PANTIL, Russia -- Miles down the muddy slather they call a road, past the tumbledown fences of the old Lenin's Path collective farm, the twin domes of a crumbling 19th-century church signal the spot where Viktor Bykov is trying to nurture the concept of a private farm.
"We want to be the masters of our own land," says the bleach-browed, solidly built 44-year-old whose dream of private farming became reality with the fall of communism five years ago.
It used to be a most dangerous dream, and if the Communists had won the presidency in June, it could have become dangerous again.
Josef Stalin's 1930s de-kulakization program of slaughter and imprisonment eliminated any individual initiative in the agrarian sector.
A kulak -- literally meaning "fist," or what a man could close his fist around -- was anyone in the richest layer of a generally very poor agrarian society. A kulak's wealth might have amounted to a single horse or cow, or control of land.
Bykov considers himself a "modern kulak."
He is a private farmer with his own land, equipment and animals -- which is to say, he is still an oddity in Russia. On his own very small scale, he is doing well.
And in the Russian agrarian landscape -- where large state farms and most private attempts at farming are limping along -- Bykov is even considered something of a genius for having figured out how to make a small farming economy work against all the odds.
* The civil code -- full of guidelines about state farm holdings -- doesn't really define a private farm.
* Private ownership of land is not a settled issue. Bykov doesn't know for sure if he owns his. "Probably we do," his wife, Tatyana, says, weighing the contradictions in presidential decrees and parliamentary legislation.
* At interest rates of 160 percent, credit is practically unaffordable.
* Bykov's biggest customers -- public schools and hospitals -- almost never have the cash to pay for his produce.
But times, uncertain as they may be, have changed for farming. Communism is gone. A man can be his own boss now.
The state doesn't decide where Bykov will sell his potatoes and at what price -- Bykov decides. He decides when he will expand his greenhouse, and the designs come from his own drawings, not a centrally planned government blueprint.
He also decides what each employee's salary will be, based on output, not on just showing up for work -- a principle he adheres to so strongly that he fired his sister-in-law for being "lazy."
Difficult but interesting
"These are the proudest years of my life," Bykov says in a rare emotional pronouncement. "I could say we're living our dreams."
"Life is such that the more difficulty you have, the more interesting it is," he says of Russia's democratic reform. That's an exceptional point of view in a land where economic reform has left the majority of Russians -- both in the city and in the countryside -- trying to figure out how to prosper.
To understand Bykov's trajectory through Russia's difficult transformation, consider the explosive potential of an energetic and enterprising individual trapped in a regime that punished individual thought, comment and complaint.
From the age of 7 -- when he collected hay on horseback on a state farm -- till his days as a tractor driver on the Lenin's Path collective farm, Bykov says, "I kept my opinions to myself."
He grew so fed up with the low pay, lack of opportunity and general decay of Soviet farming that he quit. And bucking Soviet laws that compelled peasants to stay in the countryside by denying them internal passports, Bykov slipped north in 1980 to seek his fortune in the oil fields of Siberia.
In the relative freedom of Siberian isolation and boom-town economics, he created and managed a profitable independent team of 50 truck drivers, built himself a large house and set aside a large nest egg.
He had a slash-and-burn management style: He cut visits to the mechanic and had drivers come earlier to work on their own equipment. He eliminated the practice of a costly medical checkup before every long trip. The best workers got the highest pay.
'I had so many ideas'
But in 1990, he saw opportunity in the cracks forming in the Communist state. The government started to allow private individuals to own a tractor and privately farm large tracts of land. It also offered them tax holidays and cheap credits.
Bykov rushed back to the rolling green pastures and forests of Pantil, 650 miles northeast of Moscow, with his wife, Tatyana; two sons, Sergei and Alexander; and daughter, Olga. There he and four families of siblings and in-laws were allowed to inhabit the abandoned village and try their hands in fields that the troubled, underfinanced state collective could no longer cultivate.
"I saw this place, and I wasn't afraid to be left alone. I had so many ideas -- we started work immediately. And it was exciting to think about working without supervisors watching you," Bykov recalls.
Six years later, Bykov -- as handsome in his common laborer's knit cap and heavy rubber boots as he is in a business dress shirt and slacks -- stands with his head inside the greasy guts of a tractor and says the pleasure hasn't diminished.
Bykov has cobbled together a farm of more than 700 acres with the equipment, land, finances and hard labor of his extended family.
The old kulaks would be proud.
Indeed, the kulak who lives in the Bykovs' second-floor bedroom -- Tatyana's 85-year-old mother, Anastasia Vasileva -- says she's happy her children are prospering.
"All I had were two benches and a crate. [Stalin] took my two cows and never paid me any money."
The Bykov spread includes 600 acres of potatoes, wheat and rye, and 125 acres of forest. There are 19 cows in the dairy barn, 50 pigs in neatly kept pens, a jungle of tomato and cucumber plants in a 500-square-yard steam-heated greenhouse, a bakery that produces 250 loaves of bread a day, three brand new farmhouses for Bykov family members, and 20 new dachas -- summer cottages -- built by city dwellers from nearby Kirov who want to be part of the Pantil renaissance.
Parked in the lane is a Volga sedan -- a Russian luxury car. The Volga, or any car, is rare in this impoverished land. But Bykov says it's an indispensable piece of machinery for a private farmer who has to log hundreds of miles untangling bureaucratic messes and visiting customers.
One day, when Tatyana Bykova was filling the farmhouse with her lusty laughter and that doughy sweet smell of a farmhouse lunch, the Bykovs' were celebrating their latest triumph: the purchase of an old military-green ambulance.
In a triumph over a reluctant bureaucracy, Viktor Bykov persuaded a hospital to sell him an old ambulance for 18 million rubles ($3,700) worth of meat, bread and vegetables.
"It took Viktor a year to get that thing, so we can have a mobile store," Tatyana Bykova says. "We're going to paint it and put a fancy design on it and send it to market."
Tatyana Bykova is her husband's comic alter ego. She teases him out of his seriousness by reading bawdy tabloid magazine stories out loud and on occasion serving up huge meals wearing a sequined cocktail dress in the large kitchen he built for her.
"He does have a hot temper," she says, smiling and tussling her husband's forelock. "Especially with lazy people. He wants all the work done on time and everyone to work like him."
Indeed, Viktor Bykov's work ethic involves the simplest management style -- earn your keep or take a walk. Communism, he says, bred "robots ... and it's difficult to teach them to work independently because they lost the habit of hard work."
'Key to his success'
His employee-relatives complain that he's a slave driver. "Viktor's manners leave something to be desired," says Maria Bykova, 46, wife of his older brother.
But, swathed in a bandanna as she prepares for the afternoon milking, Maria Bykova readily admits to what everyone on the farm agrees: "Viktor's got a knack for management, and even though we don't get higher salaries than before, we own our own houses and we feel like this is our own farm."
Bykov is a "genius," says Nikolai Smyshlaev, agriculture chief for the Kirov region. "The key to his success is the feeling of individual ownership the employees have. So far this feeling hasn't been developed successfully in most [farming operations]."
Bykov's steam-heated greenhouse is another marvel in the region. In all the years of Soviet super-farming, the markets in this region never saw a single plump domestic tomato brought to market in the minus 40-degree winter as they do now with Bykov's greenhouse production.
The diversity of Bykov's operation -- from pork to potatoes -- and his vigorous push to sell and barter at big institutions such as hospitals and schools have kept the farm afloat financially, says Viktor Pinyegin, a Fermer magazine specialist in small farms.
"Most of our small farms are no more than 4 years old," explains Pinyegin. And the uncommon few successes such as Bykov's are important models because the mammoth Soviet state farms and collectives are unlikely to have the kind of state financing again that it takes to rev them up.
Tatyana Bykova's biggest fear before President Boris N. Yeltsin's re-election was that if the Communists won, "we'll find ourselves in exile in Siberia, with everything taken away like they did with my mom."
But while that question is settled, the private ownership of farmland remains a point of impassioned conflict between conservatives and reformers, especially in a parliament dominated by Communists and nationalists.
People such as the Bykovs may hold some sort of title to their property that they may bequeath to their children, but the legislature and courts have not settled the crucial issue of whether ownership includes the right to sell farmland.
Viktor Bykov doesn't talk of selling, but he wishes these issues would be settled.
"We were drawn to this place to be able to work and so we can leave our children with something -- a house, farm machinery, land," he says.
"If we're allowed to do it, if other farmers can do the same, Russia will prosper."