MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
This week, we have been navigating Russias principle waterway, the Volga River. And today we arrive at the city of Saratov. In Soviet days, Saratov was a center for military industry, completely cut off to foreigners. Its other main source of income was agriculture.
Both industries fell apart when the Soviet Union dissolved, and now Saratov is struggling to adjust to a Russian economy driven by private enterprise, as NPR's Anne Garrels reports.
ANNE GARRELS: This area of the Volga basin has some of Russia's richest land and some of its most unpredictable weather. It's blessed and cursed. For years, an added curse was the state system of agriculture, which provided no incentives and produced little. That system collapsed quickly, along with the communist state. Hundreds of thousands of acres sat fallow.
(Soundbite of farm equipment)
GARRELS: Slowly, though, abandoned fields have been taken over by private farmers. A market in seeds, fertilizer, equipment and credit to back them up has emerged.
For the first time in living memory, Russia has become a net grain exporter. But the record-breaking heat wave this summer hit the new farmers hard.
Thirty-eight-year-old Vasily Zhelydkov watched his wheat fields along the Volga wither.
Mr. VASILY ZHELYDKOV: (Through translator) Our grain harvest has failed completely. There was nothing we could do to combat 47 straight days of 108 degrees. Thank God the government has helped us with subsidies.
GARRELS: He gives Prime Minister Vladimir Putin huge credit for improving overall conditions for farmers and stepping in to bail them out now. A big fan, he's become the local representative of Putin's party, United Russia.
Mr. ZHELYDKOV: (Through translator) I like what the party is doing for society, and I also get advantages being in the party. I was alone to start with, but now when someone tries to mess with me, I have the power of the party behind me.
GARRELS: It's that power that has many others concerned.
At one of Saratov's top-notch universities, economist Igor Umansky believes modernization can only happen when Moscow backs off and spreads Russia's resources.
Mr. IGOR UMANSKY (Economist): (Through translator) In the U.S., you don't have total concentration of everything in, say, New York. It's spread out. Here, though, Moscow is the financial, industrial, scientific and government center.
GARRELS: Moscow is twice the size of St. Petersburg and six times the size of the next biggest cities.
Mr. UMANSKY: (Through translator) That's just not normal. There remains a huge gap between Moscow and the rest of the country and its ability to develop.
GARRELS: Government plans to create a Russian Silicon Valley near Moscow don't make him happy. Umansky doesn't directly criticize the monopoly of the prime minister's party. But, like many others here, he does question the monopoly of the state.
Mr. UMANSKY: (Through translator) The state can't create innovative business. If you look at Silicon Valley, it wasn't the government which inspired the high-tech boom. We need private investment.
Another big problem is freedom of information. The sooner this changes, the better it will be for the country and the atmosphere here.
GARRELS: Volodya Onishchenko, a doctor, says the government's continued control of the traditional media is poisoning the atmosphere and scaring off the very people needed to modernize.
Dr. VOLODYA ONISHCHENKO: (Through translator) Different elements of Soviet propaganda have come back, perhaps to compensate for a feeling of inferiority. There's a lot of anti-Western, particularly anti-American, feelings these days on TV, and theyre generated from above.
GARRELS: Thank God, he says, for the Internet. That's where he gets his information.
Ms. DARYA KNIGINA (Journalist): (Speaking foreign language).
GARRELS: But despite the explosion of the Internet, Saratov journalist Darya Knigina worries that the overwhelming power of Moscow and Putin's United Russia still has a paralyzing effect on people with something to lose.
Viacheslav Trofimov, a physicist, tried to do just what the government is now urging: set up a company to tap Saratovs scientific talent and develop new ideas. But he says he was blacklisted because he does not support United Russia.
Mr. VIACHESLAV TROFIMOV (Physicist): (Through translator) We were not their people. So they used all their powers to stop us by legal and illegal means. People who supported us realized we had been put on a blacklist and that any investor in our company would face problems with the authorities, who all belong to United Russia.
GARRELS: Based in Saratov, Sergei Pochechuyev worked for United Russia as a political consultant until he broke ranks in 2008. He has written a book describing how the local party machine uses a noxious mix of illegal activities and domination of every institution to destroy anyone deemed an enemy.
Mr. SERGEI POCHECHUYEV: (Through translator) United Russia gets its money from businessmen who understand there is only one power in this country. If you want to succeed and have your problems solved, you need to pay into its coffers.
GARRELS: And with that money, Pochechuyev says he was the master of dirty tricks.
Mr. POCHECHUYEV: (Through translator) I was given a list of names of those who needed to be discredited. It became easier and easier to put pressure as power was increasingly concentrated in the hands of Putin's party. I could pay off editors, judges, you name it, to take certain measures.
GARRELS: Pochechuyev now says he helped create a monster. He has yet to find a publisher for his book.
Anne Garrels, NPR News.