Potato crisis strains morale

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The Independent Online
"WE WILL survive as long as we have potatoes," is a belief to which long-suffering Russians hold. They were clinging to it last week as the rouble plunged, as queues outside banks and stores lengthened, as 19th-century institutions such as pawnshop came back into fashion. True, during the Second World War, starving people in Leningrad licked glue from wallpaper. But for Russians in peacetime, having potatoes has been the bottom line.

Now comes the bad news. On top of financial and political chaos, there is a crisis in the fields. August 1998 was an unusually rainy month and the potato harvest in European Russia is a disaster. If there is a point at which Russian patience expires, it might be here.

The road that runs out of Moscow southwest towards Ryazan is usually lined at this time of year with villagers selling potatoes from buckets. In the past two or three years, city-dwellers have got used to well-stocked if pricey shops and grown lazy at digging at their dachas or planted flowers there instead. They have known that they could always buy the staple potato from these smallholders.

But yesterday, on a glorious day of "women's summer", as Russians call the short period of bright weather that returns in September, the villagers were mostly sitting tight inside their fairy-tale wooden houses.

The peasant market at Nikitskoe, which should have been piled high with spuds, was selling nothing more than the last of the watermelons brought up from the south by Azeri traders. At Myachkovo, women were offering the district's sweet onions and Chinese-manufactured bath towels with the face of Leonardo DiCaprio. But again there were no potatoes, so vital because they can be stored. At Bronitsa, I spotted an old man pulling a cart with two sacks of potatoes. But they were not for sale.

"I'm sorry, my dear," said Alexei Fyodorovich, "but these are for my family. It's been a bad summer for potatoes. They ground is very wet and they are rotting. These two sacks are dry enough to keep, though. This will be our food for winter."

In the fields nearby, people were digging up potatoes but only for themselves.

"They're our one asset and even our little crop is bad because of the weather, because we have no fertiliser," said Valentina Sergeyevna, who used to work on the Path of Lenin collective farm and now in retirement tills her own small piece of land. Her seven-year-old granddaughter, Masha squatted in a rut, missing school because she did not have any shoes to wear.

A month before the onset of the Russian winter, however, one of the most disturbing sights was a sea of khaki tents down by the River Nishenka (Poor Woman) just outside Denezhnikova (Money) village. Muscovites have been worrying about a possible coup since there were reports of military movements in the Moscow region. Television calmed their fears by saying that conscripts were only helping the collective farmers to bring in the potato harvest. But the soldiers I found were picking potatoes and carrots for themselves.

Believe it or not, these men were from the elite Dzerhzhinsky Division of Interior Ministry troops, who would be in the front line trying to restore law and order if food riots broke out on the streets of Moscow.

"We have been given permission to root in these fields for our own stocks," said Mikhail Kravchuk, 20, who decided to stay on in the army as a contract officer after finishing his military service because there was no work for him in his native Perm. "The army is being cut back. Nobody owes a living any more. We have to look after ourselves."