Rural Settlements: The Woes of the Russian Village

Russian village life has always been hard. For centuries, peasants formed the majority of the country's population. The old village life focused on the extended family, with husband, wife, many children, grandparents, and frequently also younger siblings living under the same roof. The land was owned communally, with specific parcels allocated each year to households, depending on the size of families. A local census every 10 years or so ensured that each family had enough land to meet its needs. During the 17th century, however, serfdom became the mechanism that tied peasants to specific landlords. This was done to ensure that migration to the newly opened frontier lands along the lower Volga and in Siberia would not depopulate the central parts of the country. As a result, the serfs were not able to move, to own property, or even to decide whom to marry. Eventually their condition became little better than that of the slaves in North America.

For two centuries, between 1650 and 1861, the Russian serfs were treated as the property of their landlords. A handful of free (actually, state-owned) peasants lived in remote villages in Siberia and along the lower Volga. When serfdom was abolished by Alexander II in 1861, very little land was available to the newly freed peasants in central Russia; the majority continued to work, now for a fee, at their former masters' estates. Villages remained essentially peasant communes, cultivating common fields, with little private property of any sort available. The climate was harsh, the technology was primitive, and the harvests were correspondingly meager. Many Western commentators have explained the plight of the Russian village as a consequence of three things: the harsh environment, the archaic feudal production system, and ubiquitous drinking. One can also add the great distances that separated villages from each other or from more “civilized” urban life. Despite Stolypin's short-lived pre-World War I reforms, which attempted to redistribute land away from many poor to a few wealthier farmers, only a handful of areas had seen a rise in such independent family farms. Thus, unlike in much of 19th-century Europe and North America, virtually no independent private family farms existed in Russia on the eve of the Communist revolution. Many peasants were eager to support the Bolsheviks, who promised free land to all—something that would never come about in reality.

As explained in Chapter 7, the Soviet collectivization disposed of private farms altogether, and millions of the best farmers were sent to languish in Siberia as part of Stalin's plan to strip them of their property. The remaining poorest villagers, many of whom drank heavily or were lazy, were herded into the new system of large collective farms (kolkhozy). After the great famine of 1930–1932, in which about 2 million lives were lost, the Soviet system of collective agriculture was born. Each state farm (kolkhoz) included about 65 km2 (6,500 ha or 14,000 acres) of farmland in the vicinity of a few villages. The central part of the farm would have a relatively modern tractor repair station, a club, a medical facility, and a school. The production was decidedly large-scale: Hundreds of cows would be kept in massive barns, and fields were cultivated with large combines. It is interesting that very large farms also emerged in North America at about this time, but under a completely different political system. In 1941 there were almost 250,000 state farms in the U.S.S.R., but after the war many were combined to create even larger units, so by the late 1970s only about 26,000 remained in existence. Despite the upbeat Soviet propaganda, farm productivity improved little; morale was therefore low, especially in the late Soviet period with its chronic shortages of food, feed, seed, fertilizer, equipment, and other necessities.

Yeltsin's reforms made the situation on the farms dramatically worse. On the one hand, virtually all of the Soviet subsidies were abruptly terminated. On the other, no incentives or credits were put forth to provide for the creation of independent private farms. Few people volunteered to become private farmers in the absence of clear laws or government-backed loans. Those few who did experienced tremendous physical and economic hardship, as well as derision and even outright hostility from envious neighbors. Even by 2005, only 7% of the total agricultural output in Russia was produced on private farms. The kolkhozy were restructured into joint-stock cooperative ventures, but their management practices remained essentially unchanged. Although the workers collectively own each enterprise now, the head manager typically has the controlling vote, and the enterprise continues to be inefficient. In 2005, the output of the Russian agricultural sector was 40% less than in 1990; the sown acreage had decreased at least 30%; and the number of cattle had decreased by 46%. Russia today imports a little less than half of the food it needs to feed its own population—one of the highest rates of foreign-food dependency in the world—although it now has some surplus grain to export.

Today Russia has about 150,000 villages, compared to only about 2,500 urban areas. The most striking fact about the villages is that most of them are rapidly dwindling or even disappearing. A similar process of loss in the U.S. farm belt started later but is somewhat similar. About half of all villages in Russia are now very small, defined as having fewer than 50 people; they include a mere 3% of the rural population. Many such dying or even ghost villages are scattered in the forested areas of European Russia, especially north of Moscow in Pskov, Novgorod, and Kostroma Oblasts, where farming has never been particularly strong. However, the regions with better agricultural potential in the forest–steppe belt south of the capital also have large depressed areas, referred to as “agricultural black holes” (the western Bryansk region, the eastern Ryazan and Tambov region, etc.; Ioffe et al., 2004). In contrast, 48% of the rural population of Russia live in the largest villages (each with at least 1,000 people), which constitute only 5% of the total number of villages. The services are of course better in these villages, and typically each is at the center of a collective farm. In addition to the agricultural villages, about 10% of small rural settlements in Russia house workers engaged in forestry, small-scale mining, or transportation/retail services.

Russian villages do not have many of the services that all American small towns do (e.g., natural gas, sewer, or water), but electricity is typically available. The main street is unpaved and is little more than a barely drivable rutted dirt road along which log houses are located. There are about 100–500 people living close to each other in small individual homes with two or three rooms each. Every house has a bit of land for a garden. There may be a central house in the village for the local administration, and a library or village club across from the primary school. In a bigger village there may also be a church, frequently in ruins now. The village is surrounded by agricultural fields or forests. Villagers are not individual farmers or city workers who like to live in the country. The majority are working in the same agricultural enterprise (a former kolkhoz). Both in times of serfdom and under the Soviet system of collective agriculture, this arrangement made sense.

A separate type of rural settlement is a dacha development (these developments are called dachny poselok). These are enclaves of summer cabins or more permanent homes used primarily for recreation. Hundreds of these exist along scenic waterways, lakeshores, and suburban forest edges near the biggest cities, especially Moscow and St. Petersburg. The Soviet-period dachas were little more than plywood cabins on about 0.06 ha of land each, just about enough to grow a few rows of cabbage and tomatoes. The more recent developments of true year-round suburban housing (see “Post-Soviet Changes,” above) created, for the first time in Russian history, suburban residential gated communities virtually indistinguishable from their counterparts in California or Virginia (Blinnikov et al., 2006). Less discussed, but also noticeable, is the out-migration of long-time city residents who want to try living in the country for personal, spiritual, or economic reasons. For example, dozens of villages in Central Russia have recently been taken over by urban residents who have created communes, with themes ranging from strict Russian Orthodox family life to organic agriculture.