Thursday, August 14, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Russians Moving Back to Private Plots While Alive and Toward Separate Plots After Death

Paul Goble


            Staunton, August 14 – Ever more Russians are relying on private plots at their dachas or on farms for food as the sanctions regime tightens, an indication of when social clashes are most likely to occur. And at the same time, ever more of them are pushing for setting up private and religious cemeteries thereby highlighting where the dividing lines may be.


            According to experts at the Center for Development at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, the embargo Vladimir Putin has imposed on food products from Western countries will hit Russia’s poorest groups hardest and will lead to a degradation of the quality of diet of even those who are better off (


            “The worsening of the situation in the food market together with the continuing stagnation in the economy may force low income groups of the population to reduce their consumption and in the future to return to the use of private plots” to grow food for their own consumption and possible sale to others, the experts say.


            As far as those who are in the middle or upper end of the income pyramid are concerned, the embargo will lead to a decline in the mix and quality of the foods they consume, a development that will have potentially serious health consequences but not necessarily produce mass discontent.


            If the share of those who come to rely on private plots grows, however, that almost certainly will take on a political dimension and certainly sets the time frame for a social explosion. Societies dependent on such plots typically run out of food in the late winter or early spring before any new food can be harvested. 


            That is what happened in Russia in February 1917 when the public food supply arrangements broke down leading to bread riots and the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty. Had that supply system worked for only a few more weeks, it is entirely possible that the food situation might have eased because of products from small farms.


            At the very least, the symbolism of returning to the system of private plots of Soviet times, the small areas individuals were allowed to cultivate on their own nominally for personal use but in fact which provided large shares of the fresh food for the entire population, will strike at the heart of Russian assumptions about their society and its future.


            Meanwhile, in another development not directly related but which speaks to the fragmentation of Russian society, the Russian ministry overseeing construction and communal services is working on draft legislation that will allow for the development of private and religious cemeteries (


            Not only will this raise all the NIMBY problems those pushing for the construction of churches and mosques have faced across the country, but it will mean that Russia’s various economic, social and religiously-defined groups, increasingly separate in this life, will have the chance to remain separate after death, yet another indication of deepening social divisions.

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