Russian farmers (on a drive in the country)

Julia and I drove out to a farm, a sovkhoz that was privatized. A woman got into the back seat and let me interview her. When the speaker is identified as “Farmer,” that is Julia translating in the third person. Then we have a short conversation with a forester.

METTA: Now, this is your home, in this sovkhozs?

FARMER Woman: Yes.

METTA: Have you always lived here?


METTA: And you grew up here and went to school.

FARMER: There was no school. Just after the war everything was destroyed and they went to school partly through their wood.

METTA: Did you walk or was there a bus?

FARMER: Walked, certainly no buses. Little children just walked. And now we have certainly school. It was built up and there was a musical school and stadium.

METTA: Did you marry someone from this sovkhoz?


METTA: And your children will always live on this sovkhoz?

FARMER: Daughter is in Moscow. But she doesn’t like it because for her it’s too noisy, Moscow.

METTA: So she would like to back here in the country where it’s…

FARMER: Yes. Her son lives in this town, little town. All of them want to live here. They prefer it.

METTA: I could see. It’s beautiful.

FARMER: They have four rooms and a house and we have privatized it and we can build some more rooms, but the children don’t want to live with us, certainly, and it’s the main reason why they left.

METTA: Is this true that many of the young people have moved away from the sovkhozes?

FARMER: All of them like to live here but not to work here. So they work in the airport. They like that. But some young people still stay. Some of them received houses here so they paid for the house and now it’s their ownership.

METTA: I see. Are many of these houses vacant? Have people moved away and left houses here?

FARMER: These new ones which people built themselves, they don’t leave of course. But the old ones, two floors without any conveniences. They are empty.

METTA: How difficult is it for people to go to work? If they work at the airport, for example, how do they get to work, by bus?

FARMER: Lots of people have their personal cars, and the bus. The airport also has a special bus to pick up the people who work. So at certain, they just go out on the road.

METTA: Now, you have lived here all of your life. Do you have a special job in the sovkhozs?

FARMER: Yes. She was working for many years as an accountant. For her it was convenient because of the children. So, that’s why she couldn’t shift to the airport. So she was obliged eventually to work here.

METTA: Where is the business office for the farm?

FARMER: We had passed that, near the club.

METTA: So that’s where you would work?

FARMER: Yes, exactly.

METTA: You don’t work now there?

FARMER: No, she works still here in sovkhozs, but she shifted. She doesn’t say work. The workers work shifts. They work there now. That’s why it’s becoming a corhov [kolkhoz??]

METTA: What about your husband?

FARMER: He’s in travel. He also works in a sovkhoz. He was studying for three years in the university but he did not finish. Now, he regrets about that, because he thinks if he did get his degree, he would be an engineer and it will be easier in an physical sense to work now that he is old.

METTA: How much longer will he work?

FARMER: Six years. Maybe they will increase.

METTA: And then he will and you will both have pensions, and the pension will be from the government, not the sovkhoz?

FARMER: Yes. The state pension.

METTA: The state pension. Everybody gets the same amount?

FARMER: Yes, that’s a complete message, because now. The rules, how to count the pensions are so complicated. Now, it looks like it’s very unfair. Those who work fewer years, they receive more than those work for a long time. That’s right. I know that from my mother.

METTA: So what are the main products that this farm raised?

FARMER: They received a lot of pigs. Pigs. It’s the main thing. And also they sell corn. So they buy little pigs in another sovkhoz, grow them up and then produce them.

METTA: Do you slaughter the pigs here?

FARMER: So, say it was sales of pigs was the main thing, just as it was very beneficial. Sovkhozs was very rich. And now it’s getting very harder.

METTA: They raised. What did you feed the pigs? You raised the food for the pigs here.

FARMER: No, they buy food. It’s not grass. It’s special corn they feed. So they buy it. So, they previously they had 40,000 pigs every year. So now they receive. It was impossible to plant enough food for them so they started to buy it from the factories. They just receive it at the railway station and put it in the storeroom each time.

METTA: You had stores here where you could buy all of your groceries and clothing here?

FARMER: Yes. They have their stores but it’s not enough. It’s not sufficient for kolkhoz and sovkhoz, but they are only 30 kilometers far from Moscow so usually people go there to shop.

METTA: Now, how were wages calculated? How did they determine how much they should be paid for their work? Before your reforms began, about two years ago?

FARMER: So there were definite wages. That was what she calls the department of Planning. This department defined the amount of every wage, and also they defined their ratio which they sent from the Russian nation for every category of work. For drivers, it was one. For those who worked with the cows, another one. For those who worked with [within], a third one. So at the end of month, they took this fixed salary and moved that to this ratio, and in that way they paid actual salary. But I can’t understand how they defined what ratio.

METTA: What if people did not like the ratio that was given them. Suppose you…

FARMER: They could try to appeal. They had a special group there, here or in this government business, so people could write an appeal and explain why it’s not enough. So it was all discussed and probably it couldn’t be changed, if it was unfair.

METTA: I understand that when Brezhnev came into power that there was a considerable rise in prices and payments to farm workers. Do you remember noticing that there was a substantial increase in your standard of living?

FARMER: Yes. And if you earned 200 or 300, it was just a lot of money, so they could afford everything.

METTA: But you remember a particular time when the wages increased. About when would that be. When did Brezhnev come to power? ‘65. Was there a big increase at a certain point.

FARMER: Yes. So during all the Brezhnev era, they did not complain so they just accepted that. Then when Gorbachev, it became worse, of course, and getting worse and worse, because their wage did not increase enough to catch the prices.

METTA: Now, as far as the payment for your pigs, how was that determined? Who decided how much you would get paid per pig or per kilogram of pork or however. Oh I see. Who decided the payment rates.

FARMER: There was a state price. The state defined it.

METTA: Did the state define the same…

FARMER: Their sovkhoz couldn’t raise the price, and it couldn’t make it law. It was the state.

METTA: Did the state pay the same price for pigs all over Russia or did they set one price for this sovkhoz and a different price for another sovkhoz ?

FARMER: The price was the same for all of sovkhozes in any regions of the country.

METTA: Was it adjusted for the cost? Did it vary according to how much it cost to raise a pig in one place or another.

FARMER: But how, if she says it was the same price?

METTA: I don’t know how.

FARMER: So what concerns their extra amount of wheat they were supposed to give to the state. It was the same. It was the same for all the sovkhoz. But their difference in their payment for the labour. In some places it was more machinery, and in other places it was only manual. So from that point of view they got different payments.

METTA: What about different kinds of pig food? Would some farms be able to get food cheaper than other farms and would that affect profits?

FARMER: The food was different. And the price for food was different of course, but if the… dependent on the sovkhozs. And if they wanted to make it cheaper for them to get this food, they would build a new way, a new road, a good one, a special station or a railway branch to their place, but the state was the same.

METTA: So, some sovkhozes would be able to make more money because they would have cheaper access to pig food and other sovkhozes would not make so much money because they wouldn’t have those advantages?

FARMER: Yes, sure.

METTA: So that’s why your pig farm was very profitable?


METTA: So, the result at the end of the season, how much money you got for your pigs, would be the total amount that your managers would divide up according to these ratios for wages.

FARMER: I didn’t get it.

METTA: At the end of the season, you get a certain amount of payment for the pigs, and that would determine how much your managers could divide up according to ratios for jobs.

FARMER: Every month. They did it every month.

METTA: Let’s say your farm lost money and didn’t make anything. You didn’t have…

FARMER: They never had it.

METTA: Let’s imagine. If a farm did not have a good sale… the pigs got sick and died, or something.

FARMER: Once, it was.

METTA: What would happen to the wages?

FARMER: Well, they had once this experience. But they were all paid for in spite of the pigs were dead. And she said that every Friday, every employees, even bookkeepers, were working in the farm, were cleaning and helping, so they were all busy, so it was only one month. And the whole sovkhoz spent this whole month with these pigs trying to clean and disinfect them. This way, they were all working and they were paid. And I didn’t get where they took the money. Probably from some sovkhoz fund.

METTA: I see. But it’s not some government agency in Moscow that would pay in that situation.

FARMER: Yes, it was sovkhoz who paid. Because they had some savings so they paid from that

METTA: Was there any, back ten or fifteen years ago, were there efforts to create incentives for workers to perform very well? What kind of incentives? What system?

FARMER: It was different for those who worked better then in wages. And there were also some social rewards. Well, you know the socialist complications.

METTA: How did they decide who was a good worker and who was not a good worker?

FARMER: So at the end of the month, when they weighed their pigs, they certainly could see that amount of added weight. The more weight that was added, the better these people worked. And they have brigades. Not one person was responsible for twenty pigs, but the brigade was responsible for the whole farm.

METTA: And a brigade that did well would have fatter pigs then a brigade that didn’t do so well.


METTA: Did they divide the wages up within the brigade or would one brigade be paid better than another one, but within the brigade, would one worker be paid more than another or would they all receive the same payment?

FARMER: They differentiated them inside.

METTA: Did they decide themselves or how did they decide who had worked hard in the brigade?

FARMER: Well, actually there was a difference. All the brigades themselves into several groups and every group was connected with a certain yard. Yard number one, yard number two, number three. So they weighed also pigs in the same yard and they could see who feeds better. So they could see who gives more. Because some gained 600 grams per months, and it was considered a very good result, and if they gave 200 or 300, it’s very poor. They didn’t work well.

METTA: I see. This sounds very much like the proposal that Gorbachev brought in about the collective contract brigade. Are you saying that this syatem was being used all they way back for fifteen or twenty years?


METTA: What happened? Were there any changes when Gorbachev introduced the collective contract brigade system? Were there any changes here?

FARMER: We did not feel any difference.

METTA: I see.

FARMER: From the very beginning they did not feel any difference, but two or three years ago they started to feel difficulties and deficiencies with the inflation.

METTA: What were there?

FARMER: She means not only the sovkhozes but all the regions with all the other crises and plant [].

METTA: I see. What particularly got worse for you on the sovkhozs two or three years ago? Were their pricing worse? What made life harder for you when it began to get worse?

FARMER: Unstability in the political area, and they don’t trust anybody. And in the morning when you say one political statement and in the evening another one and when you hear one thing and it’s doing another thing, so it’s of course.

METTA: Going back again to earlier times, can you tell me were there also kolkhozes around here that raised pigs? And can you tell me the difference between a kolkhoz and sovkhoz pig farm? What would be the most obvious difference?

FARMER: Kolkhozes always lived much more difficult. They always provided themselves. A sovkhoz’s got the nation’s. If something happen, they got state assistance. And then kolkhozes, they were always dependent upon themselves. So it was always much more difficult for the kolkhozes.

METTA: That’s true, you think, not just in this region, but everywhere.


METTA: Tell me about privatization. I understand that not very many farmers want to own private farms.

FARMER: No. Everybody’s trying to privatize his house and a little land, a little territory around the house, not much. And their sovkhoz privatized all the land that belongs to it so now it’s a private sovkhoz.

METTA: Sorry?

FARMER: The land, that belongs, that was owned somehow sovkhoz. Yes, the sovkhoz privatized it. It’s not the state land or state ownership, but sovkhoz owners with that land.

METTA: So the…

FARMER: So, approximately half of a hectare, half of that belongs to everyone who works in the sovkhoz. sovkhoz ownership of land. We spoke about the land. The sovkhoz privatized all the land, and so half of this hectare belongs to everyone. But, it was from the very beginning. But, now they were forced to sell some of their land, for building of dachas, so Moscow organization buy some territory of land here and build some dachas so Moscovites who work in the organizations. They build dachas.

METTA: So half of the land remains owned by the whole community. The other half has been sold for dachas.

FARMER: No, it is not defined yet. She just doesn’t know the amount. She is actually very busy. Yesterday, granted more in that house, so she’s very with these receipts.

Julia: So this woman said about those guys, that there is only one in his village who decided to start his own business, or large one, and he took 20 hectares of land for free, and it was supposed that he was started to plant something there for sale. But he still could not have started to plant anything better than potatoes. It’s the only thing that he could plant himself. It doesn’t have enough money to process the land for something more complicated, so only potatoes, and he only started. And noboby knows whether it was profitable or not.

METTA: Does he have machinery?

Julia: No.

METTA: He doesn’t. Is he going ot do it all by hand?

Julia: Not by hand. He will pay somebody who works in sovkhovs on a machine.

METTA: Do they have machines for that kind of work, on potatoes and stuff.

Julia: Yes, certainly. Their method is that their machinery can work only very large, on long distances, and if you have a small piece of land, these machines are too big, and they are not flexible. So for 28 hectares it probably will work.

Julia: That’s outrageous. So she’s hoping that he’ll make a go of it?

[That’s all].


METTA: Have you been a farmer for much of your life living here?

VILLAGE MAN: He was born here, brought up here, and is living here.

METTA: And what kind of work have you done.

VILLAGE MAN: He is a forester.

METTA: Forester? You cut trees?

VILLAGE MAN: [?Yes. Bronz grows up the trees and has a garden and all these kinds of things.]

METTA: And your forest is on your farm or collective farm or sovkhoz ?



VILLAGE MAN: It’s the state. Sovkhoz has its own forest but he is not working there. He is working in the state forest.

METTA: Is this village a sovkhoz?

VILLAGE MAN: No, no. It’s a district, a common district.

METTA: I’ve taken pictures of the beautiful windows. I would like to live here.

VILLAGE MAN: The village is very old, approximately 500 years old.

METTA: Really?

VILLAGE MAN: The village was different. It was not like land near village but it was near the church, but it somehow was connected, was built up around the church.

METTA: What is the main farming activity of this region? What do most of the farms produce?


METTA: Of the region, are most of the farms sovkhozs, or kolkhozes? Or were they, until recently?

VILLAGE MAN: There are those and sovkhozs and kolkhozes, and now [pyramid?] farmers.

METTA: Already these have been to some extent privatized?


METTA: Can you tell me how the privatization is done? Do people ask for a piece of land?

VILLAGE MAN: Yes. Well, most of the people. If somebody wants to start a bigger, large farm, so he gets the land somewhere and most of the people just privatize the land around their house.

METTA: So most people are not trying to take over large pieces of land or to…

VILLAGE MAN: Well, the village is getting older and so that’s why people don’t want. But young people, yes they tend to take big pieces, but the old ones…

METTA: I understand that most people so far have been reluctant to go into private farming as a family because it’s more risky than collective farming or sovkhozs?

VILLAGE MAN: No, he will not say so. Certainly, they have got used the word collective farm. Their village was very advanced and very profitable.

METTA: Now, when someone does want to establish a private farm, a fairly big one, do they pay for the land. How do they get the land? Who decides which piece of land is available for them?

VILLAGE MAN: No price. He doesn’t pay anything. And the head of administration of the commune, the district decides what piece.

METTA: Would the independent farmer market his own produce or would he sell it to the state farm for them to market or to send in to town?

VILLAGE MAN: They incorporate some farms. They even organize some corporated shops. They do join.

METTA: What proportion of the land that was in sovkhozs and kolkhozes have been divided up for independent farming? And what proportion is farmed collectively?

VILLAGE MAN: No sovkhoz around. The sovkhoz system was reconstructed, and so now it has other odd name, and he can’t remember what the name of this new thing. But when this reconstruction, everybody decided either they want to stay in a [], collectively, or they want to have separate land. So when the sovkhoz was privatizing the land, the whole land was at his whole disposal before. Those who wanted to separate, they got their pieces of land, and actually big enough. This is like 40 hectares. And those didn’t want to separate, they also virtually have their pieces of land. But they work jointly and nobody knows which pieces they are on.

METTA: I see. So this is they worked before and they continue to do that.

VILLAGE MAN: But now they have less land. And also because of dachas, because they rent the land. We have no problems in our district. So people to play this new game very soon. So they don’t have such problems.

METTA: So it’s going well?

VILLAGE MAN: The leaders were younger. But he thinks we are more advanced. Maybe they were more developed and more flexible. Now, they just don’t have problems of that kind.

METTA: And there’s no sense of resentment? The kolkhozes and sovkhozs in general would not feel angry at someone who becomes a private farmer.

VILLAGE MAN: No. It is just encouraged.

METTA: Thank you very much. It is nice of you to talk to us a little bit.

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