The Dying Russian Village

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

In May 1962, the Khrushchev administration ordered retail prices of meat and dairy products to be raised by 25 to 30 percent to cover increased costs of production on state and collective farms. The increases provoked widespread anger among the urban population and in the southern Russian city of Novocherkassk led to the most bloody incident of worker protest in the post-war decades. Over the next twenty years, the state’s subsidies to agriculture rose from 3.5 to 54.6 billion rubles, accounting for 11 percent of the state budget by 1980. This was, in effect, the price paid for labor peace during the Brezhnev era. The contrast with Poland, where food price increases in the 1970s precipitated labor unrest and the birth of Solidarity, is apposite.

But subsidies did little to satisfy Soviet farmers’ desire for a better life. Between 1939 and 1989 the rural population of the USSR declined from 130.2 to 97.7 million, and within the RSFSR the decrease was even more steep, from 72.0 to 38.9 million. Rural out-migration, averaged 100,000 people a year in the RSFSR between 1979 and 1988. What made matters worse as far as agricultural productivity was concerned, was that a disproportionate share of out-migrants consisted of young people and those trained to become agricultural specialists. Alarmed by this trend, the Soviet leadership sought to narrow the gap in living standards and cultural amenities between rural and urban inhabitants. In 1965, 1974, and again in 1985 it adopted programs that involved channeling funds to improve rural social conditions and the “material-technical base” of the countryside. Despite Brezhnev’s claim in 1978 that many of the problems afflicting agriculture and rural society were being overcome, the rural exodus continued.

The dying Russian village emerged as a prominent theme in Soviet literature already in the 1950s, and it would continue to figure in novels and short stories published in the two succeeding decades. Among the better-known examples of this genre were Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1963 story “Matryona’s Home,” and numerous works by Fedor Abramov, Valentin Rasputin, Aleksei Leonov, Andrei Belov, and other Russian Village Prose writers. They emphasized the loss of spiritual and ethical values associated with the passing of an older generation, the material hardships endured by survivors, and the sense of deracination felt by younger people who had left the villages. That at least some elements of village culture survived in the city was the theme of “Piatachok,” a 1987 made-for-television documentary directed by A. Khaniutin. The documentary told the stories of about a dozen Muscovites who had left the countryside as early as the 1930s and as recently as the mid-1970s. Its title referred to the Saturday gatherings of such migrants in Izmailovskii Park, where they recreated village entertainment and affinities.

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