For the first time in her 68 years, Maria Kolkolova has become a property owner - and she's not very happy about it.
Kolkolova and most of the other 300 inhabitants of the Niva State Farm are unwilling test subjects in a project that aims to break up the thousands of huge, inefficient collective and state farms throughout Russia.Last weekend, they received certificates guaranteeing them a piece of the lands they have worked for a lifetime. Despite the chance to finally become their own bosses, most wanted to keep things just the way they are.
"I don't need much (land) - two meters is about enough for me," Kolkolova said, pointing at a local graveyard.
"Yes, we've got our land titles, but we don't understand anything. We'd rather have water and heat in our homes," she added with a sigh, hobbling off with a bucket toward a well 100 yards from her ramshackle hut. She has neither heat nor water now.
Under the program, everyone who lives on the farm - from the smallest child to the oldest babushka - is entitled to 18.5 acres of land and a share of the tractors and other property based on their tenure and salary.
Those with certificates can combine their shares with family and neighbors to form a partnership, become private farmers or even sell their rights.
The ambitious program was drawn up by federal and regional officials and the International Finance Corp., a private-sector arm of the World Bank that sent experts to help organize the transition to private farming.
Private ownership of land is a priority for the government of President Boris Yeltsin. He signeda decree Wednesday legalizing the selling, buying and mortgaging of land and guaranteeing Russian citizens' right to own land, something they were denied for decades.
Niva was among six farms in the Nizhny Novgorod region of central Russia chosen for the privatization project - even though polls showed 70 percent of the peasants opposed efforts to dismantle the system of collectivized farming brutally forged by Josef Stalin.
"We've had a good collective, why break it up?" asked Vladimir Grishatov, a young farm worker at the raucous first meeting of Niva shareholders in Valgusy's House of Culture.
"Let other farms, whose performance is not as good, privatize themselves first!" said Grishatov, who feared the co-workers would be forced to compete. "We want to stay together."
The farmers fear, among other things, that the state will not provide easy-term loans or that it may discriminate against small farmers, preferring to deal with larger units that are more likely to pay back on time.
Another fear is that the leaders of the collective farm will enjoy undue privileges because of connections with local officials.
Many are also skeptical of yet-another new scheme advanced by the government, which they don't trust. They'll be without start-up money and will probably end up sharing tractors and other machines that are too expensive for them to buy immediately.
Project officials concede it will be painful and say it would be impossible to make the transition overnight.
"The greatest difficulty in pushing through reforms is changing people's mentality," said the governor of Nizhny Novgorod, Boris Nemtsov.
Despite the doubts, IFC officials hope the project will be a model for the 800 collective and state farms in Nizhny Novgorod, a region the size of South Carolina.