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Famine stalks the former Soviet Union

Copyright: Iskra Research; by F. Kreisel; Aug. 22, 1995

The latest reports on the grain harvest in both Russia and Ukraine indicate that this season will record the lowest harvest in 30 years. Reuters reported on Aug. 18th that the Russian grain harvest will drop to 67 to 69 million tonnes, down from 81.3 million tonnes last year. Adding to this trouble is the decreasing ability of the state to purchase grain abroad. In 1992 Russia imported 25 million tonnes; in 1993 the figure was down to 11 million tonnes. This year the government is hoping that it might afford three to four million tonnes of import. Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Petro Sabluk, who oversees that country's farm policy, said on Thursday:

"I hope we will have a harvest of 37 million tonnes of grain this year… Our expectations were much better and over the past two weeks we have lost those expectations… The number one reason is that the land is exhausted. We don't have fertilizers. And the second reason is that we delayed the harvest and suffered losses because of our old-fashioned combines."

Officials in both countries mouth the usual hopeful homilies and the usual explanations blaming the weather and the bad road system. Ukraine, it seems, has also suffered from an unusual locust infestation. The more honest, or rather, the less dishonest from among the bourgeois journalists pen observations about the obvious lack of the elementary prerequisites of modern agriculture: supplies of seed grain, machinery and spare parts, chemical fertilizers, fuel, etc. Adding to these troubles is the social upheaval in the countryside. The collective and state farms get broken up into disjointed and unmanageable pieces, private holdings are carved out, the farm implements and livestock are fought over by the competing private individuals and the remaining collective farmers.

These explanations, although true, are inadequate. Ninety years ago, writing about another crisis in Russian agriculture Karl Kautsky pointed out the half-hearted attempts of the bourgeois liberals to analyse it.

"The indecisiveness of the liberals is revealed immediately, as soon as the topic of discussion turns towards the analysis of its (collapse of Russian agriculture) reasons and the suggestions for its cure. The indecisiveness in this second sphere is caused by their class position; but it also of necessity brings about the indecisiveness in the area of the analysis as to the causes. Whoever lacks the determination to root out the evil, will be just as afraid to discover its root causes."

Today, due to the terminal sickness of the whole world system of capitalism its ideologues do not even attempt to give a coherent diagnosis of the myriad problems of this system. One quarter of world's population is living in poverty; 30% of the world's workforce is unemployed or underemployed… and the American mass media is still preoccupied with the OJ Simpson trial.

Agriculture is in deep crisis throughout Eastern Europe and the former USSR. While acreage sown has frequently increased, the gross output of the basic foodstuffs and agricultural commodities is down everywhere, from Hungary in the west to the Altai and Kazakhstan in the east. In the case of Bulgaria, for example, the harvested volume of its main export item, the rose petals used in the perfume industry, has shrunk by a third because the specialized state farms had been parcelled out and food crops planted instead of roses. The giant grain farms of Kazakhstan are running into shortages of machinery parts, fertilizer and fuel. The Tajik cotton fields are running out of water as the grossly inefficient irrigation system is continuing to break down. Far from improving the productivity of agricultural labor, the effect of world market forces on Eastern agriculture is to turn it backwards to primitivism.

The influx of cheaper and higher quality Western produce has served to drive Eastern producers out of the capitalist market, to reverse the spread of mechanization, to undermine rational division of labor and specialization of producers, to force peasants into subsistence farming and into natural, i.e. non-market economy. This is seen quite clearly in Germany, where through the logic of reunification the East German agriculture had been practically wiped out. The debates now going on between the EU and the Eastern entry applicants (Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and others) over the terms and the tempo of entry into the Common Market are very often directed at the intractable problems of agriculture. Put plainly, the inefficient and relatively high cost eastern farmers would be wiped out in a competition against the highly efficient Danish, French or German farmers. Throughout this giant Eurasian continent we see millions of townspeople forced into subsistence agriculture. Laid off industrial workers and professional people are trying to make a living off tiny parcels of exhausted land. Others, those who still have jobs, spend their weekends and vacation time trying to grow potatoes and cabbage to supplement their worthless wages.

The Mafia ridden governments cynically promote this process of deindustrialization. From the point of view of the Yeltsins and the Kuchmas, it is much easier to rule over tens of millions of isolated villagers than to confront industrial workers concentrated around their factories and mines. The "democrats", in fact, promote the idiotic idea that the future of Russia and the other republics is tied up with the successful entrepreneur, petty proprietor, independent craftsman and family farmer. In reality, subsistence farming on parcellated patches of land, deprived of mechanization, chemical fertilizers, and transportation is a prescription for the Dark Ages poverty we see persisting throughout Africa, Latin America and large parts of Asia. No less real is the spectre of cultural retrogression and descent into barbarism. When two months ago the sewage system in the second largest city of Ukraine, Kharkiv broke down, the government simply told its one and a half million population to move elsewhere. To be sure, eventually the pipes were patched up and most of the city folk returned to their apartments. But the sewer breakdown in Kharkiv, like the bombing of Grozny and the gradual strangulation of Tbilisi and Yerevan are just a harbinger of the future.

Poverty and social inequality.

Capitalist restoration means for the peoples of the former USSR a descent into living hell. A recent report by the World Bank details the social suffering associated with the Russian market economy. A full third of the population lives below the official poverty line and growing numbers of people cannot afford the minimum subsistence basket, estimated to cost thirty dollars a month. The income disparities are as large as in Argentina and the Philippines and the regional disparities in the level of poverty are growing sharper. More and more layoffs are decimating the city population and during the last two years only 40% of the workers were being paid fully and on time. When workers do rebel, the "democratic" governments are beginning to resort to lockouts, firings and police repression.

Today's reports from Minsk, Belarus tell of the strike by the subway workers who had not been paid since June. The newly elected «democratic» President, Alexander Lukashenko accused the strikers of staging a political battle against his government and hired strikebreakers who are running trains under police protection. Russian parliamentary elections are coming up in December. Yeltsin's approval rating is down to about 10% and rather than rely on the vagaries of voting, this "democrat and friend of Clinton and the West" is beefing up his security and secret police apparatus by putting his own people in charge. He is also boosting his popularity within the security forces by giving the police greater powers to shake down the traders and the merchants and by concentrating ever greater powers at the center.

The various opposition groupings (there are over 300 parties contesting the elections) all agree, with greater or lesser reservations, with the capitalist system and the primacy of market forces. All of them, from the Zhirinovsky fascists to the various "communists" and "bolsheviks" persist in ignoring the international nature of capitalism and the domination of the forces of the world market over the nation-states. The hallmark of Stalinism, its messianic nationalism persists in the body politic of Russia and the other successor states. While a few years ago the anti-communist "democrats", who included many ex-"communists", dreamed of turning Russia into a giant American shopping mall, today more and more of these same politicians are changing coloration yet again to either the fascist black, the monarchist white or the "bolshevik" red. These nationalists are again rewriting history, glorifying the imperial Russia and harkening back to the torture chambers and the mailed fist of Ivan the Terrible and Joseph Stalin.

The real solution for the workers of the former USSR lies in the program of proletarian internationalism and world socialism. It entails assimilating the lessons of the October revolution and the Stalinist nationalist reaction which followed it and undermined all its gains. It is to this historical and political education that Trotskyists are committed.