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Russia, August 10, 1999

What Did Russians Eat Before Potaotes?

Its dangerous to farm on a dacha

The Times (UK) August 10 1999

Why Russian plots lead to potato knifings

By Richard Beeston

Borodino - A few miles from one of the epic battles of Russian history, a smaller but equally violent struggle for survival is under way, pitting Russian against Russian.

In small vegetable patches and allotments here and across the country, harvest time is not only a battle against summer drought and the marauding Colorado beetle. In Russia it also means protecting potatoes, cabbages and other vegetables against the thieves who raid gardens and make off with the crop.

The rural struggle can have its comic side, leading to noisy night-time encounters in which elderly Soviet matriarchs and young amateur thieves wrestle in the mud over a sack of potatoes. But it is also deadly serious. Several thieves, often alcoholics trying to steal enough to buy a bottle of vodka, have already been pitch-forked to death this year by angry gardeners, for whom the summer's crop is the basis of their diet for the long winter ahead.

After Viktor Gonchar had his allotment raided one night recently, the pensioner vowed to guard his property more carefully and spent the next night sleeping next to his vegetables. He was woken by the sound of digging and caught two women. "The young one got away but I caught the older one and gave her a good hiding," he growled. "She will not be coming back here again."

The punishment may seem harsh, but there is scant sympathy for the thieves who get caught. Mr Gonchar and his wife need the home-grown food to supplement his meagre state pension of around 6 a month.

To some extent the potato thieves operating near Borodino, the site of Napoleon's victory over the Russian Imperial Army before his capture of Moscow in 1812, were lucky that their assailants were so restrained. The Russian press is currently full of stories about less fortunate vegetable raiders across the country who have been beaten to death or lynched by angry mobs.

Earlier this month in the suburb of Ulyanovsk, Lenin's birthplace, the badly beaten bodies of two thieves were found after watchmen caught them digging up vegetables.

Police said that they had died for the sake of 12 potatoes found in a knapsack near the bodies. According to the local authorities, six other potato pinchers have been killed in similar incidents this summer.

One pensioner from the Nizhny-Novgorod region on the Volga explained recently how she had accidentally killed a potato thief raiding her vegetable patch. Valentina Dolgopyatova, 64, a short, toothless and short-sighted granny in a floral dress and slippers, said she was guarding her patch when she heard someone quietly digging.

In a rage she ran out with a knife to confront the intruder and during a struggle for a bag of potatoes she stabbed and killed the thief. Police found the body of a man, with a stab wound through an artery, 50 yards from her home. He was still clutching a bloodied bag of potatoes. "I did not mean to kill him. I only wanted him to understand that I was not going to let him dig up my potato crop," a distraught Mrs Dolgopyatova said.

The coming weeks could turn so nasty that a newspaper has published an advice column warning gardeners that they could be jailed if they use some of the more tenacious methods of protecting crops, including explosive booby traps and electric fencing. It recommended buying a dog or paying a night watchman.

As for Mrs Dolgopyatova, while police opened an investigation into the killing, she has not been arrested. Given the angry public mood against crime, and this type of theft in particular, it seems unlikely that the killing potato pensioner will go to prison.

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