Millions of Russians were given plots of land when the former USSR collapsed. Now, as land rises in value, small farmers are the targets of intimidation of powerful forces.
KRASNODAR — Ljudmila Voltshenko, who appears to be in her 50s, points to her house's charred roof and beams. "Bandits set it on fire," she says.
For Voltshenko, bandits refers to Russian civil servants, judges and local landowners — people she accuses of helping themselves to the 190 acres she and her husband own in Starovelitchkovskaya, a rich farming village near the southwestern Russian city of Krasnodar.
The couple is not alone. Many farmers in the region are facing the same problem.
"Around here, the authorities protect the bandits and we've been fighting each other for 12 years," says Voltshenko's husband, Mikhail, a former driver in the region's kolkhoz, or collective farm, during the Soviet era.
Mikhail Voltshenko, like millions of other Russians, was given plots of land when the former USSR collapsed and used these areas to grow wheat, corn and sunflower. But in 2004, when he tried to make official his property title, Ljudmila, who worked at the kolkhoz's storehouse, was fired. And landowners sent henchmen to Voltshenko's house to break his jaw.
The couple's house and agricultural tools were torched. Five lawsuits were launched against Voltshenko, while his own complaints were rejected in court. "The prosecutor and the police are laughing at us. I know fully well who hit me, but when I told my story to the police, they started laughing," he says.
Recently, the couple's son, Alexey, a former police officer who became a farmer, went to the Kremlin to present the family's grievances to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"Every civil servant here behaves like a landowner and Putin doesn't know what's happening. If he decides to restore order, everything will be resolved," Voltshenko says.
But that's not what happened. Instead, Alexey and other demonstrators were sentenced to a week in prison. Kremlin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, advised angry farmers to write a letter instead of protesting.
Demonstrations are rare in Russia. Regional media, including news agencies, keep quiet about them. "Voters aren't interested in these stories about farming and collusion in the legal system," says Sergey Obukhov, one of the 28 Communist candidates in the region. "They worry first about rising prices in shops."
Krasnodar, the third richest region in Russia after Moscow and St. Petersburg, is often described as the Russian Los Angeles because of its Mediterranean climate and easygoing way of life. The city's proximity to the former Olympic capital Sochi, where Putin has a luxurious residence, made it eligible for budgetary largesse. Krasnodar's fertile lands offer exceptional yields. A probable consequence of this natural wealth is that the pro-Kremlin party United Russia, which won the recent parliamentary elections, keeps a tight grip on the region.
Alexander Tkachev, Krasnodar's former governor, was one of the main figures behind the successful and expensive 2014 Olympic Games. During the Soviet era, Tkachev's father was the director of the kolkhoz named "friendship" in the village of Vysselki, 60 miles north of Krasnodar. The Tkachev family, who turned Vysselki into their personal fiefdom, became the largest owner of farmland in the region. The family's company Agrocomplex owns 1.1 million acres. Tkachev's brother, Alexey, a lawmaker, became the empire's head along with Tkachev's daughter, wife and son-in-law.
"Tkachev built his power like a managerial project," says local activist Dmitri Shevchenko, whose ecology-focused NGO is on the justice ministry's radar. Tkachev's system, Shevchenko says, "is characterized by extreme authoritarianism, the proscription of any alternative opinion and drastic control on the media."
In 2015, the Kremlin made Tkachev agriculture minister. At the same time, an investigation by the newspaper Vedomosti found that Tkachev's farming empire had quadrupled in size since 2009. Last year, Tkachev got 1.1 billion rubles ($17 million) in federal subsidies.
Small independent farmers accuse Tkachev of being complicit in the land ownership problems they're facing. At the very least, they criticize Tkachev for inaction in mediating their disputes.
"These conflicts are linked to the growing value of land," says Alexey Gusak, a United Russia deputy in Krasnodar's legislative assembly. "Nobody cared about it 10 or 15 years ago. Back then, people would take whatever they wanted. After the collapse of the USSR, many people didn't know how to obtain their property titles and found themselves facing holding companies who owned the appropriate legal services and took advantage of the legal vacuum."
In November 2010, Alexey Tsapok, the leader of a criminal gang, killed 12 members of a local family in a property dispute. Several media outlets at the time accused the chairperson of the investigation committee and the attorney general of dragging out the investigation. Four years later, 40,000 hectares belonging to that criminal gang ended up with the Tkachev family through Agrocomplex. The transaction was approved by the Russian Antimonopoly Service.
Vladimir Chamchurov, who leads a group of small dispossessed farmers, says the ballot box won't resolve the problem. Chamchurov, who believes that judges, politicians and companies are all corrupt, says that he's lost confidence in the political system. "We don't believe in any candidate," he says.
Communist lawmaker Sergey Obukhov promises to take on the big players should his party return to power, an electoral prospect that looks unlikely.
Just outside Vysselki, Agrocomplex's sugar factory spits smoke. At the village's entrance, there are three United Russia campaign posters. One of them reads, "The growth of the agricultural industrial complex depends directly on those who work the land." Put against Agrocomplex's 12,000 employees, protestors trying to get to Kremlin to demonstrate don't stand a chance.
"Small farmers who accuse us are lazy," says Alexey Familsky, the person in charge of security at Agrocomplex. "If they wanted to work, they would make a very good living."