The Soviet leadership cannot keep its young peasants down on the farm, and for those who do stay behind, slovenly ways of collectivized agriculture have deeply eroded age-old concerns for the nation's land and the bounty it nurtures.
The exodus since World War II from hamlets scattered across vast areas of central and northern Russia and western Siberia -- the "deaf places" of Soviet literature -- and low birth rates have brought severe personnel shortages in key agricultural areas.
The country is struggling, with mixed success, to overcome the gaps by increased mechanization. While the nation grew in population by 20.7 million to 262.4 million in the period from 1970 to 1979, that year's census shows, the rural population declined by 6 percent to 98.8 million, with most of the loss in the livestock- and vegetable-growing heartland of Soviet Europe.
Urbanization has been intensified further in the past decade by an ambitious government program to force the abandonment of thousands of ancestral peasant communities and collect their residents in new farm towns where life is supposed to be more efficient and amenable. This Soviet version of a "strategic hamlet" operation has triggered genuine debate in the official Soviet press over shoddy work, waste, bureaucratic bungling and what the prgram may be doing to the subtle psychology that links the peasant to his plot.
These human factors have blunted President Leonid Brezhnev's multibillion-ruble drive to improve Soviet agriculture despite new incentives to private farming and will continue to affect the Soviet Union for decades to come. Roy Medvedev, the Marxist historian, put the problem this way in an interview: "The migration has stripped the countryside of the most ambitious, and most energetic, young men and women, and left behind less productive elements."
Medvedev says that by seeking to duplicate industrialized work schedules, the collective farms, averaging about 16,000 acres, and the vast state farms of about 40,000 acres apiece, cannot respond to the peculiar needs of farming -- which requires strong decision-making and quick execution depending on judgment of weather, soil and other constantly changing conditions. Soviet attempts at large-scale hog and beef raising on industrialized bases have fallen far short of expectations partly because of this.
At the same time, rigid control from above restricts farm directors in how they can spend their money and what crops to raise. One of Moscow's most popular recent plays, "The 13th Chairman," addresses this in stark terms that brought tears of frustration and sympathy from the audience during on performance. The play is a surprisingly plainspoken courtroom drama in which Sagadeyev, director of a collective farm in Bashkiria, central Russia, is accused of financial crimes that carry a five-year prison term.
Sagadeyev and his workers face the young local party apparatchiks and the prosecutor, who accuse him of paying bribes to get apartments finished and a kindergarten built, breaking farm law by buying produce from less-efficient farms nearby, and paying workers their full salaries during vacation, prhibited on state farms although industrial workers get paid vacations. Sagadeyev declares that if he had adapted to the party's contradictory directive, "i'd be a real chameleon. I preferred to keep my own course. . . . There's almost no drunkenness on our kolkhoz , but look at our neighbors. We don't have to ask for loans to build, while they do. And while we've got asphalt roads everywhere, all they have is impasable mud."
The play ends with the court adjourning to consider the verdict, and the audience on Sagadeyev's side all the way. But the odds seem heavy against the real Sagadeyevs in Soviet agriculture, as a Pravda story once made clear about a state farm in Kurgan, western Siberia.
"In order to meet people's needs, some farm administrators take it upon themselves to revamp the inadequate general plans drawn up for their settlements," the Communist Party paper reported. "The 23rd Party Congress State Farm, for example, boasts two secondary and five eight-year schools, a hotel, a shopping center, a parking garage, 184 kilometers of paved farm roads and additional housing, and it will soon have a 130-bed hospital as well. The farm's director was reprimanded for taking such arbitrary initiative. Yet no one will deny that the settlement is one of the finest in the virgin lands."
With primitive living standards, physical and cultural isolation and mind-dulling work for which most major matters are decided at the party level, rural life, even with such standbys of Soviet propaganda as electricity and television, can take on suffocation dimensions that drive away most but the hardiest or slowest.
These conditions are seldom seen by foreign correspondents shown model farms on offical tours, but private conversations with farm workers and other Soviets leave little doubt as to the grimness of life.Farm life is plagued by two things, says a Muscovite who spent years working on nearby farms, "filth and drunkenness. You simply cannot imagine this world."
Says a professional man who worked as a Young Communist on a central Russian farm, "The morality is this: theft from the state is not considered a crime. The only crimes are house theft and physical viollence." His words are borne out by endless Soviet press accounts of thievery from state stockpiles, stripping of farm machinery and black-market speculation in virtually every kind of household material, from scarce toilets and plumbing fixtures to machinery and auto parts.
Perhaps the most vivid recent account comes from Feodor Abramov, a 61-year-old north Russian author who has prospered by writing of village themes, a distinct Soviet literary school. He was born in Verkola, a tiny hamlet set amid lush grasslands near Archangel, a place he says should be a paradise, with its summer "white nights," deep forests, settled life and country peace. Instead, he wrote in an outraged letter to Pravda in November 1979, he returned there recently to find it a slum.
While the state paid millions in wages and subsidies, he wrote, the fields went untilled and choked with weeds, the cow starved, drunks and idlers clogged the state-farm payroll, packs of stray dogs roamed the streets, trash littered the lovely ypinega River and Verkola's streets, and the young lazed at home while their parents shirked work.
"Gone is the former pride in a well-plowed field, a nicely shaped haystack, a cleanly mown meadow or well-cared for livestock. . . .More and more, love for the land and work is vanishing and self-respect lost. Isn't this one reason for absenteeism, tardiness and drunkenness, which can become a real disaster?"
Under the resettlement program, thousands of such tiny hamlets are to be abandoned as "futureless" in the vast Non-Black-Earth Zone stretching about 3,000 miles across northern Russia from the Polish border to western Siberia.
From 1976 to 1980 alone, 170,000 families were to be moved to bigger town centers, a costly effort to save future billions of rubles by shortening transportation lines and consolidating services and stemming emigration by making country life more urban.
Backing up the program was the centerpiece of the Brezhnev agricultural policies for 1976-80, a massive attempt to reclaim 29 million acres of swamps and parched soil that give the region its distinctive name, and to raise harvest production. But programs are hub-deep in problems. Pravda conceded last month that despite swallowing 80 billion rubles, land reclamation is far behind schedule.
Last year, only half of the 5.6 million acres to be readied that year for cultivation were tillable. the grain harvest was 20 million tons in 1980, the same as the 1971-75 average instead of the 60 percent increase Moscow's planners had said would help justify the expense. Milk production was down 10 percent from 1979 and meat fell by 5 percent.
Meanwhile, official studies show that the resettlement program has actually increased rural flight. Scientists T. I. Zaslavskaya and R. V. Ryvkina last year said emigrtaion from huge Novosibirsk Province in western Siberia accelerated from an average of 13,000 yearly in 1939-59 to 22,000 in 1971-76. "Migration increased in spite of consolidation and to a great degree because of it," they wrote in the paper Sovietskaya Rosiya.
"Our polls tell the story: moving to a new place means major outlays of money and effort, so many residents of small villages decided that if they've got to leave the place they're used to, they might as well move to a suburb or city." ywhile people who move to town centers "live better," the matter of tending flocks and fields "is not such a simple matter." The workers now are miles from their local holdings and with road-building lagging, "in bad weather . . . cows go unfed because people can't get to them."
They added that another disquieting fact, "which no one anticipated, is becoming clear. A too widely spaced network of settlements, even though larger, turns out to be unviable. The environment in settlements with populations of 300-500 isolated from one another has been found to be not better, but worse than that provided for by a dense network of smaller villages. The population begins to move away and what had initially been bigger settlements become small again, then smaller, then they disappear entirely."
Arguing for a "policy of social protectionism for the small village," they said their research shows that only a third as many families in the large centers keep private livestock and gardens as in the small traditional hamlets. In a separate report, economist V. M. Stern asserted that "the private plots of families in multifamily buildings are 20-30 percent smaller than those kept by people living in individual houses. The loss of output due to smaller plots probably exceeds the saving from building multifamily housing."