WORLD

FEAR OF WINTER

HARVEST CHAOS UNDERLINES THE DISINTEGRATION OF THE SOVIET UNION’S OLD ECONOMIC ORDER

MALCOLM GRAY October 22 1990
WORLD

FEAR OF WINTER

HARVEST CHAOS UNDERLINES THE DISINTEGRATION OF THE SOVIET UNION’S OLD ECONOMIC ORDER

MALCOLM GRAY October 22 1990

FEAR OF WINTER

WORLD

In an office whose peeling walls showed the effects of six weeks of cold, rainy weather, Communist party official Valery Dudoladov assessed the Soviet harvest season at Lesnye Polany (Forest Clearing), a 5,000-acre collective farm 30 km north of Moscow. Seated at a desk last week beneath an outsized picture of Vladimir Lenin, the 37year-old Dudoladov contemplated work sheets and production records spread before him and then declared, “I have been with this farm for 15 years, and this is the worst year I can remember.” Similar comments have echoed across the Soviet Union in recent weeks. Last summer’s promise of bountiful yields of grain, potatoes and other vegetables has given way to a chaotic harvest hurt by bad weather, fuel and labor shortages, transportation bottlenecks and inadequate storage. “We have 500 workers here and we took pride in being the only collective farm in the region to bring in our crop of potatoes on our own,” said Dudoladov. “But, this year, we needed help from soldiers and townspeople.”

The Forest Clearing collective’s problems underline the current disintegration of the Soviet Uniort’s centrally planned economy. Vladimir Tikhonov, an agricultural expert and member of the Soviet parliament, recently estimated that the country’s unharvested grain crop might have been as high as 260 million tons this year. According to Tikhonov, however, almost half that amount will disappear between the fields and the country’s inadequate granaries. Some of it, he said, will be lost from the backs of open trucks bouncing over potholed roads, some will spill through holes in the sides of worn-out rail cars, and yet more of the grain supplies, temporarily piled outside warehouses awaiting transport, will be soaked by rain and rot. As well, Tikhonov and other experts bleakly predict that one-third of the tomato harvest is rotting in the field because the country’s inadequate and overworked processing plants cannot handle an increased yield.

Amid widespread concern about food shortages, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has been assailed by critics of many political leanings. Some, including Russian Republic Presi-

HARVEST CHAOS UNDERLINES THE DISINTEGRATION OF THE SOVIET UNION’S OLD ECONOMIC ORDER

dent Boris Yeltsin, have used the harvest debacle to press for even speedier reform, while staunch Communists oppose such proposed changes as the private ownership of land. Gorbachev, meanwhile, spent part of last week readying still another draft plan for economic reform for presentation to the Supreme Soviet this week. And as Communist party general secretary, he also urged a meeting of the party’s policymaking Central Committee to support the development of a market economy.

The party surrendered its constitutional monopoly on power earlier this year, but it is still a powerful, though declining, force in Soviet society. Accordingly, Gorbachev sought to reassure the 401 committee members that a shift to a market-driven economy did not represent the restoration of capitalism. Instead, he declared, the transition will take place “within the framework of the socialist choice and our allegiance to the socialist idea.” Party officials suggested that they were prepared to follow Gorbachev’s lead and support such measures as private ownership of small businesses. Like Gorbachev, however, deputy general secretary Vladimir Ivashko voiced reservations about the private ownership of land, saying that the issue should be decided in a national referendum.

That stand is likely to provoke a clash between Gorbachev and Yeltsin. The Russian Republic has already announced that it will launch a 500-day economic program—no matter what the Kremlin does. That would dismantle the central planning system in less than two years by selling off state-run

factories and returning land to private farmers. Gorbachev has endorsed aspects of the plan, but he is also seeking to merge them with wildly different proposals by Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, which would largely retain state control of the economy.

Still, even as the debate over land ownership rages, the Soviet Union is adopting and espousing other measures that diminish central controls. Last week, the Supreme Soviet announced plans to reduce the powers of the state central bank, Gosbank. While Gosbank will continue to regulate the money supply throughout the Soviet Union, it will now be responsible to parliament and not the central government executive. At the same time, banks in the 15 republics will gain greater independence and will no longer simply function as Gosbank branches. In addition, Gorba-

chev last week asked several visiting U.S. financiers for help in setting up one of the key institutions of capitalism—a stock exchange. But Finance Minister Valentin Pavlov later stressed that the government had no specific timetable for the re-establishment of an institution that closed more than 70 years ago.

Meanwhile, only an hour’s drive from the Kremlin, Dudoladov and other members of the Forest Clearing collective wrestled with a more immediate problem: extracting potatoes from rain-soaked fields. Under the current

system, the farm relies on secondhand German combines to harvest the potatoes. But all six state-supplied machines sat idle last week, immobilized by bad weather and a lack of parts needed to work the bog-like ground. Instead, the farm has relied on sporadic waves of volunteers from the city—as many as 500 at a time—who work for as little as $4 a day and the right to take potatoes for their own use.

Alongside the civilians, soldiers from a Moscow-area regiment worked six hours daily last week, handpicking and then loading potatoes into a giant truck. Unit commander Yuri Kalmykov proudly singled out the good workers among the mud-caked soldiers. But several farm workers nearby quietly grumbled that the army, which has dispatched 45,000 trucks and

thousands of soldiers across the country to help bring in the crops, was doing no more than preventing the potatoes from rotting on the ground. Said one: “They are only picking them for themselves.” Indeed, Kalmykov confirmed that the 60 tons of potatoes gathered by his men during the past two weeks will be used to feed the unit all winter.

Two recent visits to the farm fields around Moscow symbolized the Soviet Union’s awkward transition from communism to some version of capitalism. On Oct. 5, several judges

were among a 30-member work party that spent the day harvesting potatoes. That action recalled communal action in support of the now-vanished ideal of proletarian equality, and it was quickly matched by an unabashed exponent of capitalism. Last Thursday, McDonald’s of Canada Ltd. president George Cohon interrupted a business trip to the Soviet Union, slipped on a pair of rubber boots and went to pick potatoes grown for the fast-food company’s Moscow outlet. As the Soviet Union flirted with economic chaos, Cohon, the judges and the soldiers working in the mud were all pursuing an elusive common goal: a better way of life for the Soviet Union’s long-suffering citizens.

MALCOLM GRAY at Lesnye Polany