Famine of 1921-22

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

Food shortages were a critical source of social unrest and political instability during the first year of Soviet power. Through the course of the civil war, efforts by the Soviet government to acquire sufficient foodstuffs to support the Red Army and the urban population assumed massive proportions. Food detachments sent out from the cities were a regular feature of the “food dictatorship” that was imposed on the peasantry. Even after the civil war wound down, requisitioning of grain and other food supplies provoked violent confrontations between Soviet authorities and peasant producers. One consequence of these encounters was the reduction of sown area which left little margin for crop failures. The situation was “ripe” for famine. The New Economic Policy, which permitted peasants to sell their surpluses after meeting tax obligations, was a bold attempt on the part of the state to break the cycle of violence that characterized its relations with the peasantry. But no sooner was it introduced in the spring of 1921 then the entire Volga basin was hit by a devastating crop failure, actually the second in as many years.

The resulting famine affected at least twenty million people, one and a quarter million of whom trekked from the stricken region to other parts of the country. In July 1921, the Soviet government gave authority to local authorities to exempt from the tax-in-kind peasants suffering from crop failures. The famine forced the Bolsheviks to re-establish ties with capitalist nations in the west, from which food aid poured in. It appointed an All-Russian Committee to Aid the Hungry, consisting of prominent intellectuals including Maksim Gorky. Gorky’s appeal for foreign assistance bore fruit in the agreement concluded between the Soviet government and the American Relief Administration directed by Herbert Hoover. Over the next two years, the ARA supplied food and medical assistance to a reported ten million people. Nevertheless, an estimated five million people died as a result of the famine, succumbing to outbreaks of cholera and typhus that proved fatal owing to weakened resistance.

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