RYBINSK, U.S.S.R. -- "I used to believe in Gorbachev," said Alexander Bozhko, gazing out at the 30 acres of land that he had farmed for the past 18 months before giving up in disgust. "Now I have understood that all he does is talk."
What used to be the family potato plot is already turning to weeds. A cattle shed that Bozhko built with his own hands will soon be dismantled as the neighboring state farm reclaims its land. He is handing over his three tractors to a local cooperative.
Bozhko, the grandson of a private farmer whose land was expropriated by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, is a casualty of a series of half-hearted agricultural reforms advocated by President Mikhail Gorbachev. His disillusionment is a reminder of the most glaring economic problem facing the world's second superpower: its continuing inability to feed itself.
"I am ashamed for my country that after 70 years of Communist rule we have got such destitution," said Bozhko, who, encouraged by Gorbachev's reform programs, was one of the first people to attempt to start up a private farm in the Rybinsk region, 200 miles northeast of Moscow. "When we were offered the chance to farm our own land, we seized it eagerly. But we soon discovered that there were so many restrictions that it was impossible to continue."
The difficulties faced by Bozhko and other would-be Soviet entrepreneurs dramatize a question that will occupy Western leaders when they meet Monday in Houston for their annual economic summit: Is it worth channeling massive aid to the Soviet Union before it has fully abandoned the discredited system of central planning in favor of a market economy?
One argument frequently made by Kremlin officials is that the Soviet Union needs Western credits in order to minimize the risk of social turmoil at a time of rapid economic change. Soviet workers already are alarmed by the prospect of rising prices and large-scale unemployment. According to the argument, if nothing is done to ease the transition to a free market, the result could be a political explosion that would sweep away Gorbachev's reformist regime.
"We won't be able to carry out our economic reforms smoothly unless we get credits" from the West, said the reform-minded Moscow Communist Party chief, Yuri Prokofiev. "The West should have as much an interest as we have in providing us with such assistance. The idea of a huge country crammed with weapons that is on the verge of chaos cannot be pleasing to anyone."
The counterargument, voiced most forcefully by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, is that Western credits will be wasted in the absence of rational economic mechanisms. Pouring more money into state factories and farms that lose money does not make any sense. What the Soviet authorities need to do, according to this argument, is make sure they use their existing financial resources properly.
Over six decades, the collectivized system of agriculture has turned the Soviet Union from a net exporter of grain to the world's largest importer.
Every year the Kremlin spends about $8 billion on grain purchases from the West. Such vast expenditures have tied up much of the hard currency Moscow earns from its oil exports -- money that could be spent importing consumer goods or capital equipment.
Gorbachev has fought a running battle with conservatives in the ruling Politburo to implement new forms of land ownership. In the fall of 1988, he launched the idea of allowing peasants to lease land for extended periods. The state's propaganda machine was cranked into motion, and over the next few months, the newspapers were full of optimistic reports of family farms being formed all over the Soviet Union.
The drive to convert much of Soviet agriculture to leaseholding is a prime example of an economic reform that fizzled because of resistance from the people who were meant to implement it. At first, everybody paid lip service to the idea. But it was gradually throttled by local bureaucrats with a vested interest in maintaining the old system of state and collective farms. First Swallows of Spring
Alexander and Galina Bozhko were allocated 30 acres of land by the neighboring state farm at a time when the leaseholding campaign was in full swing.
"It was like being the first swallows of spring," said Galina. "We heard the word 'lease' and were willing to experiment. But we gradually discovered that they had no intention of letting us run our own farm."
In the West, the term "lease" often implies that the holder can farm the land as he sees fit, as long as he pays the rent. In the Soviet Union, the vast majority of leaseholders have been obliged to sign contracts with the local state farm that drastically restrict their independence.
The Bozhkos, for example, were obliged to raise bullocks, then sell them to the nearby Progress Farm at half the market price.
"I was not allowed to hire any workers. I was unable to buy animal feed, fertilizer and farm equipment because all that is in chronically short supply. And I did not have the right to sell my produce on the open market," said Bozhko, explaining the almost feudalistic system under which leaseholders are required to operate.
The low point came when the state farm failed to supply the Bozhkos with sufficient quantities of animal feed for their cattle. In despair, the family managed to persuade an acquaintance who worked in a grocery store to sell them large amounts of low-grade kasha. Galina spent many evenings boiling up kasha to feed to the animals.
Another headache was the resentment of the workers on the state farm over the reappearance of kulaks, the derisive Soviet word for private peasants. Once, Bozhko discovered that someone had driven a harvester over his wheatfield, flattening the crop. On another occasion, the tires of his tractor were slashed.
"People are prepared to put up with not living well, as long as their neighbor does not live any better. The fact that he works harder does not make any difference. When people see someone earn more money than they do, they start getting envious," said Bozhko.
When it became apparent that the conditions imposed by the state farm were too restrictive to allow the Bozhkos to operate at a profit, the family tried to raise their own animals. The state farm chairman accused them of breaching their contract and demanded they return the land that had been leased to them. Bozhko has now resumed his old job as an engineer in nearby Rybinsk.
Bozhko's 70-year-old mother, Ekaterina Vasilievna, remembers an earlier time that her family's land was confiscated by the Soviet state. It was in the early 1930s -- at the height of Joseph Stalin's collectivization campaign -- when she was a teenager. She remembers her father coming home one evening and announcing: "The only thing that's left for me now is the noose."
At the first stage of collectivization, local officials were content to impose crippling taxes. In order to pay the taxes, the family was obliged to sell its loom, windup phonograph and winnowing machine. A year later, the party activists returned and expropriated the remaining property: two cows and a horse.
"My son is like his grandfather. He is devoted to the land," said Ekaterina Vasilievna. "In the old days, people worked from morning to night, as long as there was something to be done. These days, they work from 9 to 5, no matter how much work there is."
Private Land Still Taboo
The debate at this month's Communist Party congress in Moscow suggests that private property is still the ultimate ideological taboo. An opinion poll conducted among delegates to the congress revealed that 73 percent of those questioned oppose the introduction of private family farms. Only 12 percent felt that family farms would play a major role in the development of Soviet agriculture.
The strongest resistance to the creation of family farms has come from the chairmen of state and collective farms who do not want to give up any of their property.
Most collective farm chairmen share the views of conservative Politburo member Yegor Ligachev, who argues that the basic problem afflicting Soviet agriculture is a lack of investment.
"The agricultural lobby wants better supplies, higher procurement prices, access to hard currency funds. They rarely mention new forms of ownership. It is a very bureaucratic idea of what the village needs," said Dima Pashkar, a progressive member of the Yaroslavl regional council, which includes Rybinsk.
Earlier this year, farmers in the Yaroslavl region formed a strike committee, complaining that they were being exploited by city officials.
The 50-point list of demands included complaints about bad roads, the lack of bricks and the burden of debt. It failed to mention land reform.
Opponents of radical agricultural reform frequently argue that more than half a century of collectivized agriculture destroyed the old Russian peasantry, and with it, people willing to work small, private plots of land.
It is certainly true that it will be much more difficult to revive family farming in Russia than in countries like China where collectivization was much more recent. But it is wrong to suggest that there will be no volunteers.
Foreign city-dwellers who drive out into the Russian countryside on weekends are constantly met with the sight of ordinary Russians spending hours and hours cultivating their private plots.
These tiny allotments, most of them less than half an acre in size, account for less than 2 percent of the country's arable land, but roughly one-third of its total agricultural output.
"If the authorities were prepared to distribute the land to the peasants, and create the right conditions for family farms, people would be willing to work hard once again.
But as long as there is a feeling that the land can be confiscated at any time, no one is prepared to take the risk," said Ekaterina Vasilievna.