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Woes That Don’t Rise Soviet Villages in the Age of Capitalism

Villages and the countryside are the cribs of any civilization. The intrinsic ideals of a society, the sense of culture, and the identity of a nation are all rooted in the existence of an untarnished countryside. Preserving such country values while ensuring effective penetration of economic growth is a question that baffles any ‘benevolent social planner’. Though rapid urbanization and migration depopulate villages all the way from America to Australia, the situation in modern-day Russia paints a uniquely catastrophic picture. Once hailed as the building blocks of the great Soviet Union, most of the Russian villages now are on the verge of closure. According to the latest census (2011) of the 115,000+ rural communities in Russia, at least 13,000 have been completely abandoned or closed and 35,000 have only a population of 10! The Russian countryside is a testament to how it lost its robustness after years of centrally planned ‘pampering’.

Centuries-old legacy
Life in Russian villages has always been based around farms. The villages prospered during the time of Tsar Emperors (1547 – 1917) while being practically governed in day to day affairs by an autonomous community body- Obshchina. The countryside was also characterized by rich farmers, the Kulaks, who employed farmers in their large farms providing social welfare and security to the villagers in return. This agronomic cultural movement pushed Russia to be the world’s largest wheat exporter between 1861 and 1910. It was this tranquil and serene village life that Leo Tolstoy and Nikolai Gogol celebrated through their novels.

Times of Transfiguration
The October Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent establishment of the Soviet Union along Communist ideals brought monumental changes to the social and political climate in each village. The Obshchinas were replaced by a representative unit of the Party’s Central Committee at Moscow and the Kulaks were called “bloodsuckers who fatten the famine-the enemies of the nation”. The first five-year plan in 1928, i.e Stalin’s reforms of Collectivization and Dekulakization tore down Russia’s centuries-old agronomic culture. The government acquired all the farmlands and the workers and labourers were forcefully brought into the countryside and collective farms (Kolkhozes) were established in each village. The type, cropping period, and quantity of output was dictated directly from Moscow to each Kolkhoz. Political rivals of the party, ‘undesirable’ citizens, and erstwhile aristocrats were exiled to the rural areas and were deemed to perish in the harsh collective farms. Over time, the Kolkhozes and the Sovkhozes (government estates) evolved to churn out a new social and political culture, an ideal socialist village.

Though invidious, the soviet policies elevated the social life in the villages in comparison to their condition during the imperial rule. Villages were seen as the building blocks of the nation and the development of villages was directly looked into by the Soviet central committee. The level of capital investment by the Soviet Government was unprecedented and ranged from providing basic amenities like electricity, heat, water, and gas in all houses (of course owned by the state) to ensuring the availability of consumables and durables in all villages in all the soviet republics which united to be the USSR. The government also actively employed persons to provide everyday services like laundry, carpentry, salon, and community services like education, healthcare, and recreation. This precision of the Soviet government in ensuring quality infrastructure even in the remotest villages, over 6,500 km from Moscow, remains an unachievable feat in most of the modern world nations. Despite a plethora of logistical obstructions and bureaucratic intricacies, this system of developing a village centred around a Kolkhoz, with significant subsidies and central funding, was successful in providing secured employment and ensuring a decent life as per soviet standards to each citizen of the Union.

When the props disappeared
Ultimately, it was this rural system that collapsed after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. An unobserved snag of the Soviet rural development policy revealed itself. Decades of positive growth in material and social conditions of the countryside was purely due to the targeted and oriented policies of the state and was not due to any contribution by the rural households. Kolkhozes were dissolved and millions of rural poor became unemployed. Reforms in the Russian markets post-1991 drastically declined the quality of rural life and amplified urban migration. In the absence of strict soviet rules, the rural youth flew to other cities while the builders of a defunct nation- the workers, stood gawk. Large tracts of lands were deserted and villages were abandoned. The countryside- the backbone of the nation’s identity, culture, and demography slowly passed to neglect. The issues faced by the erstwhile Soviet villages in present-day capitalist Russia can be fingered:

Problems-Simple but powerful
Lack of infrastructure and amenities in rural areas is the primary reason inhibiting the youth from settling in the villages. Post-1991, the government control on infrastructural facilities loosened and the urban-rural divide in accessibility widened. In fact, the central government’s budgetary allocation to rural infrastructure development has been a meagre 4.7% and whatever that remains from the soviet times has become obsolete and incompetent in the modern age. Unsurprisingly, 56% of rural Russians now have no access to running water in their homes and 34% have no rail & road connectivity. Kolkhozes which usually got large loan waivers had to repay dues now, chiefly by selling the village’s public goods and were then shut, giving way to large industrial farmhouses. The state-run offices, schools, and hospitals were also closed. The 1990s saw a complete reversal in the central government’s rural development strategy as the new nation was now burdened with a herculean task of redistributing the acres of land and millions of houses it owned to its residents. The new government believed that a free market would guide progress and development. But inadequate roads, irregular electricity, and shortages for even necessities characterize Russian villages even after 30 years of capitalism.

This is the ultimate reason for poverty and unemployment that looms over the Russian countryside. The collapse of state-run enterprises and the lack of alternative employment opportunities pushed people to abject poverty. An average agricultural labourer in 2003 earned just $21.6 which is 35% of the National mean wage. Though the Russian government provides social assistance, pensions, and unemployment allowances, they are deemed highly inadequate. This again forces the youth to migrate to big cities. This rural-urban divide calls for an active interference by the Kremlin.

As seen earlier, the decimation of population and the decline in demographic dividend are Russia’s emerging issues. Russia also faces a nationwide decline in birthrates which in fact crops from World War II that wiped away 42 million soviet males. The rural birth rate is a meagre 0.3 per 1000 while the death rate is 13.3 per 1000. Alcoholism, another Soviet vestige, is rampant in rural Russia and shrinks the average life expectancy to 65 years (at least 7 years behind Europe). The natural decline compounded with migration questions the future of Russian villages. Even president Putin’s call to revamp rural agronomy went unheard, as the villages had none to hear him.

Certain uncertainty
Thus, the problem of Rural Russia is unique yet noteworthy. It crops from a very fundamental hitch, the inability to be self-reliant in the absence of a nourishing central policy. It has become a need of the hour, for the Kremlin to formulate a policy to revamp these erstwhile building blocks. The woes against Putin’s unresponsiveness are faint as the largely old rural population has accepted it as their way of life. The looming loss of an ancient social system becomes imminent as years of socialist rule has bereft the villagers of a voice to call and arms to raise.

By Abhiram Lokanathan
A First Year Undergraduate at SRCC


References
[1] WEGREN, S. K. (2003). The rise, fall, and transformation of the rural social contract in Russia. Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 36(1), 1–27. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0967-067x(02)00056-9
[2] PETRIKOV, ALEXANDER (2004). Measures of Rural Development Policy in Russia. Studies on the Agricultural and Food Sector in Central and Eastern Europe. 25, 391-397. http://www.iamo.de/fileadmin/documents/sr_vol25.pdf
[3] CSÁKI, C., & MATUSEVICH, V. (2000). Changes in Rural Life: The Need for an Effective Rural Development Strategy. Society and Economy in Central and Eastern Europe, 22(4), 20-32. Retrieved January 23, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41468489
[4] WEIR, F. (2017, December 26). A pastoral lost: the withering of Russia’s old Soviet farms and villages. The Christian Science Monitor. https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2017/1226/A-pastoral-lost-the-withering-of-Russia-s-old-Soviet-farms-and-villages
[5] SHANE, SCOTT (1990, October 21) Villagers tell of rural Russia’s collapse Stalin’s brutal legacy orphaned the land. The Baltimore Sun.
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