A Troubled Realm
Russian Agriculture’s Spatial Constraints, Variance, and Prospects for Revival
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Case Studies

The Four Case Study Regions

Stavrapol Kray Ryazan Oblast Chuvash Republic Moscow Oblast
[ Moscow Oblast ] [ Chuvash Republic] [ Ryazan Oblast ] [ Stavropol Kray ]

The four case study regions - Moscow and Ryazan Oblasts, Stavropol Kray, and Chuvash Republic - do not harbor 100% of European Russia’s agricultural variance. Yet they reflect a significant part of it.

In the Non-Chernozem part of European Russia, there are currently only two oblast-size pockets of overwhelmingly stable rural settlement, that is, networks of rural villages not subjected to lasting and in most cases irretrievable depopulation and land abandonment. One such oasis of stability is Moscow Oblast and another is Chuvash republic. Their rural population densities are almost the same, 28 and 29 people per square kilometer respectively. These two civil divisions of the Russian Federation, are, however, strikingly different in every other respect.

For several decades agricultural investment in the environs of Moscow exceeded that in most, if not all, other Russian and indeed Soviet regions. Per unit of agricultural land, only in the vicinity of Saint Petersburg and in Estonia was agricultural investment on a par with that in Moscow Oblast under the Soviets. This could not help but result in the highest output per unit of land, including yields in crop farming that oftentimes exceeded those received on much more fertile land in Russia’s south. The performance of Russian farms has long stood in inverse proportion to their distance from major urban clusters. Ironically, Russian farms do better when girdled and indeed imperiled by non-agricultural developments, as is usually the case in the environs of large cities. The farms fare much worse in an exclusively agricultural environment. This peculiar situation was subject to our previous research. It reveals itself not only in the heightened agricultural output per unit of land in the vicinity of all large cities of Russia (Moscow in the first place), but also in a spatial pattern of agricultural land use intensity within the most urbanized regions. The pattern in question is concentric with intensity declining outward from the city. This spatial trend is evidenced in steep gradients. For example, the agricultural output per one hectare at 10 km distance from Moscow is 15-20 times higher than 100 km from I! On the other hand, the agricultural land accounts for only 35% of Moscow Oblast’s entire land and full-time employment in agriculture for only 7% of the entire labor pool (note that Moscow Oblast does not include the city of Moscow, which is a separate jurisdiction within the Russian federation). Also, subsidiary farming (that is, what people produce on their backyards) is important, but accounts for a much smaller share of the total agricultural production than in most of Russia. Conversely, socialized farms, that is, post-communist converts of collective and state farms, are not numerous but strong.

Chuvash Republic is in many ways the exact opposite of Moscow Oblast. Personal incomes are low. Most of Chuvash countryside is traditional, affected neither by depopulation nor by market transformation. Although the capital city, Cheboksary, heads a sizable (600,000 residents) urban agglomeration, its location close to the northern border of the republic limits its immediate modernizing influence on much of the republic. Also, 68% of the republic’s entire population is ethnic Chuvash, a Turkic-speaking but Eastern Orthodox people. The Chuvash are even more dominant in the countryside, as most ethnic Russians live in Cheboksary. Chuvash are politically conservative: in 1996, about 80% of rural voters favored communists. Yet, Chuvash president, Nikolay Fiodorov, is pro-reform and has succeeded in the market transformation of local industry. In agriculture, however, collective farms retain strong position. Unlike Moscow Oblast, most of them have not been converted into joint-stock companies. Also unlike Moscow Oblast, much of livestock (e.g., 42% of all cattle) is now in subsidiary farming, that is, kept and fed by peasant families themselves, while at the same time registered private family farms are extremely rare. One interesting feature of Chuvash agriculture is its virtual monopoly on hops in Russia, which is important in view of ongoing fast expansion in Russia’s production of beer.

Ryazan Oblast is part of the Non-Chernozem Zone, and so is the neighboring Moscow Oblast. But unlike Moscow, Ryazan exemplifies all the traditional maladies of this zone: rural depopulation, low yields, and rampant land abandonment. However, Ryazan Oblast is in the south of the Non-Chernozem Zone and is actually located at the junction of the forest and forest-steppe biomes, the latter containing patches of Chernozem soil. This, however, does not make the southernmost rayons (low level, county-like civil divisions) more productive than the rayons abutting the oblast capital. In terms of reliance on subsidiary farms, Ryazan Oblast is much like Russia in general. Here, about two-thirds of meat, half of all milk, and over nine-tenth of potatoes are produced on peasant families’ backyards. Center-periphery contrasts in land use intensity are quite real, but the corresponding gradient is not nearly as steep as in Moscow Oblast, which corresponds with incomparably smaller size of the oblast capital (the city of Ryazan has a population of 535,000 people). Unlike Moscow Oblast and just like Chuvash republic, communists have a strong power base in Ryazan’s countryside.

Stavropol Kray stands apart from all the other case study regions. First, it is the most spacious of the four. With its 66,500 square kilometers, it is 1.4 times larger than Moscow Oblast, 1.7 times larger than Ryazan Oblast, and 3.6 times larger than Chuvash Republic. Second, Stavropol is part of Russia’s breadbasket. Together with the neighboring Kuban’ (Krasnodar Kray) and Rostov Oblast, it is one of the premier agricultural regions of Russia. This is related to its southern location and generally high natural fertility of the soil. Although, recorded personal monetary income is low in Stavropol Kray (it is less than Russia’s average almost by half), living costs are low as well. Also, Stavropol and Kuban’ are two frontier ethnically Russian regions. Republics of the northern Caucasus that lie immediately to the south of both have lower standard of living and they are full of social strife. Chechnya is one of Stavropol’s southern neighbors. In the eyes of its southern neighbors, not just Chechnya, Stavropol is a safe haven, which is what explains that the net migration into Stavropol countryside is about 5,000 people a year, making Stavropol Kray one of the migrations magnets of Russia. This regular inflow of “fresh blood” makes Stavropol the exact opposite of Chuvash Republic. However, mobility has not altered conservative attitudes of the locals much: about one-third of them vote communist. Although 85% of population is ethnically Russian, there are Nogai, Armenian, Turkmen, and Dagestani villages. Finally, unlike the other case study regions, all the most important modes of Russian farming are well represented in Stavropol: collective farms (both economically sound and feeble), subsidiary farms, and independent family farms. Combined with the contrasts in physical environment (best in the west and arid in the east near the border with Kalmyk and Dagestan republics) and ethnic mosaic, this makes Stavropol a promising case study region.

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