The Subsistence Industry

Alexander Etkind, historian of Russia and an expert on the trade in natural resources, discusses the privatization of agriculture after the 1991 breakup the Soviet Union:

Members of the Soviet collective farms had used (but did not own) micro-slots of land, mostly vegetable gardens. After 1991, millions of peasants and dacha owners privatized their small households and gardens. In 1999, a quarter of the Russian population owned a subsidiary plot and was cultivating it. They worked 7 percent of the country’s arable land but produced more than 40 percent of its agricultural output. Amazingly, they provided 92 percent of Russia’s potato harvest, three quarters of its vegetables, almost all of its fruit, and half of its milk and meat. In 2009, the numbers were similar. This was an intensive but premodern agribusiness: whole families worked with shovels on miniscule plots, while elderly women sat on the side of the road, selling herbs by the gram or potatoes by the kilo. But these people were free: the only levy they paid was property tax; they chose their seeds, tools and methods; they owned their land and could sell it whenever they so desired. Russian agriculture had the same two-tier structure as other sectors: one part of the system, populous but mostly poor, fed the ordinary folk with perishable produce that could not be exported; another part, small but wealthy, produced the staples at volume, selling them abroad for convertible cash.

Russia Against Modernity (2023), “Parasitic Governance”

This is amazing. Post-Soviet privatization of the economy in Russia usually meant privatization in the hands of a few, so that the resources could be sold on an international market for international cash, which went to the international bank accounts of those same few owners. As a result, the fruit, vegetable and meat consumption of around 150 million people was treated as an afterthought by the domestic authorities. And so a nation’s grocery store worth of fruits, vegetables and meat was effectively provided by a bunch of subsistence and hobby farmers.

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