Food and famine

In her book ‘Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine’, Anne Applebaum describes how Russia’s Communist leadership used food—or in this case a lack of food—for political ends. She describes how, across the Soviet Union, 5 million people died of starvation during the great famine of 1931 to 1934, of which 3.9 million in Ukraine. The famine was largely politically induced.

Ms Applebaum writes that the Russian Empire had been struggling with food supplies since the outbreak of the First World War. When war broke out the Imperial government had centralised and nationalised the country’s food distribution system, eliminating middlemen and traders. By doing so they created administrative chaos and severe food shortages.

When the Bolsheviks seized power they quickly realised that the fate of the revolution depended on their ability to ‘reliably supply the proletariat and the army with bread’. But instead of relaxing the food distribution system, they tightened it further. Lenin in particular denounced traders as ideological enemies, writing,

‘The peasant must choose free trade in grain – which means speculation in grain, freedom of the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer and starve; the return of the absolute landowners and the capitalists; and the severing of the union of peasants and workers – or delivery of grain surpluses to the state at fixed prices.’

Of course Lenin gave the peasants no choice: he forced them to sell their grain to the state at fixed prices.

It was a policy that Stalin later copied, taking it to extreme lengths.  In 1928 he launched the government’s first ‘Five Year Plan’, an economic programme that mandated a massive 20 percent increase in industrial production. At a party plenum he told party members that ‘…for hundreds of years England squeezed the juice out of all of its colonies, from every continent, and thus injected extra investment into its industry’. He argued that without colonies the only way the USSR could achieve its goals was through the exploitation of the country’s peasants.

As Ms Applebaum writes, Stalin ‘had determined that the peasantry would have to be sacrificed in order to industrialise the USSR, and he was prepared to force millions off their land.’

Russia had had a long tradition of communal agriculture, and prior to the revolution the majority of Russian peasants had held land jointly in rural communities. Ukraine had no such tradition; most of the land was owned and farmed by individual peasants.

The Soviet government arbitrarily divided peasants into three categories: ‘kulaks’, or wealthy peasants; ‘seredniaks’, or middle peasants; and ‘bedniaks’, or poor peasants. The author writes that ‘very quickly, (the kulaks) became one of the most important Bolshevik scapegoats, the group blamed most often for the failure of Bolshevik agriculture and food distribution.’ They were arrested, deported or killed, their grain and their animals confiscated and their land ‘collectivised’.

Stalin believed that collectivisation and the elimination of the kulaks would lead to greater efficiency and increased output, while at the same time convert the peasantry into ‘proletarianised’ wage labourers.

He believed that the political and economic future of the Soviet Union lay in industrialisation. Politically, he believed that wage labourers could be ‘controlled’ more easily than peasants. Economically, he felt that the only way a country could grow was through industrialisation—and that that could only be achieved by redeploying the surplus, both in labour and food, from the countryside to the cities.

He used brute force and mass murder to try to achieve these aims, while deliberately setting high prices for industrially produced goods and low prices for agriculturally produced goods.

The state would fine peasants who could not deliver grain, charging them up to five times its worth. Those who could not or would not pay had their property confiscated.

it wasn’t just the rich peasants that were under attack. The government issued orders to arrest ‘the most prominent grain procurement agents and most inveterate grain merchants…who are disrupting set procurement and market prices.’ Trading grain became a crime.

In the end, his policies led, as Mikhail Gorbachev later admitted, to a new form of serfdom. They also led to a collapse in agricultural production, mass murder and mass starvation.

Food has always been used as a weapon. Even in recent history, unscrupulous leaders have used food, famine and starvation as a weapon, supplying food to their supporters and denying it to perceived enemies.

Meanwhile, most classical economists still share Stalin’s view that industrialisation is the key to a country’s economic development, and that cheap food is an important policy tool in achieving that objective. Cheap food forces farmers to become more efficient, while at the same time freeing up labourers to work in the factories where ‘real wealth can be generated’. Cheap food also transfers wealth from rural to urban areas, ‘subsidizing’ the wages of workers in the cities.

In her book Ms Applebaum clearly shows that famines are not necessarily the result of bad weather, nor cheap food necessarily an accident of market forces.

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One Reply to “Food and famine”

  1. Excellent synthesis of Ms Applebaum ‘s book which depicts a sad and cruel episode of the history of Russian realities.

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