Libmonster ID: TR-858
Author(s) of the publication: T. Nefedova

By Tatiana NEFEDOVA, Dr. Sc. (Geogr.), Senior Research Scientist, Institute of Geography, Russian Academy of Sciences

The diversity of Russia's country localities is not only due to different climatic conditions and cultural traditions of the population. Cities are likewise playing an immense role as pivotal and organizing centers. We can see that in the example of changing landscapes as we go ever farther from any big city in European Russia. In suburbia cottage settlements alternate with orchards and kitchen gardens. Farther away, there stretch cultivated fields and large rural communities with small orchards and gardens nearby. Traveling still farther off, we pass across ever more of the abandoned fields, and through ever smaller villages and hamlets with so many shabby, dilapidated log cabins, the izbas. The once cultivated fields look like a savannah with coarse grasses and scattered tree growth. Flocks and herds grazing next door to the decrepit homes. The abomination of desolation...

стр. 29

The structural framework of agriculture in European Russia (1999 - 2000).

Such are the rural localities of Nechernozemye, or the Non-Black Earth Region in the heart of European Russia. A longtime archipelago of oases around large cities amidst a socioeconomic desertland. For years and decades the authorities would shut their eyes to such retrograde conditions. Huge investments into collective and state farms did not work-no job force over there. Attempts to reverse the trend failed miserably, too.

Let us consider the impact of town on the ambient rural environment from two perspectives. First, what urban dwellers have done to the countryside and second, what they are doing for the advancement of the country and farming. The opposition between town and countryside is still there, though of late these essential differences have been tending to fade away.


The 20th century saw a mass exodus of this country's rural population to urban communities. Early in the century only 13 percent lived in cities and towns, while today the figure is up to 73 percent. The total number of cities grew nearly threefold. The Stalinist industrialization drive of the 1930s that called for a large number of hands was the locomotive of this great migration-as a result, the countryside lost over half of its population. In some rural districts in between Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg) the number of residents dropped fourfold. That was quite understandable- the town provided job opportunities, entertainments and, last but not least, freedom.

Country hicks left their backwoods and settled in the suburbs of big cities with better job prospects and household amenities, and from where they could commute downtown. Thus there developed significant differences in the population density: in the conurbations of Nechernozemye it is 12 times as high as in outlying, peripheral districts. Although this gap is not so striking down south, suburbia there have three times as many residents as communities lying far from regional and district centers. It's a fact that young and go-ahead individuals show the highest migration mobility. For years and years such "negative" selection was in the mainstream.

Urbanization is an objective and inevitable trend everywhere the world over. Compared with the advanced countries of Europe, where more than 90 percent of the population live in town, Russia is still lagging behind, and her urbanization is not complete yet. This process, however, has certain specific characteristics in Russia. First, her vast area. West European states are relatively small with many overlapping conurbations. For all the urban sprawl and growth, our expanses are all too wide-even in European Russia! And

стр. 30

Density of the rural population with the distance from regional urban centers Anno. 2002. Figures 1 - 7 on this and other plots stand for zones of proximity to town.

unorderly at that. The exodus of countryfolks left a sociodemographic wasteland behind. Second, the mode of our farm enterprise. In the West urbanization went hand in hand with the growth of labor productivity of those who stayed put (in farming labor productivity was increasing even at faster rates than in industry). Urbanization was also accompanied by modernization of production facilities and by more parsimonious use of the cultivated acreage that kept shrinking in area. The pattern was different with us, what with the desire to keep the cultivated tracts the same in area no matter what, even given the low labor productivity and the contracting manpower-the two factors responsible for a grave depression of collective farming that had set in long before 1990, in the peripheral regions first and foremost. The present crisis has stepped up all these processes to show it abundantly clear: the collective and state farms had more land and livestock than they could afford-till and feed, respectively.

True, the early 1990s ushered in a countertrend manifest in a small rural population increase owing to migrants from the former Soviet republics and from the country's northwestern regions whose denizens pulled up stakes because of the galloping inflation and loss of the northern pay differentials provided by the state. Some experts would even speak of the reverse trend in urbanization with townspeople moving to country districts, something that has long since been going on in the West. However, with us the process of de-urbanization was a short-lived phenomenon triggered by the breakup of the Soviet Union and new economic barriers for fortune-seekers in town. We are now back to square one: big cities are still as attractive as before, though the urban population keeps decreasing for natural reasons-above all because of its ageing and higher mortality rate, with newcomers not capable of redressing the shortfall. But the downturn is more evident in villages because they are populated by senior citizens for the most part, few as they are in sheer numbers. The proportion of country households run by one or two persons (mostly old-age pensioners) is above 60 percent in mid- and northwestern Russia.

стр. 31

A deserted home (Perm region).

This is not to mean that by absorbing the rural population cities leave the countryside in the lurch, to the tender mercies of fate. Here in Russia cities have always been its engines and sinews.


The larger a city, the larger the zone of its impact. This has always been the case. It's common knowledge that suburbian farming has peculiar characteristics of its own, that its produce encounters transportation snags, that the share of truck gardening is high, and that sort of thing. But only experts know how much agricultural enterprises differ in their productivity performance depending on whether they are close to urban centers or farther off. In any district of the Non-Black-Earth Zone (Nechernozemye) the productivity of cereals is two- or threefold higher in the suburbs than on the periphery. The same is true of per cow milk yields in spite of the abundance of lush and succulent pastureland in out-of-the-way places. Suburban farm enterprises have a larger cattle population, too. This situation surfaced way back in the 1980s. So the root cause of the trouble is elsewhere-not in the current crisis and not in the reforms, it is but anchored in some fundamental processes related to Russia's historical, cultural and geographical distinctions. Metropolitan areas hold even stronger sway over productivity per unit of the cultivated acreage-the differences are often as high as 10 to 15 fold. Large paying farms are concentrated in suburbia for the most part. For instance, the influence of the Moscow metropolitan area extends to all of the Moscow administrative region at a distance of about 100 miles. Medium-sized towns with a population above 250,000 draw within their ambit one or two administrative districts. Even quite small towns impact their environment, though they have no potential for keeping afloat the farm industry of just one administrative district.

Small collective farms-more dead than alive-predominate in the backwoods of Russian Nechernozemye. Such enterprises are needed, however-not to society to which they leave nothing but debts; they are needed to the local population above all. Getting no pay for years, countryfolks still keep their jobs, for instead of money they are paid in kind (grain, meat, milk, hay), which allows them to make ends meet and feed both the family and the livestock in their households. Besides, a collective farm (cooperative) helps its members in house-keeping and with work on subsidiary small land-holdings attached to every home. The collective farm provides machinery and implements for plowing, haymaking and so on; it supplies firewood. All this forms a system closed on its own self, a system that works for itself only. It would be a perilous undertaking to go ahead and destroy this vicious circle through bankruptcy laws and by scrapping up the half-dead enterprises in not yet fully depopulated villages. The right deal for such enterprises appears to be this one: do not treat them as commodity producers but rather, as social centers responsible for the welfare of their flock. That is, attach social functions to farm cooperatives.

No hope for private farmers to strike root on the site of the dead collective enterprises. They won't survive there because of the retrograde social sphere, without worthy labor force and without even primitive infrastructure, and that against the encroachment of wild landscapes. Private farmers fair better somewhere midway between suburbia and outlying districts spared by depopulation and its aftereffects but having more and better roads, and markets, too-that is the selfsame cities and towns whose closer approaches are off limits to small businesses because of the shortage and high cost of land, and stiff competition with large and prospering enterprises. Thus, the farm industry of Russian Nechernozemye marks a downturn from urban centers on to the rural periphery.

стр. 32

The situation is different in the south of European Russia where the gravitation of the population and economic activity to town is far weaker. It all depends on soil fertility. If we take the Kuban region in the benign south, large urban centers have as good as no effect on the performance of agriculture that gravitates toward a rather uniform network of small towns.

But somewhat farther north, in Central Chemozemye (Black-Earth Zone)-especially in the Volga region-the influence of large urban centers is quite appreciable. For instance, the efficiency of agricultural enterprises in districts closer to the Samara-Togliatti conurbation (Samara administrative region) is higher than in peripheral districts. Incidentally the outflow of the population from southern and Volga regions is lower than in northern Nechernozemye, for these lands still hold attraction for migrants. That is why both collective and private farms are doing well over there. Farmers, especially grain producers, are feeling fine even far from big cities.

So there are objective causes of the unequal performance of large and small farms, though this runs counter to the pat opinion that their good or bad performance depends only on central authorities and enterprise management. There may be exceptions now and then, of course. But what we mean are typical, characteristic phenomena. Good managers and the rank and file are attracted by urban centers with their higher wages and salaries, higher living standards, and better job opportunities.

In nutshell, today cities are helping the farm industry over the hump rather than opposing it. The fast pickup of the food industry in the latter half of the 1990s from its doldrums created yet another channel for expansion: being in need of stable supplies of high-quality farm produce and seeing that many of the conventional modes of its output could not be relied upon, large food enterprises and agroholdings are investing into farming by upgrading production technologies or by purchasing farm enterprises and streamlining them.

A solid territorial framework of promising large and medium farm enterprises is taking body and form. It takes in a broad belt from Central Chemozemye (Black Earth) to the plains of the North Caucasus as well as the suburban zones of Nechernozemye (Non-Black Earth)still farther north. This territory also includes spots of the area west of the Middle Volga and the Urals. The rural depopulation is not so bad over there, while agriculture is getting active support from regional authorities (especially in the Volga republics of Bashkortostan and Tatarstan). We can make a rule-of-thumb estimate and count how many big towns Russia still needs for the more or less good performance of large and medium agricultural enterprises. Well, European Russia is in need of 64 towns with a population of 100,000 and more.


But what about the lands beyond the above complex? Such territories lying far from big cities and towns can be arbitrarily divided into two large groups.

The first one comprises districts worst hit by the depression of the 1990s, though the downtrend had set in much earlier there. This is the larger part of the Non-Black-Earth Region barring suburbia. Such districts still have a chance of redressing the wrongs. None the less small farms make up the bulk of the agricultural industry, and they account for over 50, and here and there, as much as 100 percent of farm produce. Private small-holdings produce even in excess of what is needed for home consumption, and these are potatoes, vegetables, milk and meat that cater to from two to six

стр. 33

urban residents; marketed, this produce brings in a small income. However, such small households constitute a wide zone of the shadow economy which does not figure in the regular statistics and which regional and federal authorities just fail to notice.

Woodlanders, confronted as they are with harsh natural conditions, may give up farming as a bad job. Like, for instance, folks in the south of the Archangel and in the north of the Perm regions, who have turned to mushroom and berry picking. Even though this looks like a rollback, it is still a sign of the division of labor between the North and the South on condition that this trade is geared to regular markets. Of late second-hand dealers in woodland products have stepped up activity up in the north: they enter into contract with pickers (two to five per village) and procure hundreds of kilos of mushrooms and berries daily.

The other group comprises districts that have lost most of the native population (remote hamlets of the Novgorod, Pskov, Smolensk and other regions of Nechernozemye). This lackluster situation had developed there long before the current crisis. Local farm producers are a hopeless case-no matter how much you invest into collective farms on their hind legs, it will all go down the drain. One has to put up with this downturn-the dying out of large enterprises and the contraction of the living space... unless migrants and cottagers move in.

Overall, Russia numbers 142 thousand rural communities (villages). About 24 percent of this number are small hamlets, each with a population under 10. They are mostly senior people who need special assistance from the state. For all their feebleness, these old men and women are capable of raising some of the products for private consumption. But to keep there households-actually, hospices-alive, a welfare program is needed (food supplies, healthcare, and so on). Such problems can be tackled on a district (parochial) level-an arrangement that could create additional workplaces in town besides.

Thus, the development pathways of suburbia and deep rural inland are far apart. These are two different worlds, sometimes a mere 200 km apart. And yet suburbs, for all their development prospects, have to negotiate problem areas of their own.


The fact that large agricultural enterprises are doing fine in city suburbs looks like a holdover of the past. The United States and Western Europe had it up to the mid-20th century; thereupon the farming industry came to be ousted to the periphery to give place to cottages and small homes. This is the process of sub- and deurbanization, all in one. Such trends are gathering momentum in Russia, too, though with a touch of national specifics: our townspeople will not leave urban communities for good so as to settle in suburbia, they would rather build a summer cottage (dacha) in addition to their city apartment. True, a third to a quarter part of such cottages are weatherized for the winter season and furnished with adequate amenities; this is an area of capital investment of the "newly rich" (or "New Russians", as we say) rather than one for a mass exodus of townsfolk.

Every dacha (country house) stands on a patch of land. Although these plots are small (as a rule, about 0.1 ha), the number of their owners are legion. Over 20 million families, or about 60 percent of the entire urban population, are cottagers tending gardens and orchards. Side by side with primitive homes and outbuildings, are good old dachas built in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, when rather large land plots were set aside for owners. Some urbanites purchased old log cabins (izbas) in villages, while others inherited modern cottages. The current statistics cannot tell all about this "troop" in the countryside. But it's a fact the cottage zone of Moscow and St. Petersburg are about to join up in the south of the Pskov and Novgorod regions.

This trend generates land use and ownership conflicts, particularly acute in suburbs.

Here in Russia the value of cultivated farmland is especially high in suburbia. This land is most profitable, what with a string of food-processing enterprises and markets quite nearby. Say, the Moscow administrative region, despite its small area, is one of Russia's chief agricultural producers second only to Krasnodar Territory in the south and Tatarstan in the east. Moscow suburbs are the site of the best and highly efficient enterprises catering to the in-town food industry supplying as good as half of Russia's towns. The famous Vologda milk and dairy products come exclusively from the suburbs of the city of Vologda up in the north.

No room for efficient enterprises far from urban centers in Nechernozemye! They cannot survive in the backwoods. However, land costs keep soaring near Moscow and other big cities. The list of would-be buyers includes private cottagers and big firms and banks alike. The old technologies of sham (malevolent) bankruptcy are applied actively, and so is the cheap buying of land shares from the rural population. And yet there is a way out for large agricultural enterprises. Those who want more land purchase it a bit farther away from town and set up extensive farm industries (fodder-grass cultivation, laying-in of fodder and the like) which are not labor consuming-with the head enterprise in town and daughter branches farther off. But in the long run this would hardly save them from the aggressive onslaught of cities. It is here, next to major urban centers and in the clement south, what with the shortage of cultivated acreage, that restrictions should be applied for the sale of land shares and their prospective use. AH the other regions have an excess of land. Vast abandoned fields are not needed to anyone: neither to the local population that could well make do with home gardens, nor to collective farms. Migrants do not need this land either. That is why land use should be encouraged in all ways there, that is land should be sold to people capable of saving these territories from total desolation.


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T. Nefedova, CITIES - THE COUNTRYSIDE ORGANIZERS // Istanbul: Republic of Türkiye (ELIBRARY.COM.TR). Updated: 27.09.2018. URL: (date of access: 19.07.2024).

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