Food Supply

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

At the outset of the First World War, Russia’s officials judged its capacity to sustain the war effort in favorable terms, largely because of the country’s abundance of grain-growing regions. They could not have been more wrong in terms of their calculations. Within a year, shortages of articles of primary necessity — kerosene, footwear, textiles, and food — were registered in cities and towns throughout the empire. The foremost cause of these shortages was the diversion of resources, production and transport to war needs, which left inadequate supplies for the civilian economy. The creation of a Special Council for Food in 1915, the imposition of rationing, and other measures did little to alleviate the problem. Food riots, in which working-class women and soldiers’ wives figured prominently, were a frequent occurrence. The February Revolution was initiated in Petrograd by women workers’ protests over bread shortages. Food supply would continue to be a source of popular discontent throughout 1917 and beyond.

The Provisional Government, having inherited the problem of food shortages, moved quickly to set up a State Committee on Food Supply (March 9) and establish a state grain monopoly with fixed prices (March 25). The monopoly was overseen by a hierarchy of provincial and district supply committees which, dominated by state officials, merchants, and landowners, attempted to impose requisition levels on the grain-producing peasantry. The entire process hinged on the assumptions that the currency in which peasants would be paid would remain stable, and that consumer goods would be available for purchase at equivalent prices. Neither of these assumptions was realized, and the result was frequent clashes between goods supply agents and peasants in the grain-surplus provinces and the exacerbation of food shortages in the cities. By late summer, Petrograd had only two days’ worth of bread reserves, a situation that jammed railroads, river ports, and roads with a new urban type, the “bagmen” – individuals acting on their own or as agents of various organizations who skirted restrictions on private sales of goods by traveling to surplus areas and carrying what they had purchased back to the towns and the grain-poor northern provinces.

By October, normally a month of food abundance, supplies had dwindled further, prices continued to rise rapidly, and lengthy food lines had become ubiquitous in the cities. The situation in Petrograd, far removed from the main food producing areas, was particularly grim. Only one-tenth of the prewar milk supply was reaching the city whose population had swollen owing to the influx of refugees and soldiers. Many desperate citizens resorted to shoplifting and ransacking of storehouses while others, outraged at being deprived of goods, set upon with fury those who were caught stealing or merely suspected of it. The problem of food supply thus delegitimized the Provisional Government, much as it had the tsarist government. The Soviet government continued many of the same food supply policies (e.g., rationing, state monopoly, requisitioning), albeit with a different ideological justification and greater ruthlessness, during the succeeding years of civil war.

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