Pig Farming in Leningrad Region Today

свиноферма

Kebab Fans Should Come to the Rescue: Idavang Kicks off Construction of Pig Farm in Leningrad Region with ₽3.7 Billion Price Tag
Yekaterina Fomicheva
Delovoi Peterburg
June 18, 2018

This week Idavang Group will begin construction of a pig farm in Leningrad Region with  a ₽3.7 billion price tag. The new facility will help the company increase pork production by thirty percent.

The new facility is designed to accommodate 55,000 pigs at any one time and produce 12,000 tons of pork live weight. The facility will include twenty-six hog houses, a feed production unit, a feed warehouse, and other buildings. Seven of the hog houses will be put into operation next years, and the facility will achieve its full capacity by 2024. The project’s overall price tag is ₽3.7 billion [approx. €50.3 million]. The payback period is fifteen years.

Subsidies Helped
As sources at Idavang Group explained to us, the project became possible after the Russian Agriculture Ministry approved a subsidy for paying interest on the loan the company planned to take to build the facility. The ₽1.6 billion loan was disbursed in April.

Late last year, Idavang floated €85 million of priority secured bonds on European financial markets. Part of the proceeds from sales of the bonds could be used on building the facility, which will be in the Luga District.

Idavang Group is a subsidiary of Idavang A/S, a Danish company that owns pig farms in Russia and Latvia. The company has a pig farm in Leningrad Region’s Tosno District that produces 20,000 tons of pork annually, as well as a farm in Pskov Region that produces 10,000 tons of pork per year.

Excessively Cheap Meat
Market insiders say that circumstances are not favorable for expanding production.

“We’ve been seeing a glut of pork on the market, and only the major companies, which have their own feed supply, have been doing well,” says Andrei Krylov, director general of Dawn Plus LLC.

According to Mr. Krylov, players planning to expand expect they can oust small producers who do not have their feed production facilities from the market. For example, Pulkovo Agroholding, which does not have its own feed supply, has now filed for bankruptcy.

“We have been stepping up the production of feed. We have 3,500 hectares in Oryol Region and 1,000 hectares in Kaluga Region where we grow grain. In addition, last year we launched a feed production facility in Kaluga Region,” Mr. Krylov adds.

Other experts also say the market is glutted. Last year, Russia produced 3.3 million tons of pork. Domestic companies meet only 97% of the total demand for pork, says Lyubov Burdiyenko, an analyst at Emeat Information and Analysis Agency.

According to Ms. Burdiyenko, pork prices began to rise in April after a decline at the beginning of the year. The price rise was due to the onset of the summer cottage and kebab cookout season.

However, wholesale prices in April were ₽168 [approx. €2.30] a kilo on the half carcass. This is three percent lower than in April 2016. Producers have been operating on the verge of profitability, the analysts note.

Translated by the Russian Reader. This post is dedicated to my father, a retired pig farmer, on the occasion of yesterday’s Father’s Day holiday. He taught me everything I know about pigs and farming, and many, many other things as well. Photo courtesy of Fermok.Ru.

Annals of Import Substitution: Got Milk?

Perhaps one of the big reasons the post-embargo Russian dairy industry has failed to achieve “total important substitution,” not mentioned in the otherwise comprehensive article, below, has been its penchant for gulling Russian consumers. Among the gullible is your correspondent, who was moved by the label on this milk carton (“Honest Natural Cow Milk […] from an Ecologically Pure District of Bashkiria”) to buy it the other day. My boon companion, however, immediately pointed out what the side of the carton revealed. In this case, “Honest Bashkir Natural Cow Milk” was actually reconstituted milk powder (“изготовлено из молока нормализованного”), not real milk. Since the embargo set in, every Russian has also encountered literally tons of fake cheese in the shops. Chockablock with palm oil, not milk, and sporting European sounding monikers to make them more attractive to “discerning consumers,” this fake cheese has generated massive popular distrust in domestically produced cheese and other dairy products. TRR

Why Import Substitution Has Failed in the Dairy Industry 
Despite the Produce Embargo, Milk Production Has Declined, Dairy Products Have Become More Expensive, and Demand Has Fallen
Yekaterina Burlakova
Vedomosti
January 22, 2018

“I’ve seen it myself, touched it with my own hands. The country is currently constructing three cheese factories with the capacity to produce fifty, sixty, and seventy tons daily, and in five years we will have forgotten the problem [the shortage of domestically produced cheese] altogether!” Russian agriculture minister Alexander Tkachov said recently, sharing his optimistic plans. “Let’s recall pork, vegetable oil, sugar, vegetables, and fruit. We also imported all this produce. We were seriously dependent.”

Tkachov and his colleagues never tire of talking of how the produce embargo, imposed by Russia in August 2014 on the United States, the EU, Norway, Canada, and Australia, has helped Russian farmers. Greenhouses have been built, orchards have been planted, and so on.

But import substitution has not taken hold in the dairy industry. Milk production has declined, dairy products have become more expensive, and demand for them has fallen off. Why has this happened?

Russia provides itself with only 75% of the dairy products it consumes; the rest is imported, mainly from Belaruas. However, Russia has always suffered shortages of domestically produced raw milk. But the circumstances have worsened. According to Soyuzmoloko, the Russian national dairy producers union, the production of raw milk decreased by two percent to 30.7 million tons between 2006 and 2016.

It is a complex and costly business, says a spokesperson for a dairy company. Vegetable production shows a profit after seven or eight years; fruit production, after four or five. Dairy plants take much longer to show a profit. According to different estimates, it takes between ten and fifteen years to put them in the black. Many potential investors are scared off by such figures, but our source said what the dairy industry needed were serious, long-term investments.

Indeed, the dairy business is considered complicated due to the long time it takes to see a return on investment, says Stefan Duerr, director general of EkoNiva, Russia’s largest milk producer. It generally takes three years to build a dairy plant and put it on line. Dairy production also requires considerable working capital: cows give milk only from the age of three. You have to prepare you own feed, and for that you need land: an average of about three hectares per cow, says Duerr. Pig breeders and poultry farmers have it much easier, since they can buy readymade feed.

Over the past four years, the price of raw milk has increased by about 60% to 25 rubles per kilo, says Artyom Belov, director general of Soyuzmoloko. This occurred after the ruble declined, and demand from processors increased. Yet the net price of milk has decreased after the ruble’s recovery. Belov is certain this makes dairy farming more attractive to investors. In his opinion, state support is also vital. In 2017, compensation of capital expenditures grew from 20% to 30%, while soft loans have been granted at an interest rate of up to 5%.

Investors Have Doubts
Investors still have doubts, however, For example, Rusagro’s principle owner Vadim Moshkovich recently announced he was willing to invest one billion dollars in milk and dairy production. But a decision on the project has not yet been made, says a spokesperson for the agricultural holding company.

“Dairy cow breeding really is a complicated business with a long-term return on investment, even taking subsidies into account. However much we cite the discounted return on investment model, seven years, which is mentioned in the press, we just cannot pull it off in Russia,” he says, raising his hands in dismay.

The processing and production of value-added products is needed to make the project viable. Total vertical integration—from feed production to the manufacturing of dairy products—is thus necessary, he argues.

Other investors have also spoken of possible investments in mega projects. Alexei Bogachov, a minority shareholder in the Magnit grocery store chain, has promised to invest 20 million rubles in a partnership with Rusagro. Miratorg has promised to invest $400 million, while Thailand’s Charoen Pokphand Group has promised to invest one billion dollars. In reality, only Vietnam’s TH Group has launched new, large-scale raw milk production facilities. Last year, the company began construction on dairy farms in Kaluga Region and Moscow Region that will accommodate approximately 40,000 head of dairy cows, and it recently announced plans to build farms in the Maritime Territory. It intends to invest $2.7 billion over the next ten years.

If circumstances on the market do not change, and milk prices do not go down, Belov forecasts it will be possible fully satisfy Russia’s milk needs in ten years. For the time being, processers deal with the milk shortage in different ways. For example, Oleg Sirota, founder of the cheese company Russian Parmesan, will soon bring his own dairy farm on line.  In turn, in order to insure stable supplies of milk, the French company Danone has invested in milk production in Tyumen Region in partnership with Naum Babayev’s Damate Group. The cost of the entire project is 5.6 billion rubles, but Danone’s share of the costs has not been disclosed. According to the agreement between Danone and Damate, all the milk produced at the facility will be sent to the Danone plant for eight years.

The Embargo’s Impact
“We saw that European producers with much lower prices would not arrive the next day, and we realized we could make long-term plans, that we had to invest in domestic production,” said Alexei Martynenko, owner of Umalat, a company that produces brined cheeses.

Almost as soon as the embargo was imposed, Martynenko gave up the day-to-day management of a feed production business and set about vigorously developing Umalat.

“I realized that if I didn’t change anything right away, we would sleep through the chance to grow the company,” he noted.

Many businessmen decided to tackle cheese immediately after imposition of the embargo, which among other things banned the import of cheese from the European Union to Russia. In 2016, according to Nielsen, Umalat was Russia’s leading manufacturer of sulguni, and took third place in the manufacture of mozarella and mascarpone. Since 2014, production at Umalat has doubled to 5,000 tons annually, says Rustem Mustafin, the company’s marketing director.

“The import substitution program and imposition of the embargo came in handy. We would have grown without them, but the growth would probably have been less considerable,” Mustafin continues.

However, the embargo’s impact wore off quite quickly, since it was immediately followed by a substantial downturn in household incomes, he stresses.

Sirota launched cheese production in the summer of 2015. Currrently, he produces semi-solid and hard cheeses, which retail for 800 rubles to 1,600 rubles per kilo. His cheesery’s first batch of parmesan will mature in August, when the embargo will celebrate its fourth anniversary. Currently, Sirota produces 400 kilograms per day. In 2018, he plans to ratchet production up to two tons per day.

Russian manufacturers have been most successful in producing hard and semi-hard varieties such as Russian, Dutch, and Altai, says Andrei Golubkov, a spokesman for Abzuk Vkusa [ABC of Taste], a Russian gourmet grocery store chain. There are also high-quality producers of brie, camambert, mozarella, and burrata. But the supply of good-quality ripened hard cheeses is still limited. The chain now mainly sells hard cheeses from Switzerland, which was not included in the embargo, and the South American countries, says Golubkov. Expensive Russian cheeses account for about 10% of all sales in terms of money and about 5% in terms of volume, Soyuzmoloko’s Belov says.

If the embargo is lifted, many businessmen involved in the manufacture of milk and cheese will be ruined, argues Sirota.

“Even if we could compete in terms of quality, we could not compete in terms of cost. The price of milk in Germany is currently around 20 rubles [per kilo], while it is 34 rubles in Russia,” says Sirota. [According to the industry website clal.it, the price of raw milk in Germany in November 2017 was 38.97 euros per 100 kilograms or approximately 27 rubles per kilo—TRR.]

Milk in Germany costs less due to cheap loans and government subsidies. In Russia, on the contrary, loans are short-term and expensive: they fall due between five and seven years. Investors have not yet managed to launch production, but the money has to be returned. There is always a shortage of good-quality milk for reprocessing. It takes 14 kilos of milk to make one kilo of cheese. Moreover, the highest grade of milk is required to ensure the desired quality of cheese.

Mustafin says Umalat is not afraid the sanctions will be lifted, however. The company has been vigorously promoting its brands, has found its customers, and has produceed cheeses that are better than their imported counterparts.

From Milk to Macaroni
Meanwhile, the consumption of dairy products has decreased by 5% from September 2016 to September 2017, according to Nielsen. Sales of kefir experienced the largest drop: 8.4%. Sales of sterilized milk fell by 7%, yogurt, by 5.8%, and cottage cheese, by 5%. For the first time in recent years, there has been a drop in the consumption of such traditional Russian dairy products as milk, smetana (sour cream), tvorog (cottage cheese), tvorozhki (quark), and ryazhenka (fermented baked milk), notes Anastasia Jafarova, director of customer relations in the department of sales and servicing of consumer panels at GfK Rus, a market research company. Perhaps the main reason is an increase in the average price by 10.4%, explains Jafarova. Price rises have mainly been due to the price rise of the raw material, i.e., the milk supplied by farmers, says a spokesperson at PepsiCo. In addition, a spokesperson for Danone cites other causes. Under the Plato road tolls system, the tolls imposed on heavy cargo vehicles rose by 25% in April 2017, and excise taxes on fuels rose by more than 8%. The decreased demand for dairy products has also been due to a decline in household incomes over the past few years, argues Belov.

The fact that people have started to skimp even on ordinary milk says they are likely to switch to cheaper products, notes Marina Balabanova, Danone’s regional vice-president for corporate relations in Russia and the CIS. This could be macaroni, cereals or other products, she speculates. As never before, Russians are rational in their spending and try to redistribute their expenses as efficiently as possible, says Jafarova. This testifies to the relative adapation to a protracted crisis on the part of Russians.

Agricultural minister Tkachov has also admitted that import substitution has not occurred in the dairy industry. He wrote about it in response to an official query from Communist Party MP Valery Rashkin. Although imports have dropped by 1.9 million tons since 2013, the production of milk has grown only by 1.4 million tons. The minister wrote that the demand for imported dairy products was currently 7.5 million tons. At a production growth rate of three percent annually, total import substitution would take at least nine to ten years. But work is currently underway to increase state support, which would reduce this period to five to six years, Tkachov hopes.

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“How the Consumption of Dairy Products Has Fallen (from June 2016 to June 2017, in percentages). Cheese spread and smoked cheese: –6. Quark: –5. Milk: –4. Yogurt drinks:–4. Firm yogurt: –4. Sour cream: –2. Cottage cheese: –2. Source: GfK Russia.” Infographic courtesy of Vedomosti

We Consume Too Little
A person needs to eat at least three dairy products per day. Eighty percent of the daily recommended intake of calcium is thus supplied. According to Soyuzmoloko, calcium is absorbed most easily this way. Their argument is backed up by the Federal Nutrition and Biotechnology Research Center and the Russian Osteoporosis Association. The Russian Health Ministry recommends individuals consume at least 325 kilos of dairy products annually. But we are far from achieving these norms: individual annual consumption of dairy products was 233 kilos in 2016. However, a top executive at a Russian agricultural holding company argues these claims are a bluff. In Soviet times, there were meat shortages, so dairy products were consumed as the primary source of protein. Circumstances have now changed. Russia now produces enough of its own poultry and pork at affordable prices. So there is simply no longer the need to eat so many dairy products, he explains.

Translated by the Russian Reader

UPDATE!

Up to 25% of Cheese in Russia Is Fake, Smuggled From Ukraine — Watchdog
Moscow Times
January 25, 2018

Up to a quarter of ‘cheese products’ sold in Russia were produced in Ukraine, circumventing Moscow’s embargo on food imports, according to Russia’s state agricultural watchdog.

Russia placed restrictions on food imports, including dairy, from countries that enacted sanctions against Moscow after its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. The embargo has been a boon for domestic Russian producers, but consumers have complained about a proliferation of “fake cheese” — dairy products made with milk-substitutes.

Up to 300,000 tonnes of Ukrainian cheese products are entering Russia every year after being repackaged in Belarus, Russia’s agricultural watchdog Rosselkhoznadzor spokeswoman Yulia Melano told the RBC business portal Tuesday.

“In all likelihood, we’re talking about the legalization of Ukrainian cheese or protein and fat products through Belarus,” reads a letter written by Rosselkhoznadzor head Sergei Dankvert that was obtained by RBC.

The Ukrainian ‘cheese products’ mostly consist of vegetable oils, rather than dairy, and are imported via Belarus under the guise of Macedonian or Iranian cheese, according to the letter.

Cheese-like products could account for more than half of all cheeses sold in Russia, Andrei Karpov, the executive director of the Association of Retail Trade Companies (AKORT), was cited as saying by RBC.

Rosselkhoznadzor does not yet regulate cheese products, which are made almost entirely out of milk substitutes, and does not officially track its imports.

Thanks to Mark Teeter for the heads-up

Every Tree in the Forest Would Understand You

Every Tree in the Forest Would Understand You
Anastasia Lotareva
Takie Dela
August 11, 2017

In Russia, there are six people left who can tell tales, sing songs, and simply converse in one of the world’s most ancient languages.

The dialects of the Selkup language are unique. For example, they have retained semantic stress (that is, stress that changes the meanings of words). It was inherited from Proto-Samoyedic, the language spoken in Siberia before our era. Researchers from around the world study the Selkup dialects, and Russian linguists recently were awarded an unprecedented grant to research them. If the language of the southern Selkups disappears before scholars are able to record it, what the language has preserved for thousands of years will disappear forever. 

“God got paradise, the Devil got Narym Territory,” laughs an elderly mustached man as he tosses another heavy bag on board the speedboat or kaeski. The boat is moored directly to the shore, since there is no dock. It is loaded with food, parcels, and medicines, as well as children.

“He’s going to his grandma’s. You see that he doesn’t forget to get off at Shpalozavod.”

There are no strangers here at all. The first mate, who sells tickets printed back in Soviet times, regards us with suspicion.

“May I ask where you’re going? To Narym? Whatever for?”

“We’re writing an article about the Selkups.”

“Ah . . . More researchers going to see our Ostyaks.”

He closes the door to the deck. It is strictly forbidden to go on deck when the boat is under speed: the weather is poor, and the boat is badly buffeted. In short order, the small craft jumps right into the middle of the Ob River. On the right is the taiga, on the left is the taiga. For several hours and many kilometers there is nothing but the taiga.

Like Sverdlov and Stalin
There are now less than fifty indigenous minorities in Russia. The list of these peoples was approved at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and it has been constantly revised downward. The Selkups are relatively numerous. There are a few thousand of them in Tyumen Region, fifty in Krasnoyarsk Territory, and nearly two thousand in northern Tomsk Region, where Narym is located. The term Selkup emerged and gradually came into usage in the 1930s. Previously, the names Ostyak and Ostyak-Samoyed were used. They are still used in ordinary, non-scholarly language, and sometimes they seep into official documents. The Selkups tend to call themselves Ostyaks.

Narym. This building was the police station before the revolution. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

The Selkups have been divided the last three hundred years or so. There are the northern Selkups, who live along the Taz and Turukhan Rivers, and there are the southern Selkups, the Narym Selkups, who live in the middle basin of the Ob River. They have different folkways, now nearly erased by time and assimilation, and different dialects. If Selkups speak their native tongues, southerners would not understand northerners. Only they do not speak it. The Selkups started to disappear and assimilate as early as the nineteenth century, and the language retreated when the Selkups settled in Russian villages. Their secretive, forest way of life came to an end.

“An airplane flew to Narym once a week, and ships would arrive daily, not just one, like nowadays, but many. But now we’re like Stalin and Sverdlov, like Sverdlov and Stalin. Hey, young folks, do you know who Stalin is?” a female fellow passenger asks us.

Narym was a free land. In the sixteenth century, it was ruled by the Skewbald Horde, a group of four hundred Selkups, according to the written sources, or five million, as a beautiful brochure published by the local authorities claims. The horde was led by Prince Vonya, an ally of Kuchum Khan, ruler of the Khanate of Sibir. Battered by Cossack detachments and tsarist military governors, the khanate fell. The Skewbald Horde surrendered only after construction of Narym Fortress in the late sixteenth century.

A street in Narym. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Narym was no longer a free land. Common criminals and enemies of the regime were exiled there, including the Decembrist Nikolai Mozgalevsky, the Latvian communist Jānis Pieče, the Bolsheviks Yakovlev, Shishkov, and Tomsky, and Stalin and Sverdlov, the latter along with his youngest brother. The political prisoners were not guarded very closely, and many of them managed to escape. Stalin, for example, spent only forty-one days of a five-year exile in Narym before grabbing a steamer to Tomsk and traveling from there to Switzerland, where he resumed his revolutionary career.

Little People
“You Russians distort everything. Ostyakh is not what Selkups called themselves, but what the Khanty called them. It means ‘here I am.’ Or take nyar’m, ‘marsh’ in Selkup. But no, you turn it into Narym.”

We are told this by Ludmila Shadrina, a Narym Selkup and former elementary school teacher.

Ludmila Shadrina. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Ludmila walks quickly, almost at a run, over the boardwalks that do the work of sidewalks in Narym. It is late and quite cold. The museum, which contains three rooms on political exiles and one room on the Selkups, closed much earlier in the day, but Ludmila has agreed with the people who run it to open it for us.

“Not all Selkups like it when people come and interrogate them.”

“But you like it?”

“My cow has been waiting for over an hour to be milked, and yet I’m running around here. But I realize we have to tell people about ourselves.”

I ask Ludmila why this is necessary.

“Because we exist,” Ludmila says.

In front of the little house of the peasant Alexeyev, where Stalin was quartered, is a karamo, a Selkup dugout. The house is authentic, but the karamo is a reconstruction: the Selkups ceased living in them in the early twentieth century. However, Ludmila says her nephew builds the very same dugouts when he hunts sables. Selkups still also build lean-tos, sheds mounted on piles to keep rodents from pilfering victuals.

Dugout at Narym Museum. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Exhibits at Narym Museum. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Ludmila, whose Selkup father died young, grew up in a small Selkup village with her Russian mother. All traces of the traditional way of life had vanished. The village was dying.

“Dad took me fishing with him,” says Ludmila. “What can you say? He was an Ostyak and fished well. We were still eating dried fish several years after his death. He was ill and that’s why he took me along. He thought if he kicked the bucket, then at least I, a living soul, would go find people and tell them where his body was. When Dad felt weak, he would lie on the sand, half asleep, half breathing. I would lie next to him, gazing at the forest, at all the bugs. The trees would sway, but what was beyond the trees? Bears? People? I was frightened.”

Ludmila takes us to her sister Raisa’s house, telling us on the way that bears have become more frequent in Narym in the past year. Тhey snatch cows, stroll down the street, and rip dogs to shreds. If people guard one side of the village, they will infiltrate it from the other side. Ludmila feared them as a little girl and still fears them as an adult. Bears are inventive, cagey animals. The surrounding area is chockablock with them.

When she greets us at the door, Raisa suggests “freezing” us, that is, getting out cold fish, so-called chush, cut into large rings.

“Do you go far to fish?”

“We fish right here on the creek.”

The “creek” is Raisa’s name for the Ob, Russia’s longest river.

Narym. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Neither Raisa nor Ludmila speaks Selkup. They know only certain words.

“It wasn’t the done thing. Yeah, the old people spoke Selkup. We understood them, but replied in Russian, especially after going to boarding school.”

All the children from the tiny Selkup villages were not sent to a regular school in nearby towns, but to special Selkup schools many kilometers away. They were part of the special welfare system for the indigenous minorities of the Russian North, a system crowned by the Institute of the Peoples of the North, which still functions in St. Petersburg. During the impoverished postwar period, the boarding schools provided their young charges with everything from food to clothing. Being sent to such a boarding school was considered good fortune and a privilege. But this same privilege almost completely destroyed the Selkup language and eroded ethnic self-identity. The children would come back home speaking Russian, but more seriously, they no longer wanted to living in the small, impoverished Selkup villages.

Narym. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Narym. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

I ask Ludmila and Raisa whether they liked boarding school. They answered yes without hesitating. Nourishing food, good clothes, and friends, with many of whom they are still in touch.

A minute later, however, Raisa adds something.

“The boarding school influenced us. We got used to getting ourselves out of scrapes. We worked and we studied, and our parents helped us. But our own children are not independent. They are softer. They cannot do the things we did. I always told myself when I had a child I would not give it away to anyone. This is probably because of the boarding school.”

Boarding school students were teased, but Raisa remembers this without malice.

“Well yeah, we were teased, of course, and people said we drank a lot, that we were poor and narrow-minded. Only certain people would get stuck on this, and I would put my arms on my hips and say, ‘Yeah, I’m an Ostyak. What of it?!’ They didn’t know what to say.”

According to Ludmila, many of her fellow villagers are embarrassed of their ethnicity and identify themselves as Russians.

“Then the neighbors say to them, ‘You have passed yourselves off as Russians, but what you going to do with your Ostyak mug? We’re forest people, little people. Everything gives us away, including our faces and figures.”

The Last Native Speaker
Parabel, the district center, is a large, rich village, founded in the seventeenth century on the site of several old Russian settlements. Nowadays, major oil and natural gas pipelines run through it. Gazprom runs a compressor platform and oil pumping station in the village, and so its freshly paved streets are filled with foreign-made cars, and the rooms in certain hotels are never vacant, because there are many business travelers. There is a cinema, a cultural center, and a large museum, which has grown over the nearly thirty years since the Soviet Union’s collapse from a small in-school museum to a large-scale history and ethnography museum.

“When the Selkups organized themselves, culture got involved. What did you expect?” Irina Fokina, head of the local culture department explains. “They said it to me just like that: ‘Irina Petrovna, the time has come to deal with the small peoples.'”

“Did you know anything about the Selkups before this?”

“When I was at school, we didn’t know any Selkups. The Ostyaks, on the other hand, lived with us, and they were sometimes spoken of poorly,” Fokina falters, choosing her words carefully.

Irina Korobeinikova is the last native speaker of a rare Selkup dialect. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

“They called us ‘second class,'” laconically notes Irina Korobeinikova, the last native speaker of the Narym dialect of Selkup and the person who launched the southern Selkup renaissance.

The notion of a “native speaker” is a quite broad concept, a concept with numerous gradations, ranging from people who remember a few words of their native language from childhood to those who converse with household members in their native language as adults. There are no such people left among the Selkups. Irina speaks Selkup fluently and publishes fairy tales and legends in her native tongue, but as reverse translations. First, she recalls a story or reads a Russian transcription of it, as recorded by ethnographers, and only then does she translate it into Selkup. Her children do not know the language. Even her brother, who grew up with her and has heard his fill of Selkup, converses with his sister in Russian.

“But why doesn’t he want to speak his native language?”

“He says he doesn’t want to and that’s that. Who can say?”

Irina spoke only Selkup until the age of seven, mainly with her grandmother, who raised her six grandchildren. Grandmother hunted and fished. Irina’s mother was also a good hunter. She and her sister would bring in two thousand squirrels per season and turn them over to the Soviet state in return for fabric to make a dress or a cashmere scarf. Did the Russian women hunt? Irina says she cannot recall such a thing. It was a purely Selkup practice.

“Did you call yourself Selkups?”

“We called ourselves chomilkups, forest people. Mom and Dad were identified as Ostyaks in their internal Soviet passports, while I was identified as a Selkup. By the way, when I went to the first Congress of Indigenous Minorities, in Kolpashevo, I raised this question when the head of the passport office spoke. I was indignant. Am I not related to Mom and Dad? I was told the academic world had settled on it. This was how our people were now called.”

Irina’s grassroots activism kicked off during perestroika.

“The authorities really supported us then.”

Korobeinikova recalls with pleasure the Congress of Indigenous Minorities of the North, this time held in Moscow, and meeting Mikhail Gorbachev.

Parabel. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

The place in Parabel where the speedboats to Narym dock. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

“The Yakuts and I went up to him. He had only recently been elected. We congratulated him. He shook our hands, and what soft hands he had. He had only ever held pens and papers in them, not shovels, as we had.”

The Soviet Union’s collapse opened borders, and foreign linguists came to see the Selkups. Irina shows me the first Selkup-Russian dictionary, published in Hungary. She tells me about a trip to Hamburg, where she was invited to translate texts in Selkup, written down by German scholars way back in the late nineteenth century. When I see a photograph of a jolly Japanese woman, dressed in a reconstructed Selkup costume, I cannot stand it anymore.

Hungarians, Germans, and Japanese. Why do the Selkups matter so much to them?

Irina smiles subtly and says, “That is because we’re so interesting.”

Happy People
“One of them just left. She was writing down everything. Either researchers are showing up or Irina comes. They sit down with their laptops and off they go. How did you do this? How did you do that?”

Illarion Ivanovich Izhenbin, a Belomorkanal cigarette dangling from his mouth, pumps the tire on his granddaughter’s bike. He lives in a two-storey stone house. There is a nest in the entryway: five swallow chicks protrude from it. Illarion says it’s a good omen, but the chicks are too loud. Sometimes you can hear them in his flat.

Illarion Izhenbin. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

“Are you tired of talking with researchers?”

“Would that I could remember something. I have lived among Selkups my whole life. When I go fishing, and it’s quiet and there is no one else round, I look at things and translate them silently. What are the Selkup words for stars, moon, and water? I spoke only Selkup until 1957. Do you know Selkup’s distinguishing trait? It has no foul language.”

“How did people curse?”

Homo tat! is the most you can say. It means ‘I’m sick of you,’ ‘Go to hell,’ ‘Don’t hang around here.'”

Illarion was also raised by his grandmother. His father was burned to death in a tank near the Reichstag four days before the Second World War ended, while his mother constantly worked in the fishing fleet of small Selkup village. As a boy, he fashioned arrowheads from tin cans, hunted with a bow, set traps, and fished.

“Granny taught me so well that if you left me in the wild with a knife and matches, I could survive,” he says. “She also always told me to look backwards, between my ears, to make sure there were no animals or bad men behind me. The taiga is not evil, but you can’t say the same thing about men.”

Illarion still goes out hunting, but he brings almost nothing back.

“When I catch sight of a squirrel or chipmunk and take aim, I feel sorry for them. After all, I converse with them. If I kill them, with whom will I converse? We are always asked what constitutes our identity, and it is bound up with hunting and fishing. So now my identity has left me, because I almost never kill animals.”

Illarion’s internal passport lists him as Russian, while his military service card identifies him as Ostyak.

“They came up with these Selkups of yours only when Khrushchev ascended the throne,” he says.

“How were Ostyaks treated?”

“Ostyaks were respected everywhere. I have been through the mill, but I was and always will be an Ostyak. When I meet old acquaintances at the police station, they say, ‘Illarion, for the things you were sent down for, you wouldn’t get three days in jail in our day and age.’ I went to prison camp six times.”

“Did the people in prison know you were an Ostyak?”

“Until I was fifty that was my nickname: Ostyak. Afterwards, they started calling me Grandpa. It means my life is over.”

The docks in Parabel. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Izhenbin recalls visits by researchers from the University of Vienna and the University of Budapest. There have been lots of Germans.

“I got such a kick from one professor. He and I went fishing. He got himself muddy from head to toe, pulled out some crap half a palm long from the river, and said, ‘Wonderful!’ Do you know what that means in English? The little fish is excellent. Then I took him out to pick pine nuts, and after that we made fish soup and drank vodka. He told me that for him to spend a day like that at home, he would have to work for a whole year, but we live this way all the time. We are happy people.”

Every Tree in the Forest, Every Fish in the River
“There’s a lot of terra incognita in researching Selkups in general and Selkup culture in particular, but you reporters always ask the same questions,” says Grigory Korotkikh, displeased. “For example, why did I, a Russian, take up the study of the Selkup language, and what is written on my t-shirt?”

The slogan on his t-shirt reads, “Every tree in the forest, every fish in the river would understand you if you spoke Selkup.”

Grigory, who is 17, grew up in Seversk, a closed city not far from Tomsk, but we meet in Moscow, where he is attending a linguistics camp.

“I had tried learning different languages of the indigenous minorities of the North. It’s just that I was able to making a living connection with the southern Selkups,” says Korotkikh.

Grigory stresses he is primarily interested in the academic, linguistic aspect, but he almost immediately interrupts himself to say nothing has been done for the Selkup people. There are no books in Selkup, and the language has not been studied in a centralized way.

“We publish academic articles, but only for each other, for other researchers. It means nothing to the Selkups themselves,” he says excitedly. “The Selkups may, in fact, be happy to study their own language, but they have no means to do so.”

Grigory is the Seversk representative of the grassroots organization Kolta-Kup, which promotes the interests of the indigenous peoples of the North. His colleagues predict a big future for him in grassroots activism. There is a lot of work to be done. Local officials say the right things to indigenous peoples, but in practice they are treated as colorful ethnographic attractions, entertainment for tourists, and a means of reporting to higher-ups that the officials have been solving the problems of the local populace. Activists have not even been able to get a full-time position of Selkup language teacher established in the schools. Ludmila Shadrina in Narym and Irina Korobeinikova in Parabel ran their Selkup language and culture clubs at their own behest.

Non-Russian Languages
Tomsk is a university town. When you drive down the city’s main boulevard, still called Lenin Avenue, you pass Tomsk Polytechnic University, Tomsk University of Control Systems and Radio Electronics, and Tomsk State University. Nadezhda Fedotova, a linguist at TSU, tells me how Tomsk and Moscow scholars managed to get the first academic mega grant in the field of linguistics, thus becoming part of an unprecedented program for financing university-level research in Russia.

The linguists’ overarching goal, which they stated in the application for the mega grant, is to describe the languages of Southern Siberia as fully as possible. Andrei Dulzon, a Soviet linguist, ethnologist, and archaeologist, began tackling the problem in the mid twentieth century. Exiled to Tomsk in 1941 as an ethnic German, Dulzon had lost everything from the ability to work in his profession to his unique card catalogue of dialects. In 1943, he was enlisted to work in the mines, but a year later the authorities relented and allowed the researcher to work at the Tomsk Pedagogical Institute. Dulzon had specialized in German dialects in Moscow, but in Tomsk he took up a new area of research, the indigenous peoples of Siberia, and carried out a revolution in the field. He encouraged archaeologists to excavate Siberian burial mounds, and he organized regular ethnographic and linguistic expeditions that collected so much raw data it is still being processed.

Nadezhda Fedotova, researcher at Tomsk State University’s Linguistic Anthropology Lab.  Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

“Our ethnologist colleagues in Tomsk had already won a mega grant, and the tradition of researching minority languages has been a good one,” says Fedotova, “so it was decided to set up a linguistic anthropology lab here under the direction of Anna Dybo. And there she is!”

A corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the linguist and Turkologist Anna Dybo rides her bike toward the university library, which houses the lab. It is eight in the evening, but no one is planning to go home, despite the fact the linguists had to attend continuing education lectures all day.

According to Dybo, the lab currently employs seventy people: its funding is incomparable to any research group in the west. The most expensive line item in its budget are the expeditions to meet with native speakers of minority languages, but a lot of money is also spent on processing the data they collect and publishing it in the shape of huge dictionaries and text corpora. A text corpus is a gigantic structured set of texts, selected and processed according to certain rules, which is used to study a language, test statistical hypotheses, and validate linguistic rules. For all this to work, programmers and linguists must engage in a nonstop collaboration. At first, they worked for the sheer joy of it, but nowadays Russian technical designs are a product willingly purchased in the west. In addition to processing material that has already been collected, computer technology is used in field work, for example, a system that catches the way a person perceives a spoken word by tracking certain eye movements.

“Did you know the Selkups have a word meaning all colors at once?” asks Yulia Normanskaya, doctor of philology and head of the university’s Uralic languages department. “Green, blue, yellow, gray . . . Simply put, in their language, grass, the sky, and dandelions are the same color. When you ask them to translate it into Russian, they imagine it as one color.”

Yulia Normanskaya, senior researcher at Tomsk State University’s Linguistic Anthropology Lab. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Normanskaya got interested in minority languages in her youth after she learned her ancestors had translated the Gospels into the Chuvash language. Consequently, nearly all of them were shot during the Revolution.

“In the late nineteenth century, the Russian Orthodox Church set up a Translation Commission to publish books in non-Russian languages,” she explains. “The primary aim was to spread the Word of God among minorities, but they published not only liturgical literature but also dictionaries and children’s tales.”

There were also medical brochures, e.g. “On Cholera,” “On Trachoma,” and there were moral tracts. Many of these publications have been lost irretrievably, although some have been preserved at the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg. Another set was unexpectedly discovered in Finland. Normanskaya was looking through the card catalogue at the Helsinki Library [sic] and found information there about the publications of the Translation Commission. The booklets were simply lying in boxes, unsorted. No one had been making use of them or done any research on them. The find included three large books in Selkup, among them a complete translation of the Old and New Testaments, although the received opinion was that alphabets had been devised for the vast majority of indigenous peoples, including the Selkups, in the 1930s under Stalin. In Soviet times, the books of the Translation Commission were discussed pejoratively and accused of being primitive. However, by working with modern native speakers of minority languages, researchers have shown that, in fact, the books were a quite accurate record of the living languages.

“When you compare a map of native speakers of minority languages in the early twentieth century with the current map, the impression is, of course, completely catastrophic,” says Normanskaya. “Even when Dulzon was active, there were dozens of villages where people spoke only Selkup. Currently, there are six people who can tell tales, sing songs, and generally speak the central and southern dialects.”

Statuettes in the park at Tomsk State University. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

The Selkup dialects are unique. For example, they have retained semantic stress (that is, stress that changes the meanings of words). It was inherited from Proto-Samoyedic, the language spoken in Siberia before our era.

“On the one hand, we see an impoverished daily life in which people barely speak their native tongue, and many are ashamed to admit they are Selkups. On the other hand, we find a unique language that has retained ancient features over the millennia, a language that converts into Enets, Nganasan, and other geographically remote languages with mathematical accuracy,” says Normanskaya.

If the language of the southern Selkups disappears, and researchers do not record it in time, what has been passed down through the centuries and preserved in the language for thousands of years will remain unknown forever.

“But if we described these dialects,” adds Normanskaya, “it would be one more proof that languages change in an amazingly systematic way. By converting words from one language into another according to mathematically exact rules, we can restore the pronunciation of the Siberian languages that existed before our era.”

I ask Normanskaya whether we should preserve a language if people do not want to speak it. Norman smiles and, instead of answering my question, recounts how the Soviet linguist Valentin Rassadin invented the Tofa alphabet in 1988. At the time, the Tofas themselved did not converse in their native tongue at all. In the 1990s, actvists in the Tofalar ethnic movement got the Tofa language, as written in Rassadin’s alphabet, on the curriculum of schools and kindergartens, and currently there are whole villages that speak Tofa. The Tofalars consider the linguist Rassadin a national hero.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Kefir the Plough

punisher-it's a lonely row to hoe

I cannot discern grace.

A child of God may have the kingdom of grace in his heart, and yet not know it. The cup was in Benjamin’s sack, though he did not know it was there; so thou mayest have faith in thy heart, the cup may be in thy sack, though thou knowest it not. Old Jacob wept for his son Joseph when Joseph was alive; so thou mayest weep for want of grace, when grace may be alive in thy heart. The seed may be in the ground, when we do not see it spring up; so the seed of God may be sown in thy heart, though thou dost not perceive it springing up. Think not grace is lost because it is hid.

Before the kingdom of grace come into the heart, there must be some preparation for it; the fallow ground must be broken up: I fear the plough of the law has not gone deep enough: I have not been humbled enough: therefore I have no grace.

__________________________________________

Today on The Archers:

At Bridge Farm Susan is keen to start promoting the kefir again now that Christmas is over. However, Helen is far too busy, and insists she’ll have to wait for Tom to return from his conference. Susan devises a market research project of her own, and starts pouncing on customers at the Ambridge Tearoom. Fallon and Emma worry that she’s scaring away customers, and do their best to moderate her zeal. Eventually Emma puts her foot down: the Tea Room is not the place for Susan’s market research.

__________________________________________

What Emma says to Susan when she puts her foot down over the latter’s sinister kefirization of the Ambridge Tea Room:

Take Life or Nonlife in the Anthropocene and the Meteorocene. Geology and meteorology are devouring their companion discipline, biology. For if we look at where and how life began, and how and why it might end, then how can we separate Life from Nonlife? Life is not the miracle—the dynamic opposed to the inert of rocky substance. Nonlife is what holds, or should hold for us, the more radical potential. For Nonlife created what it is radically not, Life, and will in time fold this extension of itself back into itself as it has already done so often and long. It will fold its own extension back into the geological strata and rocky being, whereas Life can only fall into what already is. Life is merely a moment in the greater dynamic unfolding of Nonlife. And thus Life is devoured from a geological perspective under the pressure of the Anthropocene and Meteorocene. Life is merely another internal organ of a planet that will still be here when it is not, when we are not, undergoing its unfolding, creating who knows what. Will Life be a relevant concept there? If not, perhaps Nonlife will finally be freed from Life’s anxiety, freed from being Nonlife, or as Luce Irigaray might have said, from being the other of the same, freed to finally be the other of the other.

Until then perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the emergence of geontopower is mobilizing very similar techniques and tactics that we saw when we were looking at late liberalism. We hear all around us the coming Event, the catastrophic imaginary orienting and demanding action—the last wave, the sixth extinction. And yet pulsing through various terrains is a very different temporality—the river becomes a polluted dump; the fog becomes smog; rock formations become computer components. Is this why the poetics of the quasi-event stitch together the environmental studies of Rob Nixon, the affective optimisms of Lauren Berlant, and the crumbling worlds of settler liberalism? It is most certainly why we see the constant seduction of older late liberal politics of recognition: the sudden realization, the welcoming of an otherwise into what already exists, the extension of qualities we already most value and create most of our value from to the other.

Get out the musical instruments. Put on the robes. Say a mass of remembrance for the repose of the souls of the dead. Cling to life if even in the form of its mass extinction.

__________________________________________

I can imagine listeners will have a lot to say about the further radicalization of The Archers on this week’s edition of Feedback.

Andrey Kalikh: It’s Good to Live in the Country

48763870One view of the Russian countryside

Andrey Kalikh
Facebook
December 31, 2017

Four and half years ago, we got the hell out of the city and settled in the country. Three circumstances happily combined to facilitate this: the issue of an apartment, which had been suffocating us; metal fatigue, so to speak; and the lack of the need to go to the office.

By this time I was grazing on the abundant meadows of freelancing, earning money as I had never earned by translating from German, writing articles for the German media, and working as a fixer for German reporters. After the tedium of an office human rights job, I had the sense I had finally yielded to sin, and my fall was as predictable as it was sweet.

Since then, the four of us have become five, the kids play in a two-story house, and I have my own study, where I pen valuable eternities, like Solzhenitsyn in Vermont. And then I go outside and deal with eternal values, like the roof, the sewer, firewood, sawdust, and so on.

I’ve long been able to earn a living without leaving the house, and increasingly I have no idea why I should go to the city. More and more often, my trips to the city are limited to the airport.

Time and distance have a salutary effect on mind and nerves. I have a nervous mind, and the big city and its hysterical intensity were claiming both my mind and my nerves. Life in the country is wonderful for its emptiness. It is your personal responsibility to fill the emptiness.

So, despite outward deprivations, my year has been peaceful and successful thanks to new ideas and the new wonderful people who have appeared in our midst recently, most of them in virtual space. In 2018, I would like to devirtualize my relationships with most of you. As for old friends, I would just like to see you.

With the beautiful Natasha Panova, without whom none of this would have happened.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of panoramio.com

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Olga Romanova: Yevgeny Makarov’s Life Is in Danger

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Olga Romanova
Facebook
December 15, 2017

I have to write this so you’ll read it, so as many people as possible will read it, because a man’s life depends on it. So repost this, please, and maybe we’ll save his life.

His name is Yevgeny Makarov. Ivan Nepomnyashchikh has written a lot about him, because they were in prison together. There were three of them: Ivan, Ruslan Vakhapov, and Yevgeny Makarov. Of the fifteen hundred inmates in Penal Colony No. 1 in Yaroslavl, the three of them stubbornly stood up to the sadism, bullying, and humiliation meted out by wardens and guards. For their pains, they were beaten, held in solitary confinement, and issued leaky dishes, and they went on hunger strike.

They were not allowed to see their lawyers, but the prison’s special forces team would be dispatched to deal with them.

When Ivan was released, he immediately left the country. He has now enrolled at a university in the US. Ruslan and Yevgeny still have to serve out their sentences.

It was Yevgeny who has borne the brunt of the wardens’ anger. On December 5, he was transferred to Penal Colony No. 8.  The prison guards  stripped Makarov naked, sat him in a chair, and beat him with a wet rag knotted on the end. They then poured water over him and shocked him with a cattle prod. Afterwards, guards attempted to plunge Makarov’s head in a toilet. (This is one method of “punking” an inmate.) Makarov resisted, and his head was slammed against the toilet bowl. His torturers stopped at this point and put Makarov in solitary confinement for fifteen days. He has also been sentenced to eight months in a single-cell room (abbreviated EPKT in Russian), a prison within a prison.

Our friends the lawyers at the Public Verdict Foundation have filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The ECHR has ordered the Russian Federation government to ensure that Makarov has been given a medical exam within 48 hours by physicians independent of the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service and provide the court with a report on the results of the exam. The Russian goverment must also ensure Makarov’s safety and that he has unhindered access to legal counsel representing his interests. The EHCR drew the Russian government’s attention to the fact that it has taken urgent measures on behalf of Yevgeny Makarov. The complaint has been given priority status.

But the wardens in Russian prisons could not care less about the ECHR. They don’t understand. And human life there is worthless.

Thanks to Dmitry Kalugin for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Cotton in Volgograd: An Immigrant’s Story

The White Gold Immigrant
Alexandra Dontsova
Takie Dela
December 5, 2017

Oybek Kimsanbayev’s life is like a Hollywood film: a brilliant scientific career, crushing failure, departure from his native country, work on a construction site, and his first experiments with cotton in Russia.

A heated discussion was underway at Volgograd State Agricultural University. Local and university officials were telling a visiting deputy agriculture minister about the local curiosity: cotton. Imagine, they told the deputy minister, it grows here, and the quality is even excellent. They dreamed aloud how it would be grown on an industrial scale. All that was needed was state support and processing complexes.

While the officials were singing cotton’s praises to the deputy minister from Moscow, a man with a haggard face stood in the doorway of the conference hall. He nervously bit his lips, alternating his gaze between the floor and the audience. Oybek Kimsanbayev heads a group of scientists who have developed varieties of cotton capable of growing in the Volgograd Region’s climate. The region is recognized as the northernmost point in the world where it is possible to grow cotton. Although he was the most important person in the room, Kimsanbayev was not on the list of speakers.

Oybek Kimsanbayev waiting to be interviewed. Photo by Alina Desyatnichenko for Takie Dela

Everyone except the man who had made the conversation possible talked about cotton and the prospects of its cultivation in Russia. (Given a skillful approach, Russian cotton might challenge the US and China’s hold on the market.) However, at some point, the university’s rector realized the discussion lacked something and gestured for Kimsanbayev to come and sit down at the round table at a place that had happily been  vacated.

Construction and Cotton

Kimsanbayev tells journalists nearly the same story when asked why he started researching cotton in Russia, adding that he is very grateful. Were it not for reporters, few people would know of his work, and he scarcely would have been able to get the ear of the authorities.

“In 2006, a cooperation agreement was concluded between Taskhent State Agricultural University and Volgograd State Agricultural University. Researchers launched projects on alternative crop production, meaning cultivatings crops that have not usually been grown in a particular area. One lab worked on reviving cotton growing in Russia. The outcome was a project for generating ultra-early ripening, high-quality varieties with a high fiber yield,” Kimsanbayev says at one go.

“And the non-official story? Why did you start researching cotton in Volgograd?”

We are sitting in small cafe in the Hotel Volgograd. It is pouring rain outside. Opposite our table is a group of foreigners. Judging the by patches on their blazers, they are FIFA officials, who have arrived in the city to monitor construction of the city’sstadium for the 2018 World Cup.

Kimsanbayev is forty-three years old. Aside from Tashkent Agricultural University, he has a degree from the University of Seoul, taught at Columbia University, ran a lab, worked for the president of Uzbekistan in the early noughties, and at the age of thirty-five became the youngest doctor of agricultural sciences in his country. He has published hundreds of scientific papers, and he has developed and co-developed some two dozen varieties of cotton. Until 2012, he led an international project for creating ultra-early ripening cotton varieties.

Kimsanbayev shows the work his lab does. Photo by Alina Desyatnichenko for Takie Dela

It was at this high point that Kimsanbayev’s life, chockablock with prospects and ambitious plans, fell apart overnight. Due to a mistake he discusses reluctantly, he was forced to leave Uzbekistan.

“Yeah, I have a big mouth. I was working with a Russian university. We had established a distance-learning platform for Uzbek children. But not everyone liked what we were doing. So it happened I lost my job and could not find another one.”

Professor Kimsanbayev was forced to go to Russia to work as an ordinary migrant worker. An acquaintance in Volgograd hired him to work for his company, to “make some moves,” as Kimsanbayev puts it.

“The helter-skelter was not my thing, and I went and got a job at a construction site. I was an ordinary unskilled laborer, along with other men from my country. I don’t see anything shameful about working with my hands. If I have to, I’ll wash floors. Or work on building the stadium.”

Chance brought Kimsanbayev together with good people who took him to Volgograd State Agricultural University. After a long interview with the rector and after he supplied the university with his academic credentials, Kimsanbayev was appointed a lecturer in the agricultural technology department. Realizing the worth of their new faculty member, the university rented a flat for him. He was given the chance to do what he does best: experiment with cotton.

Not Just Cotton Wool

The first year, Kimsanbayev planted only 25 acres. The professor did everything himself in a field the size of four typical dacha plots. He sowed it, plowed it, watered it, and did battle with weeds and pests. Many people doubted the seeds would sprout.

“I brought an international collection of cotton seeds to Volgograd: 97 varieties from all the cotton-producing countries, from Latin America, the US, China, India, and so on. I selected 25 varieties, which sprouted in the local climate. I narrowed these down to three varieties. That is how we arrived at an ultra-early ripening cotton in Volgograd, a variety that matures between April and September.”

The following year, the experimental cotton field had grown to eight hectares. To help him with the work, Kimsanbayev hired Uzbek agronomists and encouraged the university’s students to join them. The outcome: not only did the cotton seeds sprout, but the field turned into a white carpet in due time.

“As they say, I woke up famous one day. Reporters and local officials came to see me in the field. Now everyone believed Volgograd cotton was a reality. However, we are faced with other problems. We have to convince farmers it is worth growing cotton, that the crop is economically profitable: the price of one kilo of raw cotton is equal to the price of thirty kilos of wheat. In addition, we need specialist agronomists. So, basically, I promote cotton and, of course, train students. I don’t work alone. Several scientists, including Igor Podkovyrov and Taisiya Konotopskaya, have been working on cultivating new varieties with me and training specialists.”

Kimsanbayev now heads the university’s Center for Applied Genetics, Selective Breeding, and Cotton Seed Production. In total, 109 hectares were planted with cotton this year.

Oybek Kimsanbayev in the lab. Photo by Alina Desyatnichenko for Takie Dela

Kimsanbayev says that Allah loves him. Otherwise, he would not have sent him so many trials and so many people, willing to help him just like that, without asking anything in return.

“There have been deplorable circumstances when my life was not worth a penny. Yet people helped him. But there are things I really regret. I once behaved disgracefully and therefore moved away from my family. So the burden of guilt would not drag me down, I simply shoved off to Russia, frankly. That is why I have worked so hard, so that, down the line, my family—my dad, my brother, my wife and our three children—would be proud of me. That is my own real goal in the work I do.”

“What did you do that was disgraceful?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“When was the last time you were in Tashkent?”

“I constantly have meetings and business trips. My schedule is crazy. I just got back from Astrakhan, where the region’s governor and I discussed a plan for sowing 200 hectares of cotton in the spring. I haven’t been home for four months.”

Kimsanbayev suddenly falls silent. The expression on his face changes noticeably when the conversation turns to family and children. His eldest daughter and son are seventeen and sixteen, respectively, while his youngest son is five.

“I miss them, of course. I’m really afraid of losing my family due to my work.”

“Why don’t you move them to Volgograd?”

“Where would I put them? In a rented flat on a monthly salary of 27,000 rubles [approx. 390 euros]? Listen, your questions are making me depressed, and it’s raining outside as it  is.”

Later, Kimsanbayev confesses he bought tickets for home right after our interview.

Potatoes on Mars

The cotton harvest is nearing completion in the university’s experimental field. The agronomist Bahadir or, as he introduces himself, Boris, specially recruited from Tashkent for the experiment outside Volgograd, shows me how to pick cotton. It is fairly straightforward. You pull the fiber from the boll. If it gives, you keep pulling until you have all the white cotton in your hand.

University students help pick the cotton. The white caps from the cotton plants are quickly deposited into sacks. Soft as a cat’s paw, the fiber is pleasant to the touch. The softness is a small reward for one’s efforts. Pulling the cotton from the boll without being pricked is nearly impossible.

A student from Volgograd State Agricultural University picks cotton. Photo by Alina Desyatnichenko for Takie Dela

There are several unusual rows on the edge of the large field. The cotton there is not white, but dirty yellow and brownish green. It transpires that this year the Volgograd researchers bred a special variety of colored cotton. Someone joked the military ordered green cotton for sewing its uniforms.

Since Oybek Kimsanbayev joined its faculty, Volgograd State Agricultural University became the only university in Russia where cotton scientists are trained.

“Do you know how I enticed students into studying cotton? I said they would be rare specialists, and they would especially in demand abroad. But I hope, nonetheless, that Russian farmers realize the crop is quite profitable economically. This year, for example, there was overproduction of wheat in southern Russia. Farmers cannot sell the grain at a good price, while there is simply nowhere to store such yields. Consequently, they are making a loss. And this isn’t the first year we’ve seen this scenario. So, farmers need to switch to other crops, including non-traditional crops. Cotton could be one of those crops.”

“Where else in Russia could cotton be grown?”

“Currently, Volgograd Region is the northernmost area in the world where cotton is planted. The crop could be planted farther south, in Astrakhan, Kalmykia, Stavropol, and Krasnodar. Just imagine, in Volgograd Region, in one of the districts along the Volga River there are one and a half million hectares of cropland lying fallow. If you sow all that land with cotton, and the yield from one hectare is around one ton, Russia could reshape the world cotton market. It would simply crash it. Russia would not be dependent on imported cotton, which is especially vital given ongoing western sanctions and Uzbekistan’s refusal to export raw cotton to Russia. The really funny thing is that cotton was once grown in these parts. However, the technology was lost over the last decades. So now we folks at the university are once again developing techniques for cultivating cotton and breeding new varieties.”

The harvested cotton is loaded into a trailer for the journey to the warehouse. Photo by Alina Desyatnichenko for Takie Dela

The cotton from the experimental field is of very high quality. Its quality has impressed the local textile mill and a Moldovan company, almost the only full-cycle plant in the CIS where raw cotton is processed and fabric produced. It is they who are hurrying the researchers in Volgograd to breed varieties that would yield 3,000 kilos a hectare.

“Next year, six times more cropland will be sown with cotton seed in Volgograd Region alone: 630 hectares. Plus there will be 200 hectares in Astrakhan Region. We are negotiating with Kalmykia. We provide scientific support to all the farmers. Recently, at an ag expo in Moscow, I spoked with your agriculture minister, Alexander Tkachov. He told me a program for supporting cotton growing in Russia was in the works. I think the availability of state support would ultimately convince farmers to take up cotton.”

“Do industrialists try and recruit you? The salaries are definitely higher in industry than at a regional university.”

“I’ve had offers. But I turned them down. I would have to work as an agronomist or seed cultivator whose job would be to increase gross crop yields. I don’t find that interesting. I’m a scientist. I’ve created a variety, I’ve let it go to work, and I’ve set myself a new goal.”

“Do you have a new goal?”

“I do. Roughly speaking, our project aims to study alternative crop production. Meaning that we cultivate crops in places where they usually don’t grow. Have you seen the movie The Martian, in which an astronaut grows potatoes? They took the idea from reality. Thirty years ago, the Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Dzhanibekov was the first person to grow cotton in outer space. My objective is to cultivate varieties of different crops that would adapt to all natural conditions, so that no amount of frost could damage them. I have proven this is possible. However grandiloquent it might sound, the job of farmers is to feed the world. If plants can yield crops under any conditions, imagine how that would change a country’s economy.”

The agronomist Bahadir shows off Volgograd’s know-how: colored cotton. Photo by Alina Desyatnichenko for Takie Dela

Cotton is the only crop that has several sets of genetic chromosomes. That is why it is perfect for different experiments.

“How do they relate to your work and success in Uzbekistan? Are they kicking themselves for letting such a valuable employee go?”

“I don’t know whether they’re kicking themselves. But I have been offered a prestigious job and a high post. I’m not ready to go back yet.”

Translated by the Russian Reader