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In Days of Crisis, Russia Goes Stakhanovite

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Back in the days when I was studying the lost science of Sovietology, every year the Soviet newspapers would boast of record harvests that had overfulfilled the plan, while the reality was much grimmer. Even if the numbers weren’t doctored, the sad fact was that a very large part of this grain never made it far past the collective farm. In these days of the extenuated economic crisis and low oil prices, I think we are seeing the return of this kind of official hyperbole and Stakhanovite ambition, as an article we have translated after the jump reports on the curious combination of a “record” grain harvest yet continually higher prices for bread.

In the past, it wasn’t hard to see through the ruse on the grain harvests.  First, there was always a shortage of hands to harvest it, and college students would be forced to leave their studies to go help the peasants; not that there were any living facilities for them in the middle of the steppe. Second, there was always a shortage of working farm equipment, so some of the grain was never even harvested, and was simply left to rot on the stalk, while what had been harvested would be piled uncovered in the open fields due to a shortage of storage elevators and trucks to transport it to them, and would spoil at the first autumn rain. Finally, much of the grain that did manage to get put on trucks would spill out of holes in the rusty vehicles as they bounced their way along Russia’s notoriously horrible roads.

And as if though that weren’t enough, in a system where the stateset prices for everything – usually arbitrarily and with no regard forthe consequences – the cost of feed grain in the Soviet Union wasactually considerably higher than that of subsidized bread, socollective farmers routinely bought bread in the store to feed theirpigs, further reducing the amount available to the populace from thosebumper harvests. Oh, and every year the collective farms received loansfrom the state banks for planting and for harvesting, but they nevercould repay them, so these “loans” ended up being subsidies ineverything but name.

Well, it looks like nothing much has changed, evennearly two decades after the collapse of the Soviet system. Our Russiacorrespondent Grigory Pasko has already written extensively about the pitiful roads in the country. Now here’s an article from the Forum.msk.ru e-newspaper about the 2008 harvest. Looks like it’s déjà vu all over again…

Record harvest of grain: they’re feeding food-quality grain to livestock, while bread is getting more expensive

The harvest of grain crops in the RF in the year 2008 comprisedapproximately 105 million metric tons, which is the best indicator forthe past six years. It would seem that such abundance should benefitboth peasants and citizens. But, first, the loaf isn’t even thinking ofgetting cheaper. And second, there’s simply no place to put the grain,and so the grain doesn’t go to waste, they’re feeding third-classfood-quality grain (5500 rubles per metric ton) to livestock, writesthe newspaper “Izvestia”.

As one of the Voronezh farmers told the publication, his colleagues can not realize [“sell” in Soviet-speak–Trans.]their gravest of wheat even at a lower price – at approximately 3000rubles. Less inexpensive varieties of grain, like barley, the peasantsare forced to sell for mere kopeks. As a result, deprived of profit,the farmers are experiencing difficulties with the paying out of wagesand with the return of credits. A similar situation is observed inother «agrarian» regions of the country as well – Stavropol, Kuban, andRostov, Volgograd, Samara and other oblasts.

«Here already just about every other one is in bankruptcy. Lastyear, the price for wheat was good. We started thinking big, picked upall sorts of equipment. On credit, of course, – there’s no millionairesamong us. Many expanded, additionally leased land – some 100, others300 hectares. It all cost a pretty penny. We’d hoped that we’d work itoff, but it didn’t turn out that way. But the banks don’t want to wait.The court marshals will be here any moment now», – reported chairwomanof the rayon Association of Peasant Households and AgriculturalCooperatives Olga Moshchenko.

The cause of the problems of the toilers of the village is in partin the notorious financial crisis. Because of the drop in solvency,poor countries can not buy foodstuffs in the necessary volumes. And ontop of this, besides Russia, countries of Latin America and Europe have«suffered» from overproduction of grain this year, as the result ofwhich the market is awash with supply, but there is no demand becauseof the crisis.The Ministry of Agriculture under the leadership of Alexey Gordeyev haspromised peasants that the state will help them with the export ofgrain, true, for now the sales are going at seven-league tempos,because importers are complaining about the absence of money.

Yet another measure for salvation – the conducting of graininterventions. State prices for purchases into the state stock, inprinciple, are much higher than on the open market and in theory thismeasure would help peasants to survive. The problem is only in that intotal it is planned to purchase 8 million metric tons of grain, whilegiven the overall volumes of the harvest – this is a drop in the ocean.Besides this, agrarians are convinced that in the number of«interventees» may end up only agro-enterprises that are close toofficials or under the wardship of the state.

Nevertheless, the majority of farmers consider that the reason fortheir current state is not so much in the world crisis as in the waythings are in Russia. In [sic] the one hand, the power is eggingpeasants on to the growing of a record harvest, while on the otherhand, it turns out not to be ready for it. As a result, in practice itturns out that there is no place to store record harvests, nobody tosell them to, and they simply rot in the hoppers.

However, the saddest thing is that because of the situation that hasevolved on the grain market, experts are forecasting by the spring ofthe year 2009 the bankruptcy of 20% of agrarian enterprises, which willlead to a decline in production and an increase in prices forfoodstuffs.

Photo: Head of Russia’s Communist Party Gennady Zyuganov (L) examines grain atan agricultural plant outside Stavropol in Mikhailovskoye on June 6,2008. Consumers fear is rising in Russia over inflation its effects onthe cost of bread and other basic staples. (AFP Getty Images)