Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Video: The Mill and the Peasants

Watch the video

This is more footage from the town of Pidhajtsi in Western Ukraine, shot in August, 2005.

If a peasantry is a population bound to and dependent for survival upon the land through various means that grossly benefit local or not-so-local lords while keeping the individual farmer more or less locked in his/her place--such as via outright serfdom or through credit arrangements and dependency on local "lords" to pay out some cash—then the cash-crop and subsistence farmers of Western Ukraine qualify as a contemporary, postmodern peasantry of the latter sort.
In the previous two posts I have briefly discussed the plight of the people/farmers of the Western Ukrainian countryside. Here I continue: This is footage of men loading sacks of processed wheat flour into their wagons and tractors (see previous post for a comment about the persistence of wagons in the Ukrainian countryside).

There are three main cash-crops that people sell in Pidhajtsi and throughout the Western Ukrainian countryside; in order of economic relevance (i.e., in order of what is most lucrative for the peasant household), they are: sugar beet, wheat, and cow's milk. Each of these crops are harvested by the peasant household and brought elsewhere to be processed. Cow’s milk and wheat are brought to local processing plants where they are made, in the case of milk, into cheese, creams, pasteurized milk, etc., and into processed flour in case of the wheat. Sugar beets are brought to a burjakpunkt or drop-off point from whence they are hauled elsewhere to be processed into sugar. All of the sugar in Ukraine comes from sugar beets.

Each family has roughly 1.5 hectare of land in the fields. Nearly all of the work is done by hand using rudimentary, though time-honored, implements and little or no modern machinary. In addition to the aforementioned cash-crops (there are sometimes others, but those are the main ones) a typical household raises foodstuffs for home consumption: red beets, yellow beets (for feed), corn (for feed), potatoes and a variety of other vegetables and herbs. There is a common plumb-and-apple orchard and most homesteads have apple trees, while some have plumb and cherry trees and berry bushes. Plumbs, though certainly good for eating and commonly used in pastries, is also necessary for making the local samohonka or moonshine, which usually is not a vodka or horylka (the Ukrainian word for vodka), but a plumb-brandy called, in this part of Ukraine, slivjanka. (Note: plumb-brandy is called slivovitsa by other peoples of Eastern Europe, and sometimes rakija in the Balkans; to Hungarians, it is palinka). It is also important to note that just about every household has either one cow or a goat for milk from which creams and cheeses are made, and plenty of fowl (as shown in a previous post).

Just a few American families employing American agribusiness technology could farm the land around Pidhajtsi; instead, the land supports about 7-8,000 people, if you include the nearby villages as "suburbs” of Pidhajtsi (Ukrainians live clustered into towns and villages with the fields surrounding the settlements). Many analysts complain that Ukraine’s agricultural potential is massively underdeveloped.

When farmers take their foodstuffs to be processed, they are repaid by the factories not in cash but in barter: they receive a cut of the final processed goods made from their beets/wheat/milk. A portion of the processed goods go for home consumption; the rest is sold whenever the need for cash arises at a local, weekly market (every Thursday in Pidhajtsi). In this footage, the men are loading their share of the processed flour made from their wheat.

Sugar beets yield sacks of sugar, and milk yields pasteurized milk or other processed dairy products. With the wheat, people will bake their own bread at home and will use the sugar that was the fruit of their own labor. The processed, pasteurized dairy products often go to market, as most villagers use milk straight from the cow in their own diets.

I was universally told by people in Pidhajtsi that it is not worth it for anyone to bring milk to the dairy factory unless one has at least three or more cows. Thus, in the afternoon you can see Babas carrying bucket after bucket to and from home and factory a number of times.

Whether it is the dairy, beet, or wheat factory, everyone will tell you that the exchange rate is unfair and to the advantage of the processors.

Who owns and runs these factories?

I tried to get an answer to this question in the following ways:

1) I tried to get some interviews and to film inside some of the factories, but neither the mill nor the dairy plant was willing to oblige. At the dairy factory, I was told by the plant’s manager that the owner was not present, that he does not live in Pidhajtsi and that he is probably at another one of his plants. The manager also said that she already knew the owner would not be willing to be interviewed, and when I asked if I could interview her, she said she had no right to speak about the company and told the security guards present to escort me and my second-cousin off the factory grounds. And oh, one of the guards had already made sure that my videocamera was turned off.

It was more of the same at the mill; thus the footage here is shot not just across the street from the plant but from across the street and down the road a bit, as security had told me to move on.

At the burjakpunkt or beet pick-up site, I was allowed to film, though the people rather nervously allowed me to do so. I was hollered at anytime I turned my camera on any worker. The most violent response to my camera came from the man in the room where the local peasants came to collect their sacks of processed sugar. Some of that footage will appear later.

2) I tried to get some answers from local officials, but most of them were reticent, even after the Orange Revolution, to answer my questions about who owns what and how they came to own it.

However, I do know the following from the tales of locals: The mill and the dairy factory both were part of a Soviet-era conservatives factory that produced a range of foodstuffs (bread, pastries, jams, jarred salads, pickles, dairy products, etc.). It collapsed in the early 1990s, and most people say that the managers of the factory ran their business into the ground and sold off factory equipment for their own, short-term gain (others defend them saying that they could not adjust to market conditions so quickly after the end of the command economy). The mill and dairy factory were reopened years later as private businesses, but on much smaller scales.

Corruption and and lack of transparency in the agricultural sector and especially in the Ukrainian countryside are truly large-scale problems. Many in Pidhajtsi have come to feel that Yushchenko has neither the intention nor the will to truly take on rural problems, and sometimes complain that like all previous administrations, his is focused all-too-exclusively on industry (which also means on Eastern Ukraine). One major sign to many locals that Yushchenko is not concerned with their plight in the countryside was his memorandum with Yanukovych in which Yushchenko agreed to extend parlaimentary immunity from prosecution to local government officials. Another symptom of this lack of will for many is his close relationship with Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s so-called Chocolate King. Poroshenko owns a large chocolates-and-sweets factory in addition to other businesses, and is definitely a New Eastern European worth an estimated $350 million, according to Warsaw-based Gazeta Wyborcza. He is widely perceived by many as profiting from the unfair barter practices in the countryside—a cheap supply of sugar for his factory contributing to is considerable wealth.

However, Ukrainians at the local level do have this problem: they barely self-organize to take on the power of rural agricultural corporations and officials. Western Ukraine is not Latin America and certainly not Chiapas, where there are local movements developing at the most grassroots of levels to take on or refuse the power of middlemen (coyotes) and corrupt politicians in the agricultural sector. Though the Orange Revolution showed an unprecedented level of civic activism and self-organization in Ukraine, and though such activism remains higher than it was in pre-OR times, people in general seem to have once again put all of their hope in the state and in politicians to make a difference. This is too bad. One recent speaker ruminated on whether Ukrainians have truly broken from what he called the following, centuries-old and unhappy tradition in Ukraine: apathy and disillusionment with political and civil-society processes creating a cycle of inaction only occasionally interupted by periods of revolutionary upheaval. He was not sure that Ukrainians are now solidly discovering the middlepath in which everyday actions by an active citizenry truly makes a difference, though many have proclaimed such is the result of the Orange Revolution.

This is what makes the apparent disappearance of the NGOs of the election campaign and Orange Revolution period so sad, and why it was so lamentable that the main (largest and best organized) activist group Pora! was more or less hijacked by those who wanted to make of it a political party. What Ukraine badly needs today is not more political parties but ongoing grassroots organizing efforts; and what Ukrainians should take as a contemporary model are the collectivist, self-organizing efforts of people on the ground in various parts of Latin America--or examples from their own history. A Zapatista, or even better yet, a Makhnovist (but without the guns) or OUN inspired model for regional self-organization could work well in agricultural Western Ukraine. This time, the fight would not be with foreign invaders but with locals, and the goal an effort to ensure a better rate of exchange. A Ukrainian Cesar Chavez?


Anonymous said...

Why is it that Ukrainians denigrate their fellow Ukrainians? EXACTLY WHEN are Ukrainians going to wake up to the reality that referring to someone as a "peasant" is NOT a term of respect, affection BUT it is belittling. How stupid is it to put ourselves down?

Anonymous said...

In regards to change it has to happen at a political level - legislation etc. With all respect to Mr. Chavez, migrant farmer workers are still at the bottom of the heap in the U.S. while farm subsidies worth billions go to primarily Fortune 500 agri-businesses and large farms. With all respect, was not 70 plus years of communism and socialism, enough? How long before you realize, as well as Lady Tymoshenko, that it is a beautiful ideal but lousy in practice. Even the Chinese are increasing their focus on capitalism. What is needed in Ukraine, is investment and entrepeneurship.

Stefan said...

I was not in the least intending to denigrate anyone by calling them a peasant. You have added the sense that being labelled a peasant is to be labelled something pejoratively. Yes, centuries of elitist society have looked down long noses in judgment of the peasantry. Anyone reading this blog regularly can see that I do not mean this, do not have this sense of the term. I in fact celebrate rural, or peasant, or folk, or whatever you want to call it, culture. My use of the term peasant here is not derogatory but descriptive and anthropological, describing the real conditions of the life of real people.
I hold a degree in anthropology and can tell you that the term "peasant" is a scholarly, neutral term as well as a loaded one.

What word do you prefer to describe their condition? Credit-slaves? Simply "farmer," which does not convey the real sense in which people are bound to their place?

I repeat: it is not necessary that the term peasant is negative. I celebrate vividly the culture of the countryside.

Veronica Khokhlova said...

very interesting!

i'm so glad to see you back here - please don't stop posting!

best to you, zinta and julija!

Stefan said...

More thoughts about the peasant terminology: I don't mean to reduce Ukrainian identity to a peasant one, and am not a 19th century styled activist who romanticizes the people of the countryside as those who will save "the nation." To my mind, Ukrainian identity is plural and multifaceted; Ukrainianness is whatever all the people who claim themselves to be Ukrainian are.

This means that I don't like the modernist reaction to the back-to-the-narod movement, the one that took great shame in the condition of the peasantry and said no, the path to our salvation is not peasant-based (ooh, not based in that!) but in the recapturing of a lost high culture that was destroyed by generations of imperialism and chauvinism.

Ukrainianness includes peasant culture, high culture, and all kinds of cultures that are not even Ukrainian. One should celebrate them all.

There is nothing wrong with being "a peasant."

Stefan said...

Hey Neeka,

Thanx as always for the compliment and well-wishes.

I will be back in a week or two with more of the footage I am editing for a film.

At the moment, I am traveling again and won't have a stable life again for another, oh, 1 1/2 weeks or so. . .

SO, more later. . .

Stefan said...

The following is rambling, as I don't have the time for a thought-out response. . .I am once again traveling. . .

The argument presented here in defense of capitalism against all regulation is to my mind the argument of someone with a fundamentalist faith in an easy, explain-all solution to world problems. Market fundamentalism is as destructive as religious fundamentalism and as dogmatic as Soviet socialism was.

Capitalism has a number of periods in its history in which it took far fewer years to kill as many as people as Soviet socialism did over 70 years.

I have never been a defender of Soviet socialism. It was a farce, socialist in name, chauvinist and brutal empire in practice. I firmly believe that it was the desire for world empire among Soviet elites that ruined the socialist experiment, as well as their old authoritarian ways that were translated into democratic centralism. Socialism need not have been implemented so disasterously.

Plenty of things pass under capitalism in name (democracy, humanism) but the reality is brutality in practice as well, and pursuit of power and profit (Iraq).

Blindness to these issues, or acceptance of the toll taken by capitalism in its continual development (i.e., acceptance of its necessarily brutal and repetitious phases of primitive accumulation) according to a lesser of two evils argument that leads one to simplistically dismiss alternatives to unbridled free-market capitalism, is a matter of faith. All faith is blind.

Decades of liberalization in the so-called developing world (or in the nations of the 2/3 nonWestern majority of the world) has led to an exponentially growing gulf between rich and poor. Deregulation in the US has led to the mass export of US manufacturing jobs. The Greatest Lie of the U$A in the late 20th century is that labor was too costly to do business: deregulation and globalzation took place at a time of high profit for US megacompanies. It was a cultural war that the Republicans and neoliberal Democrats won, not an economic one, and the answer to the question of "What's the matter with Kansas?" asked by Thomas Frank (i.e., why do people vote on the basis of religious and cultural issues against their own economic self-interest) still needs to be explained to the masses of downsized or laid-off workers of the US. (Workers who, by listening to the neocon/neoliberal elite, have adopted intolerant and prejudicial, scapegoat-based views which serve the deregulators marvellously; such as the great myth that in America, there are no disadvantaged people, just lazy ones.)

US income gap since dereg and globalization has grown exponentially, a mirror of the world situation. . .this is a change since 1969, when the ave middle class American family only needed one working parent. It now needs 2. Wages have fallen. . .where has all the extra money gone? Certainly not to welfare payments, unless we mean corporate welfare and soaring corporate profits. . .How many Americans are stockholders?

This is one example of a failed deregulation. Another: Chile's experiment with Milton Friedmann's liberalization policies was a near disaster rescued only by regulation (see above Greg Palast's website linked to on my blog; he has written a great deal about Chile; or see his book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy).

There are many more examples--such as when Brasil privatized its water utility to Bechtel, which proceeded to lay off thousands of workers. The problem was that much of the map of say, Rio' s pipelines was stored in the minds of those laid off workers. Paper maps existed only for wealthy barios. The poor are always the first to suffer from dereg and rampaging privatization, those who are supposed to be assisted. . .

Furthermore, not everyone in Ukraine or anywhere else outside the Western world wants to mimick the West and its capitalist democracies. That is a myth and a farce being perpetrated all around the world.

I met plenty of people (Ukrainians) in Ukraine who had been to the US and returned to Ukraine, prefering life in their home country on the basis of the notion that the people of the US are too preoccupied with careers, wealth, and are far too addicted to a bloated standard of living.

I couldn't agree more.

I have not written anything, however, on this blog against economic development and job-creation in Ukraine; I have merely defended the notion that markets are regulated for either one of two purposes: top-accumulation (what one calls deregulation) or equitable redistribution. I have defended the idea that there is something more to life than what can be reduced to market values.

I have, however, not complained enough that many Westerners are so addicted to their ultra high standard of living such that they can hardly handle the conditions in a country like Ukraine, and therefore become preoccupied with the need for jobs jobs jobs above allelse.

In my experience in the villages, what people talked most about was healthcare, then jobs.

Again, though all of what I have written here might make this statement seem BS to market fundamentalist, I have not taken a stance against job creation, but argued for balance with other, nonmarket values, such as equitable distribution over trickle down.

And oh: Chavez is responsible for the huge subsidies given by corporate wonks in the US government that funded the unsettling of America and the takeover of the countryside by US megabanks and Agr Businesses like Mansanto and ConAgra, and for what they pay the farmers?

Stefan said...

Yet one more comment while on the road: I did not reject political change. I merely stated that there need be social change as well. Political change without social change is pretty much meaningless. True political change can only be sustained by grassroots organization and active civil society groups; a significant enough portion of the population (the critical mass) must be involved and feel that they can influence power/government from the outside, through organization, pressure, watch-dog groups, community groups, etc. All of this seems to remain rather weak in Ukraine, in the countryside, after the OR. . .