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The Socioeconomic and Cultural Significance of Food Gardening in the Vladimir Region of Russia

Boris Pasternak digging a potato patch at his dacha in Peredelkino, near Moscow, in the summer of 1958. From Sharashkin thesis, via LIFE magazine.

The Earth needs our help

By Leonid Sharashkin
PhD thesis
University of Missouri–Columbia
May, 2008
274 pages
(Exciting find! So much to read in this paper. Mike)

Russia has 18.8 million acres of family gardens, which produce US$14 billion worth of products per year, equivalent to over 50% of Russia’s agricultural output, or 2.3% of the country’s GDP (Rosstat 2007b). The United States, on the other hand, have 27.6 million acres of lawn, which produce a US$30 billion per year lawn care industry (Bormann, Balmori, and Geballe 2001).

Opening quotation:

“The Earth needs our help. Tenderness and a loving attitude give it strength. The Earth may be large, but it is most sensitive. And it feels the tender caress of even a single human hand. Oh, how it feels and anticipates this touch!

“There was a time in Russia when the Earth was deemed to belong to everyone and therefore nobody in particular. So people did not think of it as their own. Then changes came in Russia. They began giving out tiny private plots to people to go with their dachas.

“It was no coincidence at all that these plots were extremely small, too small to cultivate with mechanised equipment. But Russians, yearning for contact with the Earth, took to them with joyous enthusiasm. They went to people both poor and rich. Because nothing can break Man’s connection with the Earth!

“After obtaining their little plots of land, people intuitively felt their worth. And millions of pairs of human hands began touching the Earth with love. With their hands, you understand, not with mechanised tools, lots and lots of people touched the ground caressingly on these little plots. And the Earth felt this, it felt it very much. It felt the blessing touch of each individual hand upon it. And the Earth found new strength to carry on.”

— Vladimir Megre, The Ringing Cedars of Russia

The sprawling city of Moscow advances towards nearby villages. From Sharashkin thesis.


Russia’s family gardens currently produce over half of the country’s agricultural output and represent a major sector of the country’s economy, involving two thirds of the population. Despite this prominence, household gardening has been viewed as a recent phenomenon, an adjunct to the country’s industrial agriculture, or a temporary response to the hard- ships of Russia’s economic transition. However, this study of the current status of family agriculture, Russia’s agrarian history, and the results of a 2006 survey of 1,500 families in the Vladimir region, show that gardens not only perform a wide range of economic, social, and cultural functions, but also represent a highly sustainable practice embedded in the region’s — and the country’s — environmental, socioeconomic, and cultural context.

The survey offers detailed information on the economic, agricultural, social, and cultural dimensions of gardening in the Vladimir region, including respondents’ adherence to a wide range of agrarian values. Based on the results, family gardening can be seen as a highly sustainable, diversified, and culturally important practice, which needs to be given due consideration by scholars and policy-makers.

“There is no freedom without land”

Under Russia’s new constitution of 1993, citizens were granted the right to purchase land for their private ownership. This created a lot of excitement and discussion in my family.

And only my grandmother, who — like the donkey Benjamin in Orwell’s Animal Farm (1946) — was old enough to know better, objected in bewilderment: “How come we are supposed to buy land? It was ours already!”

She told us about her childhood on her family homestead, or khutor, in north-eastern Belarus. Having obtained a piece of seemingly worthless land during Stolypin’s land reforms of the 1900s, her father established a flourishing and amazingly self-sufficient farm. They built a log hut (izba), planted a garden, tilled the soil, and tended their small grove of trees, growing and producing everything from their own flour to smoked bacon, from apples to cheeses, from firewood to textile, and having a surplus left for the market.

In 1940, the homestead was confiscated by the Soviet authorities. My great-grandfather, sick at the time, was carried out of his house right on his bed and could watch as his home which he had himself built and where his children had been born was dismantled log by log, loaded onto carts to be transported to the nearest kolkhoz village, where it was assembled. Unable to recover from the blow, my great-grandfather died the same year, fol- lowed by my great-grandmother shortly thereafter. Returning to the site of the khutor in the 1950s, my grandmother found not a trace of the formerly flourishing homestead, and could only establish the exact location by some natural landmarks.

The cruelties of Stalin’s forced collectivization were by no means the first in Russia’s history. My grandmother’s own grandmother could remember the social unrest that followed the “emancipation of serfs” in 1861, when the peasantry was declared “free” but was put under an obligation to buy out their lands from their landlords — the same ancestral lands that the aristocracy had appropriated from the peasantry over the preceding centuries.

Read the complete thesis here.

1 comment

1 Mack Payne { 12.15.10 at 10:51 am }

How could anyone not understand this truth. It’s fascinating to see how wrongheaded a government can be.