV: Oh! Oh! [chuckling] Several young person, well, they are lecturers of the historical department of the Moscow State university, established a small group and decided to fight against the Stalinist system of violence. So we initially appealed what was written. One of us wrote a good book where he proved that Stalin is a persistent, successful pupil of Lenin. What that actually meant actually ws that Lenin was actually the same criminal as Stalin was. And Stalinism is just the continuation of Leninism.

M: Who was the author of this book?

OBUSHENKOV: His name was Krasdav Gerter. Then we wrote a long appeal and distributed it in Moscow, and we demanded to run democratic elections. [Laughter all around.] In particular we asked the workers and intelligentsia to make speeches and have meetings together to demonstrate. We supported Khrushchev when he held the 20th Congress. But we were against Khrushchev when in December of ’56, he betrayed his policy.

M: In Hungary?

OBUSHENKOV: Yes. And we supposed that all our criminals and killers who committed their crimes in 30s and 40s must be put on trial. So we stated for democratic socialism. And everyone had his own range of acquaintances. And we actively disseminated our views among the students, especially at the University. So we were young, we started a fight against the regime. So three of us were sentenced to six years, three to eight years, and other three to ten years.

M: You can smile about it now!

OBUSHENKOV: And nobody was amnestied. And after that we didn’t have a right to live in downtown Moscow. It was extremely difficult to publish anything. And first paper with my signature was published for the first time only in ’81. But my first papers were published in Russian and in foreign magazines in ’56 and ’57.

M: On agriculture?

OBUSHENKOV: No. Most of my friends lived very hard. And they still are not known. But some of them achieved some success, especially in the recent years. So this Pakrovsky, he is a member, a correspondent of the Academy of Sciences. [So, his split a charge in ’70.] So he could provide his investigation because this split of charge was not considered to be dangerous. Another one, Maracheskov, he defended his doctorship here. He explored the economy of Vietnam in the beginning of the 20th century. They got the opportunity to work here in this institution only after rehabilitation six years ago. I was working in the ministry of agriculture as a translator.

M: I would like to talk all day, but I told my driver I would be back by one o’clock. I’m thirty-five minutes late. Thank you. You have been very helpful.

OBUSHENKOV: I am very glad because for the last four years, I have participated in the preparing of the documents that govern the reforms here in economical agriculture. I took part in the preparation of all of the presidential decrees on the reforms of agriculture. This is the new one, several options and variants. Maybe it will not see the light of day.

M: Thank you

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books