MOSCOW, DEC. 3 -- The Russian Congress of People's Deputies legalized the private ownership of land today, overturning decades of Communist dogma in an attempt to resolve the Soviet Union's deepening food crisis.
The legislation includes significant restrictions on the right of peasants to dispose of their land, including a minimum of 10 years' ownership before it can be resold and a requirement that it be resold only to local governments. Despite the restrictions, private land ownership is still an ideological anathema to hard-line Communists brought up to regard private property as tantamount to "exploitation of man by man."
As recently as last week, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had said he could not accept the idea of the private ownership of land, even though he favored granting land to individual peasants under 100-year leases.
The Soviet leader lobbied Communist members of the Russian congress to vote against the measure, which he described as a violation of Russia's rural traditions. Russia is the largest of the Soviet Union's 15 republics. Its president, Boris Yeltsin, predicted that today's "historic" decision would lead to the creation of thousands of private family farms alongside the state-run system of collective farms.
He said he hoped that Russia, which exported grain to the rest of Europe before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, would eventually be freed from its present dependence on food imports.
At a news conference, Yeltsin said it had been necessary to place restrictions on the resale of farms to prevent land falling into the hands of "speculators." He said the restrictions might be reviewed in a few years "if everything goes well."
The emotional four-day debate in the congress reflects sharp divisions between radicals who favor the immediate dismantling of collective farms and conservatives determined to maintain the present system. "We Russians consider that land is our mother -- and who would think of selling their mother?" one Communist deputy said indignantly.
A compromise amendment gives local councils the right to determine how much land will be distributed to the peasants under the new law. Because the Communist Party still controls many rural areas, the process of developing private family farms is likely to be very uneven across the country, with much depending on the attitude of the local authorities.
Under a more limited land reform adopted by the Soviet legislature last year, peasants were given the right to lease land from collective and state farms. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, many leaseholders became disillusioned with the arrangement, complaining that they were being smothered in red tape and unable to turn a profit because of too many restrictions.
Almost six decades after Joseph Stalin forced Russian peasants to join huge state-run collective farms, there are few people still alive here who remember the days of private farming. Even committed reformers acknowledge that the early stages of land reform could be complicated by a shortage of volunteers willing to set up their own farms in the face of bureaucratic obstacles and chronic shortages of agricultural supplies.
At his news conference, Yeltsin attempted to reassure the conservatives by saying he had no intention of liquidating the collective-farm system. He said that "all forms of property" would be protected by law.
In the Soviet Supreme Soviet, meanwhile, deputies approved a controversial draft of a new treaty on the division of powers between Moscow and the 15 Soviet republics. The step had little practical significance because such a treaty would have to be ratified by the republican legislatures before going into effect.
The legislatures of the three Baltic republics, all of which have declared their independence in the last year, have said they will not agree to any treaty that recognizes them as an integral part of the Soviet Union. Several other republics -- including Georgia, Armenia and the Ukraine -- also are dragging their feet.
In an interview today, Rafiq Nishanov, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet's Chamber of Nationalities, said he hoped that 12 republics would sign the treaty by next February or March. He also suggested that the Kremlin consider recognizing the territorial aspirations of ethnic minorities as a way of persuading recalcitrant republics to fall into line.
Nishanov cited the example of Georgia in the southern Transcaucasus region, where Abkhazians and Ossetians are pressing for autonomy. "This is a very delicate question," he said. "We would like to help Georgia preserve its territorial unity, but we are also obliged to react" to the demands of the national minorities.
The draft treaty stipulates that membership of the Soviet Union is "voluntary." But Nishanov insisted that any republic that wanted to leave the union would have to meet several requirements, including holding popular referendums and observing a cooling-off period of up to five years.