Gloom grows down on farms

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'OF COURSE we'd like to have our own land. Eveybody would. But then, where do we get the tractors, the fertiliser, the equipment we need? And anyway, it won't happen.'

Pessimism like that, expressed by Yuri Alexeyev, runs deep on the Chepelyovo collective farm, south of Moscow. The power struggles in the Russian capital have a direct effect in Chepelyovo. If Boris Yeltsin loses his epic battle with the Russian parliament, privatisation of land won't take place - here or anywhere else. If he wins, with a little luck, it might.

Land privatisation is one of the most important questions facing Russia today. Mr Yeltsin is in favour of privatisation; Alexander Rutskoi, the vice-president, whom Mr Yeltsin's opponents want to put in the Russian leader's place, is strongly opposed.

In Chepelyovo, the system has been neither shaken nor stirred. In the office of Vasily Andranyuk, the farm chairman, portraits of Marx and Lenin still hang. The noticeboard quotes Lenin, and exhortations from the Communist Party. There is a magnificently inaccurate Communist slogan: 'Who works well - lives well.'

Mr Andranyuk was not keen to discuss privatisation of land. But, despite his reluctance to talk, he clearly does not like the idea of breaking up collective farms. 'The system needed perfecting - but it worked. We should not destroy the old system.'

Just how well that system worked can be seen in the Chepelyovo village shop, which reeks of stale alcohol and rotting vegetables. There is a queue for bread, alongside dozens of crates of empty vodka bottles. There are pickled vegetables, but little else. A notice announces that veterans of the Great Patriotic War and Heroes of the Soviet Union do not need to queue. Several men are glassy-eyed, and totter as they stumble out.

One man in the store who, unlike his fellow collective farmers, does not seem to have been drinking vodka since breakfast, expresses interest in privatisation, but says it must come with help to buy what is needed: 'If you've got land, you need a tractor. Where do you get that from?'

Among the younger men especially, there is a clear desire for change. Again and again, though, comes the same refrain. 'What about getting fertiliser and equipment?'

There is little loyalty to the collective farm. As Sergei, a mechanic, says: 'Even the word kolkhoznik (collective farm worker) is an insult, meaning somebody who gets no money and does no work.'

Yuri Alexeyev says nothing has changed. 'The Communist Party has gone. But all the party people have stayed in the same place. That means that, even if Yeltsin puts out a decree, nothing will happen here.'

Stalin's forced collectivisation of the 1930s - which caused mass famine and the deaths of millions of peasants - destroyed productive agriculture in Russia and Ukraine. Russia is struggling to come to terms with that grim legacy today. Sergei said: 'We used to export grain. Now we can't feed, shoe or clothe ourselves.' If Mr Yeltsin loses his battle with parliament, then Mr Andranyuk seems set to stay, as does the collective farm. The result: an abundance of drunks, and not enough home-grown food to go round.

But the prospects do not have to be so bleak. Where privatisation has been tried out, Russians have been keen to join in. If Mr Yeltsin wins his current battles, it is possible that Chepelyovo - and tens of thousands of Chepelyovos across the country - will no longer be a political and agricultural dustbin, but a set of real, productive, working farms. The battles of the next few days and weeks will help to make the prospects clear.