Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum
Rationing has been referred to as the “default option of Stalinist distribution,” and for good reason. Introduced during the First World War and continued through the Civil War, it was officially imposed again from 1929 to 1935 and from 1941 to 1947. Although occasionally justified as a method of distribution more appropriate to socialism than the variety of administrative and quasi-market mechanisms it replaced, rationing represented the state’s improvisatory response to especially disastrous economic conditions, and was abolished when conditions improved. During the war, it was largely confined to urban areas and covered most essential food items such as bread, flour, vegetable oil, meat, fish, and sugar. It also was socially discriminatory, with initially four major categories — manual workers, white-collar workers, dependants, and children under 12 years of age — entitled to different levels of rations. In February 1942, a fifth category, consisting of people employed in important war industries together with scientists and technicians, was added. Official ration levels occasionally were cut, for example, for sugar in April 1942 and for bread in November 1943, but otherwise remained stable throughout and immediately following the war.
On September 14, 1946, the Council of Ministers announced an increase in ration prices of 2.5 to three times, while also a lowering of commercial prices of between ten and twenty percent. Advertised as the first step towards the abolition of rationing, the decree was met with considerable consternation among the public. On September 27, another decree, “On Economizing in the Consumption of Grain,” reduced the number of people entitled to ration cards by some 28.5 million, mostly in rural areas. Both measures, in fact, were intended to reduce the consumption of bread in the face of the disastrous harvest, and in October and November, bread sales dropped by 60,000 tons.
Popular attitudes towards the impending abolition of rationing were mixed. Many associated rationing with wartime, and looked forward to its abolition as a confirmation of the return of peace. They blamed the persistence of shortages and the increase in ration prices on various kinds of corruption and abuse of the rationing system. It was not clear, however, that supplies of bread would be sufficient and available at an affordable price, and thus many worried about speculation and starvation. In the end, that is to say, on December 14, 1947, the state decreed the simultaneous abolition of food rationing and a currency reform intended to soak up the monetary savings of those who had not opened accounts in banks, which meant mainly rural dwellers. The immediate effect of these reforms was to leave many areas of the country without adequate supplies of bread and many people without the means to purchase essential items. More generally, whatever prestige the Soviet government obtained by having been the first to take this step, the end of rationing belied hopes for improvements in living conditions.