Tractor on an organic farm near Kaliningrad
This week the Russia Profile magazine published two articles on the state of Russian agriculture. While most economists do not tend to think of agriculture as occupying the commanding heights of the economy, for most of the former Communist Bloc countries, this is where the path of liberalization usually started. The reforms Deng Xiaoping promoted in the early 1980s finally allowed millions of Chinese peasants to fetch market prices for their produce, with entrepreneurial ripples spreading throughout China that continues to this day. Gorbachev's contemporary reforms of collectivized agriculture had barely started when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
During the 1990s, Boris Yeltsin was not able to overcome fierce Communist opposition in the Duma to land reform, and there was a lot of confusion about who actually owned plots, as with so many other sectors of the economy. Yeltsin left the task of forming a parliamentary coalition in support of land privatization to his appointed successor, Vladimir Putin. As University of Washington Professor Herbert Ellison observed at the recent Real Russia Project roundtable, the results since the year 2000 have been quite impressive.
Stalin used starvation as a weapon - "We will keep out the kulaks" - propaganda poster from 1930
Russia Profile focuses on the government's successful agricultural census as a milestone, since this is the first accurate count undertaken in Russia since the Bolshevik Revolution. The report also notes the increasing development of farmland around expanding cities, and the surging productivity of smaller family owned farms compared to less efficient formerly state-owned agribusiness tracts. Given the Soviet legacy of waste, stealing, and mistrust sown in the countryside dating back seventy five years, it makes sense that enterprises bound together by family ties would be more productive. In America, where there was no forced collectivization, larger agribusinesses generally outperform smaller family owned farms.
It's true that Russian agriculture isn't a very sexy topic for the Western media to cover. Farm prices near Yekaterinburg or Khabarovsk have far less impact on Western consumers than the world prices influenced by Moscow's "national champions" in the oil and natural gas industry. It's also true that if you go looking for alcoholism and despair among Russians in rural areas and small cities whose parents and grandparents worked the vanishing collective farms, you can easily find it. But Russia is quietly experiencing real entrepreneurial growth by modernizing some of the world's most productive farmland, and that bodes well for a world that will soon have many more mouths to feed.
UPDATE: You can read Russia Profile editors' Lara McCoy Roslof and Ivor Crotty's comments below. For more historic background on Soviet and Russian agriculture, you can read Jenny Smith's piece The Survivors.