Russia tackles its Bolshevik land legacy

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THE RUSSIAN Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, confronting the most emotional, tenacious Bolshevik legacy of all, yesterday said Russia's 27,000 state farms must be broken up, and ordered a British-funded experiment in land reform to be extended nationwide.

The move suggests a new determination after many false starts to uproot a system of collectivised agriculture imposed by Stalin in the late 1920s and still largely intact despite name changes, legislation and decrees.

The driving force behind the new push is Boris Nemtsov, the governor of Nizhny- Novgorod province and darling of Western aid agencies. He said the only real opposition came from 'drunks and lazy-bones'. But he also noted the fate of two earlier champions of land reform - Alexander II and Pyotr Stolypin, who was prime minister under the last Tsar. Both were murdered. Resistance remains very strong in vast swathes of Russia and good intentions could quickly sink in a mire of indifference.

More than 90 per cent of Russian farming is still done by collectives. There are more than 200,000 private farms but most are tiny, plagued by shortages of money and often picked on by local officials.

Nizhny Novgorod, helped by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and Britain's Know-How Fund, is breaking up five collective farms along the Volga River. Land and machinery are auctioned off but individuals are encouraged to group together so that plots are not too small.

The pilot scheme cost around dollars 1m ( pounds 700,000) and Britain, after a visit to the region last month by the Prime Minister, John Major, says it will provide much of this.

Nizhny Novgorod began its experiment last October when President Boris Yeltsin, having suspended the obstructive Soviet-era parliament, signed a decree lifting restrictions on the transfer of private land. To get his model copied elsewhere, Mr Nemtsov yesterday invited the Russian Prime Minister, two ministers and officials from across the country to watch an auction at the 60 Years of October, one of three state farms disbanded so far.

'I am convinced this programme should become the national programme for all Russia,' said Mr Chernomyrdin. 'I have supported it and will support it.' Western advisers, who worry about the retreat from free-market change, were delighted. Mr Chernomyrdin's support yesterday will help counter his reputation as a conservative. 'This is a historic step,' said Anthony Doran, an official with the IFC, a branch of the World Bank.

But there is strong resistance, even in Nizhny Novgorod, considered the most progressive Russian region. When Mr Chernomyrdin stepped out into the snow yesterday to ask a group of peasants what they thought of the reforms, they shouted back: 'Very bad.' They gave a list of grievances - prices, young people leaving the countryside, broken equipment and corrupt officials.

Anatoly Chubais, the minister responsible for privatisation, drew loud boos from a room full of apparatchiki when he said some peasants wanted to keep state farms only because they 'want something to steal from'.

(Photograph omitted)