The enemy is dug into individual trenches, preparing for winter, having already devastated the Russian countryside from the air. The invasion had come from the south. Moscow ignored early warnings, and scrambled to launch a counteroffensive. Local inhabitants fear it is too late. Terrain has already been lost. Citizens bitterly complain: This could never have happened during Soviet times, when the country was strong and purposeful.
Actually, it is unconventional combat that is being waged on the frontier near where European Russia meets Asia: Locusts descended on thousands of acres of fertile land, devouring wheat, millet, barley, corn and even weeds, and promising more destruction next year.
The assault took place this spring and summer along a 1,500-mile section of border separating Russia from Kazakhstan. Small, pinkish "Italian" locusts and green, sparrow-sized "Asiatic" ones fluttered in huge, cloudlike swarms. They lit on fields of all kinds, leaving behind acres of bare stalks. Stragglers were found everywhere: in porridge, in socks, in hair, in beds. By the end of the feasting season, the locusts devoured between 10 and 15 percent of a grain crop already reduced by severe drought.
"We've had not enough rain and too much, too much sun, and locusts are children of the sun," said Anatoly Garifulin, a farmer who manages the Steppe Collective Farm, which employs 2,200 people 150 miles west of Orenburg.
As in many cases of natural or man-made problems, the locust invasion provided fuel for the popular perception of a Russia going down the drain and a government unable to help. Here in Orenburg, a sleepy market town that was once the site of nuclear testing, the emotional landscape for such thinking is fertile. It is a territory of weathered faces and brown forearms where farmers long for the Soviet days of subsidies and guaranteed income. Most farms are still run on the Soviet collective model, and pictures of Lenin adorn managerial offices. Officials move from meeting to meeting and, somewhat like locusts, when they reach a critical mass they lunch.
"The so-called new capitalists broke up the Soviet Union, let the army collapse, and now they are too busy stealing to fight locusts. In Soviet days, it was state policy to control locusts. Now there's no policy for nothing," Garifulin said, to the concerted nods of other farmers and agriculture officials. They had clearly exchanged these opinions before.
Sometimes, Russia seems in the grip of serial disasters. A late spring frost killed sugar beet and sunflower crops in parts of the country. Fires swept through hundreds of thousands of acres in Siberia and western Russia this summer--President Boris Yeltsin had to abandon a vacation house because of approaching flames. Also this summer, a strange malady that causes uncontrolled bleeding and fever broke out in southwest Russia. Cholera surfaced this week in the far west.
Even in this context, the locusts stimulated intense interest. Their appearance appealed to the Russian sense of millennial doom (along with the war in Kosovo, the locust infestation was seen by mystics as a sign the world was coming to an end). Reporters flocked to the border to describe the crunch of locusts under their feet and even to fry them up for a snack.
The plague aggravated an already tenuous farming season in Russia. For the second consecutive year, drought will keep grain harvests low, at about 60 million tons. Because poverty and economic depression have suppressed meat consumption, that figure will probably be enough to meet the country's bread needs, Russian officials say.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization issued a special warning a few days ago noting that the locusts "have laid eggs over millions of hectares." One hectare equals 2.47 acres.
"The eggs, unless destroyed, will hatch in the spring of 2000, posing a greater threat to next year's crop," the statement said.
Orenburg sits on rolling steppe land that was converted to grain production by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The Ural River that separates European and Asian Russia flows just outside of town.
To the south lies Kazakhstan--and also the problem, according to the Russians. Russians stranded in Kazakhstan after the Soviet Union's demise abandoned the fields, either for lack of money or because they fled to Russia, fearing a bleak future under Kazakh rule. These fields became hard and overgrown with weeds--ideal breeding grounds for locusts, which like to lay eggs in hard-packed earth. "Kazakhstan agriculture is in even worse shape than ours," said Anatoly Popov, a gaunt farmer who works at the Orenburg district farm bureau.
Locusts, which are usually confined to isolated areas, began to get out of control three years ago, Popov said, but the Russian government did not believe reports from Orenburg. "They thought it was a trick to get money," he said.
Kazakhstan and Russia began to quarrel over who was to blame. The Kazakh government said the locusts were migrating south; the Russians insisted winds were carrying them from Kazakhstan.
This year, Moscow is funding locust control projects, but the delays and wrangling have embittered wheat farmers. "Here we were, setting fire to our fields like savages, and no one was paying attention," said Garifulin.
Garifulin was born on the Steppe Collective Farm. He took a reporter on a locust tour and each sojourn into an infested field seemed to increase his anger. It is now egg-laying season, when locusts burrow into the ground to deposit capsules bearing 50 eggs each. Farmers can't spray insecticides now because it's too close to the harvest. "We have to sit and watch while the locusts prepare for next year's war," Garifulin said.
He stopped his Neva jeep at a wheat field. Slamming a car door produced a rustling cloud of locusts. "It's a nightmare," he muttered.
Beyond the Kazakhstan border, marked only by a rotten wood post, fields lay fallow as far as the eye can see. "We have been secretly plowing fields in Kazakhstan," Garifulin said. "The overturned dirt makes the locust eggs vulnerable to wet, cold and insects that eat them."
Nearby, a yet-unharvested field of millet waved in the hot breeze. Garifulin clapped his hands. The giant Asian locusts looked like miniature Harrier jump jets: They rose vertically, then flapped their wings and sped away. "These things eat anything," Garifulin said. "Even poisonous weeds. Come back next spring when the new ones hatch. It will be dark at noon with them."
CAPTION: Agricultural official Nikolai Churilov holds a bottle of locusts, which bedevil Russian farmers. Plague could be worse next year, warns United Nations.