Russian and Belarussian Agriculture
Matthew Raphael Johnson
Matthew Raphael Johnson
Leon Trotskii said in one of his articles, “The peasantry is the protoplasm from which derive all subsequent classes and class struggles.” There is much in this statement. First of all, Trotskii makes a clear connection between Darwinism, the patron ideology of all modernism, and Marxism. In referring to the peasantry as protoplasm, he is making reference to a myth of evolutionists that all life derived from some non-observable and purely theoretical “primal soup.” It is the old gnostic idea that matter is all powerful; matter is God; matter has created all things. But by calling the peasantry this proto-material “soup,” he is, consciously no doubt, rendering their eventual liquidation justified, and a primitive species in need of “civilization.”
The Marxist view of agriculture is that the life of the farmer is idiotic, which was Marx’s own phrase, that of the countryside, vile and primitive. Marx and Trotskii made no secret of this. In other words, since Russia was 90% agricultural, the Marxists were publically admitting that they had no claim to power, as they openly loathed the overwhelming majority of the population. All, ultimately, will live in cities and work in factories, as Lenin had written. Agriculture was something to overcome rather than to assist.
The real “deviationist” over this line was Bukharin. It was he who saw through the Trotskite/Stalinist line about the mythical “kulak.” A kulak was a prosperous peasant, though in reality differing from the middling and poor peasant y only a few roubles a month. He was a convenient scapegoat for all the failures of the Leninist or Stalinist regime in terms of food production, as mythical and omnipresent “saboteurs” were convenient scapegoats for their industrial failures. Bukharin waged a desperate struggle against what he saw coming: the liquidation of the peasantry and the dragooning of those who remain into collective farms, so as to “industrialize” farming in the creation of “agricultural cities.” All food shortages that would result would all too easily be blamed on the kulaks and the Bukharinites.
Of course, a kulak was a myth; an idea; an archetype. There were no reliable statistics about farm productivity after the Civil War, real statistics only developed in this region under Brezhnev, and even they were suspect. But a stereotype was necessary to deal with the inevitable Soviet failures, since a small, western-backed group of conspirators took over the government, and began dictating agricultural policy, despite the fact that none of them actually looked at agricultural life with anything but contempt, and only a minuscule minority had any farming experience whatever. In this regard, as in so many others, the capitalist west and communist east were identical in view, though differing in execution.
Not that the USSR really developed a problem: the west and its oligarchic rulers were regularly available to grant food relief to the USSR, and the food shortages that would have brought down that empire was deliberately sustained by the capitalist powers. It was the capitalists who eliminated all support for the white armies, it was the capitalist powers who sent tons of grain to “Russia” each year to rescue the “revolution,” it was the west who armed the Social Revolutionaries in the Crimea during the Civil War, it was Woodrow Wilson who cheered the deposition of the Tsar, it was the capitalists who armed Stalin prior to World War II, and rebuilt Russia afterwards. Where did Trotskii go to raise money and an army before the Civil War? To New York, and the Rockefeller family and its Schiff allies. What is significant about the procurement crisis of the mid-1920s was that it gave Stalin an excuse to destroy the peasantry. After all the claptrap about peace, land and bread, the USSR provided no peace, no land (as it was owned by the state), and clearly, no bread. But by then, the west had too much invested in Stalin to say much, and Stalin’s crimes were deliberately covered up by Walter Duranty and the New York Times.
As a result of this institutionalized insanity, the USSR always lagged behind the Tsars, absolutely speaking, in food production. A full decade after the Civil War, the Soviet system had not reached 1900 levels in grain production, and peasants, loathing the Soviet system, began to slaughter their cattle rather than have the urban CHEKA steal it from them. Bukharin, for all his faults, was the only one to warn against this. The USSR should have fallen even before 1928, though western forces prevented that.
Stalin’s solution was identical to Trotskii’s: an all out assault on the peasantry. The procurement crisis was dealt with by sending the army, the CHEKA and the urban poor into the countryside to begin stealing from the peasants. From this, the peasantry became the most implacable enemy of the system, as it had been the friend of the Tsars (at least before the war). The mythical alliance of “proletarian and peasant” had clearly failed, as it was likely to, since the only real attitude from Moscow on the peasantry was contempt and threats of violence.
What is significant is that from the procurement crisis of 1923 to “dekulakization” of 1929-1935, is the nature of the propaganda and the methods of the Regime. The facts are that over 4 million peasants were either murdered, starved or sent to the GULAG. The remainder were herded into the new “agricultural cities” of Marxist provenance, to live in barracks, a very “camp” like existence. The propaganda was severe: the peasant was merely a bumkin, stupid and drunk, in need of forced education or death. The kulak was the official scapegoat, but the Regime knew that the “kulak” was largely unidentifiable, and the “instructions” given to the CHEKA (later the NKVD) were deliberately vague.
Interestingly, the “dekulakization” campaign secretly included “village priests” among its victims, for the Regime could get two birds with one stone: eliminate the popular priesthood (as they were the preachers of pro-peasant morality), while destroying village life, making the peasant absolutely dependent on the System for food. Mass starvation was the result.
From the death of Stalin to the deposition of Gorbachev, the collective farm system was a failure. In spite of all the anti-rural official propaganda, all the threats, all the violence, the Regime got only about 10% of the western yields in wheat and rye per acre. Starting in the 1970s, Archer-Daniels-Midland rescued a faltering USSR by regular grain shipments.
It must be kept in mind that modern ideologies, particularly the totalitarian ones, have two modes of communication: first to the party elite (the initiated), and secondly, to the people (the exo-teria). The Bolsheviki were masters of this technique. During the Civil War, Lenin and Trotskii used the slogan “Peace - Land - Bread” to gain peasant support. The party itself believed in none of these words. Lenin did not believe in peace, as he believed in total war until the world was paved over into one large, state-controlled factory. He did not believe in land ownership, in that he rejected the concept of private property. He also, most certainly, failed to produce bread, given that Soviet policy forced peasants to slaughter cattle and burn grain, lest it be stolen by the CHEKA/NKVD.
The greatest failure of the USSR was in the agricultural sphere, viewed by both Lenin and Stalin as mere raw material for the factories. Eventually the peasantry was decimated, persecuted, regularly assaulted and gangs of CHEKA forces stole much of their produce to feed the cities. The party itself was weak in the countryside, which was ruled by urbanite party members, often pretending to be peasants. The so-called gangs of “poor peasants,” used to steal the grain, were actually urban party members acting with the CHEKA to humiliate the traditionalist peasantry.
By the era of Gorbachev, the collective farms were complete failures, by all standards, and, slowly but surely, the System began to admit this. Gorbachev, certainly more than Brezhnev, realized that the collective farm was producing only about 10% of western yields per acre. It is also worth mentioning that there was a difference between a collective farm, the sovkhoz, and a grouping of families under state supervision, the kolkhoz. Occasionally, they are treated as identical. Only the sovkhoz, which recognized no family lines, was the only true Marxist “collective farm,”and brought the USSR, which, under the Tsars was exporting tons of grain, to starvation and the dependence on western, especially U.S., grain sales and grants. Contrary to popular myth, agricultural output, particularly in wheat and rye, increased by well over 100% during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II, and that is likely a low estimate. The kolkhoz was healthier and more productive, for it was a grouping of families, more natural in its organization. Of course, all forms of farming were under urban, party control, often by those who had rarely seen a farm until their appointment. Soon, the distinction between the two organizations were blurred after dekulakization.
After Gorbachev, some private farming was allowed, somewhat akin to the early days of NEP under Lenin. By 1995, privately owned farms (whether owned by one family or by a groups of families), controlled only 2% of the land mass, though were responsible for over 25% of total grain output. However, it remains true that, before that time, there was only a slow move towards private farming, with the Regime providing many disincentives to privatize. But even under the middle part of the Yeltsin era, property in land was inalienable, until the law was changed in 1996. In certain respects, the inalienability of land is part of the Russian tradition, for, even under serfdom, peasants were guaranteed land and the right to make a living. There is certainly much of moral value in this point of view. It was also inalienable to avoid it going to large agri-business controlled by foreigners.
One of the greatest, yet least explored, disasters of the post-USSR era has been the disappearance of the backbone of the Russian (or any) nation, the village. Small villages in Russia, now in 2007, have virtually disappeared, capping a trend that was first measured in the early 1960s. Only a tiny handful are left. The upward mobility of the young, the stigma of a “hickish” life by both Marxist and capitalist propagandists, insecurity about “market reforms” as well as oligarchical control over certain regions have forced farmers into the cities.
Some of this oligarchical control has resulted in the famed regional “deals” with big money, where the agri-combine, similar to ConAgra in America, have entered regions to dominate agricultural production. In some cases, regional “bosses” hoarded grain reserves during the Yeltsin era, and then profiting from high prices as a result. Putin has done all in his power to rein in the regions and their “private deals” and has received nothing but pious condemnation from the west as a result. So far, private farms are responsible for about 75% of output in all agricultural sectors. Only recently has production topped the levels of 1987. As far as grain output is concerned, Russian farmers of whatever type are reaping about 1.8 tons of grain per hectare, versus 1.4 tons in 1987.
One of the major problems facing small and medium sized farmers is the expense of machinery. That which is being used in normally in poor condition and parts are rarely replaced, at the moment, small farms simply cannot afford to replace worn out machinery. Of course, the is the result of the economic meltdown under Gorbachev/Yeltsin. Additionally, high debt is another problem, and the agricultural sector is drowning in a debt of over 9 billion rubles, though this figure is presently being disputed.
The legacy of incompetence the USSR left to later generations is only now beginning to be reversed. At the moment, another serious problem facing agriculture is that left over by the USSR: contaminated soil due to the incompetent use of chemicals, and toxic ground water. The Soviets continue to leave their mark.
There is some good news. In 1997, the percentage of small farms turning some profit was about 7%. Today, thanks to Putin and his campaign against the regions, it is over half, even with the serious debilities of the post-USSR land. Additionally, the high expense of chemicals have brought some Russians to turn to organic techniques to compensate, which is also assisting profitability, as well as the quality of the food itself.
Putin’s Russia, while not yet solving the problem of the villages, has created the groundwork for an agrarian rebirth. Agricultural production in 2005, compared to 2004, increased on a monthly average of 2 or 3%, depending on the region, while real wages, for the entire country, have increased on average of 12% over last year. Figures in 2004, compared with 2003, are nearly identical. In 2003, October, after the harvest, saw an increase of 12% in all agriculture goods over 2002, according to the World Bank and the Russian Embassy in America.
With Putin’s Russia running a major trade and budget surplus, there is plenty of money available to assist in the rebirth of the Russian village and communal arrangements so traditional to the Russian mind. Negatively, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has already stated it would not look kindly on such moves. Already, the WTO has condemned Russia’s regional and devolved system of pricing, as well as preference, in terms of transportation, for local transport over multinationals. Regional decentralization is a dirty word to the Regime, and has earned Russia enmity among the WTO set. For Russian agriculture to survive, it must ignore the WTO (as it has done much of the time anyway), and continue the process of devolution and a return to local, rather than corporate and centralized, production and distribution. So long as the regions are run competently, there is no real problem with this.
As far as Belarus is concerned, the results of the controls on corporate, large-scale privatization have been phenomenal. Belarus is also running a substantial budget and trade surplus, the latter having increased by 15% over the past year. Even Freedom House is starting to like Belarus now. Given that Chernobyl is right on the Ukraino-Belarussan border, much Belarusian land was poisoned. But this did not stop, according to the World Bank, agricultural production to increase over 6% the last year. According to th World Investment Report of UNCTAD, Belarus is able to provide clean drinking water to 100% of its population, which is a major feat given the damage done to the soil.
Importantly, alternative sources of energy are being discussed with substantial public support. In a return to local sovereignty, central to any agrarian political program, small agrarian communities must function “off the grid.” Belarus is now involved, and is in fact leading, research to extract fuel from sawdust, which, having been tested, can create about one ton of energy pellets per hour. These are fuel/energy pellets that meet EU standards in this field. The National University in Minsk has led research in this area.
Recently, the Belarusian company SME has just invented a new heat-to-energy nanoconverter that will permit engines to be smaller and cheaper in the future, along with a reduction in emissions, which is extremely important to cash strapped farmers. Belarus is also leading the way in increasing the efficiency and capacity of solar projects. Interestingly, only about 2.2% of the funds used in these innovations derive from foreign sources, making a mockery out of WTO recommendations to the world. This legitimate use of science and technology can only help agriculture in the future by providing cheaper, renewable sources of energy that are controllable at the local level, and creating engines that are smaller and cheaper, use little fuel, and are less polluting. All of this is being done so as to lessen any potential dependency on the west for workable new technologies. Presently, it seems very difficult to envisage autonomous farming communities without a firm investment in alternative energies that are controllable by localities, and even by individual families. As it turns out, the Vice President of Belarus has recently claimed that almost 50% of grain dryers in the country are powered by local sources of fuel.
In Belarus, there is an official “Village Revival Program” organized by the Agriculture ministry, that has, in 2007, spent 7 trillion Belarusian rubles on small farmers. This program provides free or low cost tractors and chemicals, the later from potash, which Belarus has in abundance. Infrastructure improvements are also being done at state expense, so as to assist in the rebuilding of older and dilapidated farms, as well as to improve transport. With this, however, Lukashenko has insisted that agricultural corporations, rather than small farms, will not be subsidized by the state. The program itself is only to provide basic sources of income to small farmers. As a matter of policy, Belarus under Lukashenko has insisted that by 2010, at least 20% of employment will be as individual entrepreneurs in either the manufacturing or agricultural sectors, and eventually, the huge industrial combine, owned by a tiny group of rich investors, will be a thing of the past.
It is impossible to understate the significance of the fuel revolution being engaged in by Belarusian companies. Many authorities, among them Dale Pfiffer, claim that, as fossil fuels are becoming more expensive, and as American farmers are addicted to such fuels, that America will become less competitive in this area, while countries with locally owned and controlled fuel sources will dominate food production. Some authorities within the U.S. claim that the country will no longer export grain after 2025. It might also be noted that the Midwest is running out of water (the water table has dropped over 50 feet over the last 40 years), and some rather vicious fighting among Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming is reaching its way to the supreme court over water rights. Those with Nebraska ties know about this battle, but usually, those outside of those states know little about this severe crisis, and the very real possibility of a Midwest dust bowl.
Russia is experiencing a rise in the price of bread, despite increases in the harvest, TASS states. In the short term, this is a terrible thing, for bread is a staple item in Russia far beyond that of the west. In the long term, however, high prices will attract more investment and relocation into the agricultural sectors. The world’s supply of grain is growing smaller given increases in global consumption. Only Belarus is increasing grain stores at this time. Again, this bodes well for a revitalization of agriculture. Russia is now exporting about 10 million of its 85 million tons of grain, therefore, there is more than enough leeway for controlling prices for poorer consumers.
In 2003, the Russian Agriculture Minister, Alexeii Gordeyev, made the statement that foreign competition, buying up land cheaply in Russia, is keeping a potential agricultural explosion from taking place in Russia. The minister also asserted that Russian agricultural labor receives an artificially low wage, given the depression in such wages from foreign competition. Many in Russia, including Gordeyev, want agricultural debt written off by the state, according to Pravda and other sources. At the moment, Putin’s administration does not have a “village revitalization” program as Belarus, though the state does provide low interest loans to farmers, so long as such farmers have proven themselves to be profitable and well managed. However, Pravda also mentions that some Russian authorities claim that many farmer’s markets are controlled by foreign agri-business, that the debt figure for agriculture is inflated, for it is only the old Soviet models of agriculture that still survive that are in debt and produce nothing, and that the aid money to small farmers never quite reaches the farmer in question. There are still relics of the old collective farm in Russia, and it is there non-productive behemoths that get included in the agricultural statistics, meaning, for private farmers, the future is even brighter, once the collectives are controlled out of the sample.
As for specific plans for reconstruction, a few ideas might be helpful. And ideas for rural reconstruction and autonomy are central for any sort of moral regeneration not merely in Russia, but throughout the post-industrial west. The choices that face young college graduates in western Europe are a cubicle job, dead end service industries (usually sales), or a rejection of the system and a relocation to the countryside. Few other options are open for young people in the west, and it remains true that few have seriously tackled this potentially generation-destroying issue.
This sort of intense alienation and purposelessness is one of the main reasons tens of millions of Americans are on psychologic medication, and millions more are on illegal drugs of various kinds. On 1991, a major study showed that over 7 million Americans used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons, with about 1.2 million have become addicted to one type of prescription or another, almost exclusively mood altering. It has, without any question, become much higher since then, as pharmaceuticals is one of the major “growth industries” in the west.
In the Washington Post in 2004, a study was cited saying that anti-depressant use among children has tripled since the mid-1990s. 1 in 10 female Americans are on one type of anti-depressant or another. This does not include those on stronger anti-psychotics or other sorts of medications not classified as “anti-depressants.” It also does not include those taking pain killers, illegal drugs or using alcohol to medicate. Again, for females, in the era where they are “breaking down barriers” and becoming “professionals,” 1 in 3 doctor visits made by women have mental instability as the issue, according to the Post.
According to the journal Health 24, the present number of Americans taking “anti-depressants” was at about 9.7 million 10 years ago, with the present rate much higher, and this includes only the class of pills known as SSRIs. When one factors in illegal drug use, illegal prescription abuse, alcohol abuse, other forms of mood altering prescriptions such as anti-psychotics (Risperdal, Zyprexa, etc) the number is over 20 million and growing in the United States alone. This still does not factor in those who seek counseling without medications, and the millions who have problems but do not seek help at all. All told, about 20%-50% of Americans are mentally unstable, depending on who one reads. It remains unclear how better one can prove the bankruptcy of both modernity and post-modernity, and spur on the thoughtful and sensitive to begin consideration concerning serious and fundamental reconstruction.
First, in Russia specifically, a return to communal farming should be a major priority. It is very much a part of Russian and Slavic history, and is part of the Russian psychological make up, an idea admitted to even by the Soviets in the 1920s. Here, labor can be decided upon democratically, and the rewards of labor assigned according to skill, ability and need. The democratic organization of labor would place the burden on those both more willing and more able to work, and it would also bring agricultural labor, itself healthy and invigorating, to become a part of community life. Far from a utopian scheme, communal farming is an integral part of Slavic history and views on labor.
Secondly, it is rather clear that, in order to reconstruct the village, those urbanites willing to relocate and act as support for the rural communes in Russia (doctors, lawyers, etc.) should be given substantial tax incentives to do so. Some have also advocated that a “national service” program could include some farm work, and assistance in digging wells and assisting in the harvest. Speaking anecdotally, this writer has heard from those who moved from suburban to rural lifestyles, that the transition is rather easy, and the rhythm of farm work, though difficult at first, becomes very much “a part” of the person very soon.
As this writer has said before, the revolution in fuels, such as biomass, wind, water, ethanol, alcohol and many other ideas has the potential both to reinvigorate rural life, as well as to eliminate dependence on oil in the west. In Russia, oil is a major export, but it is far from true that it can be the only energy-related export that country thrives upon. There will always be uses for oil, but increasingly, other forms of energy are getting a serious hearing. Russia’s substantial natural resources, far from keeping her a “backward” export oriented economy (as so many russophobes have maintained), might easily thrust her forward as the leading technological giant in the world. And her highly educated and scientifically-oriented population can only assist her in this movement. Furthermore, such locally controlled sources of energy and power are also, as mentioned earlier, necessary for local political control as well, a connection few ruralists have made recently.
Thirdly, there should be major tax incentives for beginning a small farm. Such things could include free or reduced price implements, a tax free life for 5 years (or more), and continual investments in local infrastructure. Given Russia’s large and increasing trade and budget surplus, such things are easily viable financially.
Fourthly, there is absolutely no need to import things that Russians can grow at home. Therefore, crops available from Russian sources should be barred from import, at least for a certain amount of time. This would entail, of course, a complete withdrawal from the World Trade Organization, a move that would entail minimal loss to the Russian economy.
Fifthly, land should be freely bought and sold on the market, but with substantial disincentives for consolidation, say, for those enterprises with 50 employees or more, thus maintaining agriculture based around smallholders. There should be no landownership by foreigners. These ideas are currently being advocated by th small Agrarian Party of Russia.
This bare outline of reform is merely a skeleton of policymaking, a constitutional blueprint. But such an approach would increase entrepreneurial incentives, solve the demographic problems–large families are not a liability in rural life, increase a devotion to Russia’s past and to the soil, and increase the diversification of the Russian economy. Patriotism, religion and tradition are born and nurtured in the soil, but are asphyxiated in the city. Therefore moral reform is immediately connected to economic reform, and specifically a return to the soil specifically on Russian terms, according to Russian interests, and by Russian traditional standards.
Belarus is already moving along this path, as is Venezuela under Chavez. Russia should be next, and, maybe, just maybe, America might see the light utility here as well, and the ghost towns of the Midwest might see light again.