President Putin feted in Siberian farming village

GORNOVKA, Russia Thu Nov 22, 2007 10:36am EST

1 of 10. A woman leads a cow along a street in the village of Gornovka at a collective farm named after Russia's President Vladimir Putin November 16, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Andrei Kasprishin

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GORNOVKA, Russia (Reuters) - Alexander Titov says his home village owes its survival to President Vladimir Putin.

To show his gratitude, he named his farming community at the foot of the Altai mountains in Siberia after Russia's president. The farm has just had its best harvest in decades.

"I have great respect for Vladimir Vladimirovich," said Titov, 55, calling the president by first name and patronymic.

"I will vote for him in the elections. He is a good man."

Russia's red, white and blue flag flies from the top of the hut that serves as Titov's office in this village over 4,000 km (2,500 miles) east of Moscow.

Inside, a portrait of Putin hangs on one wall and the words of Russia's national anthem on another. The room is heated by a stove. There is an old bed and some chairs, but no telephone.

Many remote Siberian villages, starved of state handouts, have descended into poverty since the Soviet Union's collapse.

In Altai region, sandwiched between the Kazakh steppe and the mountains from which it takes its name, locals nickname such forlorn settlements 'Bear Corner' or 'Cockroach's Darkness'.

Titov, however, has taken advantage of a Kremlin initiative to restore Russia's farm sector to former glories. Agriculture is one of four priority development areas, giving farmers access to tax breaks and cheap loans from state-controlled banks.

Russia contributed 68 billion rubles ($2.8 billion) from its federal budget to the agricultural sector in 2007. This will rise to 76 billion rubles ($3.1 billion) in 2008.

Titov took out one of these loans, a five-year credit for 4 million-5 million rubles ($164,000-$205,000), last year.

"Without this money, we would simply have gone bankrupt. So I decided to thank Putin for his support of this village."

AMAZED

In the 1980s, the farm -- then called '50 Years of the USSR' -- raised the best sheep in Altai region. After the Soviet Union collapsed, it fell into disrepair. Suddenly unemployed, farmers either left to find work elsewhere or turned to drink.

Titov had already set up a company called 'Golden Field' to farm the fertile soil before turning to the national program.

"When I went to the tax inspectors with my idea, they looked at me as though I were mad. But I told them: 'I'm not opening a business, I'm preparing to support my home village'."

He received the documents registering his farm as Joint Stock Company Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin Ltd on October 5, 2006.

"My only regret is it wasn't his birthday," Titov said. Putin turned 54 two days later.

The Putin farm employs 25 technicians earning a monthly wage of between 4,000 and 5,000 rubles ($164-$205), about a third of the national average of 13,800 rubles.

Residents were amazed at the name change.

"When my husband told me he now works 'in Putin', I laughed and thought he was pulling my leg," Svetlana Chuyeva said.

Now, seeing Putin on television gets him talking about work, she said. "And sometimes he dreams: 'When the president comes, I'll show him how well I can handle a combine harvester'."

TURNING THE CORNER

Farm workers say the enterprise, which grows wheat, buckwheat and flax, has turned the corner in its new guise.

"This year we were even the best workers in the region, one of the first to finish sowing and harvesting," said 32-year-old laborer Nikolai Parshin.

Titov has big plans for the farm. He wants to replace its ageing combine harvester fleet and will sow 1,500 hectares of land this year, nearly triple the area sown in 2006.

Even the local traffic police look kindly on the farm.

"I was stopped recently for speeding," Titov admits. "The inspector started to write out my fine and asked, 'Where do you work?' I said: 'The Putin Collective Farm' and he said: 'Well why didn't you tell me straight away!'"

"But I didn't take advantage of the situation. I was at fault, so I paid."

Many of the so-called Putinites on the farm will vote for the United Russia party that Putin will lead in parliamentary polls on December 2. Opinion polls show United Russia will win the election by a landslide.

"I will vote for United Russia, more than anything because the president supports this party. And Putin is a smart guy," said 50-year-old Yegor Malykhin.

But not everyone shares this view.

"It's good working at Putin. All the same, I'm voting for the Communists because there was more order under the Soviet regime," 42-year-old Oleg Zaitsev said.

A 21-year-old resident of Gornovka, who gave her name only as Viktoria, was more scathing. "There's no work in the village. The men drink and neither Putin nor anyone else will help. So now they've named the farm after him I'm supposed to be happy?"

As far as Titov is concerned, there is only one thing wrong with the Putin farm: not a single resident of Gornovka shares the president's first name.

"This is a surmountable problem," Titov said. "When somebody has a son, we've already decided he will be called Vladimir."

(Writing by Robin Paxton; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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