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Historically, Russians had little or no choice where they lived. The Soviet Union promised cradle-to-grave socialism as long as the cradle and grave were in the same city. Unless sent for work or official business, it was impossible to move, say, from cold, northern Arkhangelsk to sunny, southern Sochi — without obtaining rarely-granted government permission to resettle.

Today, that Soviet credo still keeps people from moving to urban areas. While the 1993 Russian Constitution guarantees freedom of movement, many Russian cities require "propiski," or residency permits, to live inside their walls. The only way to get residency is to buy an apartment — or marry a local with a permit. Urban real estate costs a pretty ruble, and a farmer earning potatoes instead of cash cannot come up the tens of thousands of dollars needed to buy into the market. With no mortgages and double-digit lending rates, a rural worker has no choice but to stay where he is. And, frankly, for rural residents the cities don’t have much to offer.

“Don’t assume mass urban migration is going to happen,” says the World Bank’s Brooks. “There is not a lot to attract farmers to urban areas.”

Bright lights, dull city
Indeed, the “bright” lights of Russia’s big cities glow little more than low-watt bulbs. Just like rural areas, finding a job is difficult, and starting a new business next to impossible. During Soviet times, cities were beacons of opportunity and relative comfort — with better roads, schools and shopping.

Image: begging
An elderly Russian woman begs for money at an train station.
Those were the times of industrial growth. Millions of rural residents were recruited to cities to work in new factories. Provided with free housing, training and vacations, few could resist making the move. From 1926 to 1979, Russia’s rural population declined by 51 percent.

But the days of economic growth are over. Russia’s GDP has declined by 40 percent since 1990, and the prospects of rural residents finding urban, unskilled labor are slim.

Back to the farm
Russian government statistics reveal little as far as trends, but after an initial tide of urban migration following Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika in the late 1980s, many people actually moved back to rural areas.

“We witnessed a significant flow of rural migration in 1991 and 1992, the result of the start of economic reforms,” said Nikita Mkrtchan, the head of the analytical department at Russia’s Federal Migration Service (FMS).

“Before 1991, the cities had many jobs available and were attractive to the rural workforce. But when the [market] reforms began, many factories either closed, stopped or decreased their production level, and a lot of the recent migrants moved back to the countryside,” Mkrtchan said.

So the vexing question is how do Russia’s rural residents survive with little or no salary (the agricultural sector owes workers over $1 billion in unpaid wages), and why don’t they quit the land for opportunity elsewhere?

With no jobs, no housing, and no residency permits available in urban areas, the cards are stacked against the rural population, says Alexandra Tretiak-Duval, an OECD division director and agricultural policy expert.

No reason to go
So maybe life on the farm ain’t all that bad compared to life in an inhospitable city. “Large enterprise farms continue to provide public services to land share holders,” says Tretiak-Duval, “including health services and childcare.” These benefits — critical access to stores of fertilizer, fuel, and seed — keep farmers tied to the land.

“The Soviet system of collective agriculture remains a strong part of the attitude of Russian farmers, and their dependence on collective structures,” Tretiak-Duval says.

The World Bank’s Brooks puts it like this: “Why would anyone leave a home and prospect of feeding oneself in exchange for unemployment and homelessness?”

“The widespread access to small household plots serves as a safety net for food production,” Brooks says. “Most people will remain in rural areas and will survive by their own wits and resources — [because] the government is not in a position to provide much assistance.” Fourteen percent of cash income comes from the sale of some kind of agricultural product, most likely grown on a small family plot, according to Moscow’s Economy in Transition Institute.

Unless the Duma “bungles” the Land Code and permits corporatization — and Yeltsin accepts some form of it by signing the code into law — the farm structure should not push more people into unemployment than is necessary, Brooks says. Russia’s labor-intensive farms are currently what the market can support. Labor is cheap, capital, with a 50 percent annual interest rate, is expensive. Use what you’ve got, Brooks says, and then as the Russian economy recovers and interest rates come down, the country can move to capital-intensive agricultural sector, as is the case in Western countries.

Bankruptcy looms
But the agricultural sector needs to get a lot worse before it gets any better. Russia does have bankruptcy laws to deal with the insolvent agricultural sector — they are enforced to a greater degree every year.

The inefficient large farms in their current form need to go bankrupt, Brooks says. Cheap assets auctioned off would be an opportunity for small farmers — Russia’s most efficient cultivators — to become even more successful, creating more jobs in the sector and in upstream and downstream economies.

The labor-bloated agricultural sector employs 14 percent of Russia’s workforce, but provides only a fraction — 6.5 percent — of the GDP, according to Goskomstat, the state statistics committee.

Urban migration is taking place, but at a pace that has not affected the overall rural workforce. Experts say it’s the kind migration the agricultural industry needs. The workforce must streamline and become more efficient.

The key to the survival of Russia’s rural population rests with the economy as a whole and the future of the Land Code. When the economy grows, opportunity will become more plentiful in both rural and urban areas. But a Land Code that promotes corporatized rural agriculture could seal the fate of millions rural workers.

Olga and Mikhail Kuzmin are resigned to living out their lives in the backwaters of Inkino. “All I want is stability,” Olga says. “If that means eating what we earn, then so be it.”

Fyodor, Olga and Mikhail’s six-year-old son, dreams of being a truck driver when he grows up. The Moscow-Vladivostok highway — a major transport artery connecting Russia’s 11 time zones — passes through nearby Tomsk. If Russia’s economy improves, that road may be the ticket to Fyodor — and Inkino’s — success.

NBC News producers Dmirti Surnin and Alexei Alexandroff are based in Moscow. Preston Mendenhall is MSNBC’s London-based International Correspondent.

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