Pages from the personal archives of a Russianist, installment five: diary notes from a visit to Soviet Georgia and Moldavia, September 1979

Fond memories of a visit to Soviet Georgia in September 1979 together with a “delegation” from one of Americas’s leading global producers and marketers of tropical fruit and vegetables, organized under the aegis of the USSR Ministry of Agriculture

Following our Georgian hosts’ description of their activities, we present a 90 minute slide and tape show which they reluctantly and none too happily sit through. Then leave for a tour of their farm.

Виноградно-плодоводческий совхоз ВАРКЕТЕЛИ-   3000 hectares, founded in 1957 on arid land – brought under cultivation with irrigation from an earthen dam upriver. Grow main table varieties of grapes – have 500 tons storage capacity of grapes. During labor peaks use student help – 40 days. Pay students 20% below regular sovkhoz wages.  Use sprinklers for irrigation – chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Japanese equipment.

“During the ride I am given information on the ‘subsistence farming’ (подсобное хозяйство) which Brezhnev has been pushing this season: quite apart from land directly around one’s house, this generally means 1000 square meters here, as against the national norm of 2000 square meters. The norm for the subsistence farming in a Kolkhoz, however, is 5000 square meters = 1 acre.

The ‘tour’ of farmland is really no more than 10 minutes look from one hilltop at vineyards and orchards. Even this is sufficient for our boys, however – they take note of the extremely wasteful irrigation system, which is poorly maintained – right before our eyes one sprinkler is malfunctioning, pouring gallons of water per minute into a hole.

At about 5 pm we are taken to the house of a wine-making foreman for a feast – the six of us and an equal number of locals sit around an overladen table – with smoked suckling pigs and chicken, local cheeses and breads, grapes, pears, peaches, sauces – and homemade fresh wine. Here for the next 5 hours we feast in the Georgian tradition. Under etiquette of the feast, Jan is made the toastmaster or Tamada, with obligation to turn the floor over to each for toasting in turn.  Ceremony of Bacchus is a page out of Svetlana Allilueva’s descriptions of life with father. To my surprise, the Soviets go very easy on Cayton, who refuses to drink on grounds of religion (Mormon). Several of the toasts are outstanding. Cayton raises glass for the tillers of the earth, who work for the good of the people. The farm chief toasts our families, because if a man doesn’t love and honor his own family, then he cannot love and respect others.  Dick goes mushy, raises a glass to Russian-American friendship and begins to slobber over WWII days as an aviator – We are joined by our host’s 78 year old father, who also saw action during the World War and this brings Dick into a bawling state,  he weeps as exchanges embraces with the representative of the generation which saved us all! At this stage, the bottoms up procedure has taken its toll. Jan discovers that cannot make his way back to the house unaided on visit to the outhouse.  Selby looks poorly and Dick has begun to get sick. We beat a retreat – packed inside two cars. While Jan and Selby make a quick return, I and Dave have our hands full with Dick, who pukes miserably and requires that we stop a number of times en route. Halfway back to the hotel he has to stop and pulls a prank: climbs over a high fence intending to wretch away from public view. However, it takes two of the Georgians to retrieve him.  Back at the hotel, I have difficulty getting rid of the Sovkhoz chief, who offers insistently to set me up with girls – he sits down at my desk and starts phoning. I distract him by offering to go down to the dollar bar, where, I say, Jan and Gillis are surely hanging out. The fact is that Jan, Selby and Dick and Kotelnikov are all out cold in their respective beds.  With assistance of maids we enter their locked rooms to find them sprawled out like so many wooden planks. Bored and tired, the Georgians leave me in peace. But it is not much peace for me as I spend the next few hours suffering in my room from intoxication – to my credit and perhaps misfortune, I hold this dose down.  Note –a final macho gesture at the feast came when the sovkhoz director saw my long look at the suckling pig head on the table. He proceeded to split the skull, open the cranium and then thin slice with his knife portions of the pate like smoked pig brain, which he then slipped into my mouth, along with Jan’s, Selby’s. To their relief, neither of the latter remembered this episode the next day.

Overall I cannot especially fault the Georgians – though they set us up for a fall, they were rather considerate when disaster struck.

A city tour of Tbilisi, September 1979

We take an auto tour, which is brief and uninformative. The Old Town is shown to us from afar, atop an outlook across the river. We hear the set narrative: Tbilisi is so friendly a town, 97 nationalities live here in harmony, a testimony to the fact that people who settled here found it hospitable and stayed. Where else on earth can you find in such proximity a working synagogue, Armenian Gregorian Church, Georgian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox churches… Of course, they do not bring us anywhere close to these miracles of harmony. Instead we are shown the sterile new sections of town – the university, medical institute.  Some curiosities:  the driver points to the Набережная имени Сталина and seeing my expression says “I suppose you’re surprised by this?  I’d be surprised if you weren’t.”  It’s so obvious the Stalin cult is a kind of revenge, a way of keeping out the Brezhnev cult.

The driver tells us the story of the Georgian land: “Once upon a time, God was dividing up the Earth among the peoples. At that very time, the Georgians, being Georgians, were out in a forest meadow drinking and carousing. When a stranger appeared at the edge of the wood, the Georgians extended their usual hospitality and invited him to join them and drink a cup to their health.  He agreed and it turned out the stranger was God. God said that he was pleased to be among such a lively people, but asked why he had not seen them when he was dividing up the Earth. They explain that such is their nature and they had been drinking.  God says he had given away all the land except a small parcel which he had saved for himself – now this will be theirs.  The Georgians rejoice and prepare a basket of fruit and wine for God, to see him off on his trip back to Heaven. But God is a bit tipsy and as he ascends, He drops the basket – so that to this day Georgia is the land of fruit and wine.”

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Notes on agricultural sector in Moldavia, 1979, as reported by local Agricultural Institute, by farms directors, by taxi drivers and other authoritative sources during the September 1979 visit

With 0.15% of the land mass, Moldavia produces 40% of Soviet canned fruits and vegetables.  Moldavia produces 360,000 tons of meat and 500,000 tons of milk annually.  Moldavia still has industrial sugar beet cultivation. Table and wine grapes is a major industry – for land on slopes.

We visited the largest orchard in the USSR at Tiraspol with 6000 hectares planting in progress, half of which has already been completed. Main varieties from the US: Golden Delicious, Richard, Starker, Jonathan, Wagner. During peak of season they use supplemental labor – detachment of 1000 university students.

The 6,000 hectare farm represents an investment by surrounding Kolkhozes. Thus far have poured 27 million rubles into the venture and 20 million have been recovered in 4 harvests. One half of the production is held for long term storage. Out of 30,000 tons apples now produced, 12,800 tons are stored – they use chilled air methods. Ship out by rail.            23 orchards in Moldavia will have an average of 2500 hectares each for overall tree planting of 50,000 hectares by 1985

In the Tiraspol region we also visited a Vegetable Farm where a pilot project is run by the American equipment manufacturer FMC under a master agreement with the USSR Ministry of Agriculture.  The project is built on a 600 hectare tomato farm. FMC has supplied all field equipment, seeds, sorting equipment.   These are late variety tomatoes going into tomato juice and paste. Contract calls for output of 50 metric tons per hectare.  In fact 36 were achieved last year and this year the figure will be 40.  Reason is that US varieties are susceptible to local fungus.  Another reason – locally poor assortment of herbicides. FMC provided the equipment for new furrow methods. This FMC equipment is very satisfactory, especially the tillers. The cannery has 80 ton per hour capacity.

We watch a combine pass through the fields pulling up tomato plants and spitting out roots and stems. The area in general has 3-crop rotation: peas, tomatoes and milo wheat. There are 2 harvests per season. From FMC’s 600 hectares they look to production of 30,000 tons, out of which 4,000 will be sold fresh and 26,000 will be canned.

Our boys are less than overwhelmed by the success of this integrated farming operation. They note that the 60% survival rate of tomato seedlings is very poor, meaning great waste of fertilizer and water resources on the way.

FMC will do potato farming and processing next. Note – we are told that FMC specialists are paid by contract – $250 and 20 rubles per calendar day per year = $100,000 total. And in a new contract to go into effect soon the figure rises to $350.

FMC has been in Moldavia for a total of 4 years. For the first 2 years they worked with the local Institute in the planning phase; the past 2 years have been in the field. Their personnel is here on a permanent basis.

Looking at fruits – 450 kolkhozes in Moldavia, with 100,000 hectares under cultivation, of which 25,000 are post-1970 specialized agriculture.

Vegetables:  Formerly vegetables were a losing proposition – but not any longer. Collective farms are now producing 800,000 tons annually, out of which 750,000 tons are sold to the state. Mainly tomatoes, cabbage, onion, cucumber, eggplant, potato, watermelon.  State farms grow all the herbs and spices: rhubarb, parsnips, parsley, dill, celery, fennel, cauliflower, lettuce.

Climatic regions:   North, potato   Southeast – vegetables, irrigated   South: onion, early potatoes

Now set 35% return on investment annually in vegetable farming

In all of Moldavia, there are 450 collective farms, each of which does some vegetable farming. However, 67 Sovkhozes are specialized in vegetable production and they produce 70% of what is sold to the State.  Use fertilizers, mechanized harvesting, irrigation.

Spices and herbs – these are grown only on state farms – sovkhozes – because they are processed directly by the state.  Very little lettuce is grown here because ‘there is little demand.’ It’ a matter of what is traditional.  Also no cauliflower.  (All very curious, given that in neighboring Romania these greens, especially leaf lettuce, are very traditional).  As regards the “little demand” explaining failure to grow lettuce, when we then mentioned this to the Ministry in Moscow we were reassured that they would give marching orders to Moldavia.

Fruit production in Moldavia: North – pears and apples.  South- apricots and peaches    Center – plums

The Institute:  plans crops for each region, develop technology, maps, equipment, guide book for administrators. Also provides practical help in planting orchards. Check on proper implementation of their directives. Develop anti-erosion methods.   400 members in the Institute – including specialists on soil, land reclamation, agronomists, economists, geologists, water resource specialists.

[2020 observation:  presently Moldova is reportedly the poorest state in Europe. From the foregoing it should be self-evident that this poverty is entirely the consequence of geopolitical factors outside the control of its population and exists notwithstanding the fertility and productivity of the land in the recent past. Wedged between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova is cut off from its traditional markets in Russia and from its natural waterway, the Dniester, leading south into the Black Sea 170 km away at the Ukrainian port of Odessa. Its substantial Russian-speaking (largely Byelorussian) population resists tooth and nail the notion of takeover by its neighbors. This unnecessary poverty is likely to continue indefinitely]

Memo to the files: impressions from our visit to the Soviet fruit and vegetable cornucopia:  Georgia and Moldavia, September 1979 under the auspices of the USSR Ministry of Agriculture

One of the most striking impressions is the apparent leveling of once sharp distinctions between what supplies were available in cities and those in the favored countryside areas.  Less than a decade ago it was possible to say that even highly rewarded agricultural regions in the Soviet Union were poorly stocked in consumer goods and were the poor country cousins of even second and third rank cities, let alone the metropolis of Moscow.  Today these distinctions are fess less apparent; other distinctions have taken their place, and these are generated by the degree of successful or unsuccessful integration of a given region into the political hierarchy. For this purpose, comparison of Georgia and Moldavia can be highly illustrative.

The Georgian countryside, which, with the exception of some tropical coastal areas, is mediocre to poor farmland, has been won from mountainous terrain at great cost in labor. It was formerly known to be outstanding within the Russian context. After several years of political repression, little remains of this former affluence. Shops in Georgia have little to boast by comparison with highly prosperous Moldavia.  Political alienation in Georgia seems to have further expression in a revival and stubborn advancement of the Stalin cult.  If this is indeed the source of Stalin adoration elsewhere in the USSR, then Western analysts have been probably far off base in their understanding of the cult’s reappearance. For what is in evidence today in Georgia through restoration of portraits of the former leader and through prominent bigger-than-life gilded statues of him in public buildings, though memorial plaques, and through entreaties to tourists to visit his birthplace in Gory, is little more than an affirmation of the Georgians’ national existence and rejection of rule from Moscow. The Stalin cult is not so much an affront to Western sensibilities as a challenge to the Brezhnev regime.

Comparison between Moldavia and other favored agricultural regions than Georgia is all the more striking when this development is borne in mind. As the political power base of Leonid Brezhnev, the post to which he was assigned Party Leader after World War II, Moldavia to this day enjoys a special position vis-à-vis Brezhnev’s leadership. This is manifest in the model agricultural enterprises which are encouraged in the rea, in the innovative and self-assured behavior of local Party and State officials who make a virtue out of being in step with Moscow’s latest directives.  It is seen in the richness of Kishinev’s stores, in the well-dressed pedestrians, the orderly orchards and vineyards, and the prosperous new peasant houses along small towns.

Speaking with officials both in Georgia and Moldavia, one learns that the mandated increases in agricultural incomes have been realized. Collective farm workers in Moldavia, by way of example, now receive over the course of a year remuneration at the same level as industrial workers in Moscow. As an addition, they may enjoy the fruits of their labors on private plots which, depending on the nature of the farm enterprise, range between one-quarter and one acre of arable irrigated land.

With reference to official figures, it is obvious from even a glance inside stores that consumer goods which are in scarcity in major Russian cities are available without lines in these smaller, particularly Moldavian, towns.

All of this tends to support a hypothesis about the nature of Russia’s difficulties in the consumer sector which seems to me has been overlooked by Soviet analysts in the USA who have not visited and seen first-hand what is happening in that country. This hypothesis is that shortages of consumer goods and of processed foods arise today not because of declining production but because of rising disposable income and more equitable distribution of national wealth among the Soviet population. In a situation of largely fixed-price-production that rises only modestly from year to year and broadened demand, the necessary and logical result is the one which the astute observer will find today: widespread shortages. In this respect, the Soviet Union today appears to be traveling down the same road as Poland 5 years ago. It remains to be seen whether the implications for political stability will be the same in the USSR as they have been for Poland.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[Memoirs of Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up in now in print and available on all national websites of Amazon.com, as well as from other leading online retailers including Barnes & Noble, and http://www.bol.com

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