Russian farming has always been unstable because of its complex climatic conditions. Russia's records of the difficulties caused by weather vagaries are impressive. During the last hundred years the country went through at least 30 years of severe drought. Some years were also problematic due to severe frosty winters or summers that were too rainy and cold. Thus, an average decade in the history of Russian agriculture comprises two or three years of large droughts (sometimes occurring in a row) and one year of crop failure caused by other unusual weather conditions. In the 1970s, for example, there were three large droughts in 1972, 1975, and 1979, while the year 1977 was unfavorable because of very rainy and cold weather. Then, after the drought of 1979, two more years with adverse weather followed in a row (1980 and 1981). Such unstable weather conditions should be recognized as making agriculture difficult.
As with any farming in marginal climate conditions, Russian agriculture should have been developing according to a "survivor" rather than an "advancer" model. The behavior of a "survivor" should differ from that of an "advancer": for the former, success means being able to reproduce the basic living cycle, while the latter aims to raise the standard of living. This means that the "survivor" would choose one strategy for farming and the "advancer" another.
Some features of pre-revolutionary Russian agriculture were considered by many Russian agricultural experts to be archaic—for example, the domination of cereal crops in both forest and steppe zones. These experts emphasized that more labor-intensive and market-valuable crops, such as potatoes, vegetables, and sugar beet, were needed to make the country a modernized Western-style state. Emphasis was also placed on increasing livestock breeding. The introduction of grass rotation was meant to open up the opportunity for progress in the livestock sector, which still provided negligible input in terms of the food consumption of Russian peasants. The experts noticed that there was some movement in the right direction but insisted on the rejection of traditional cereal-oriented farming. This was the typical position of the "advancer".
However, the Russian peasants moved rather in the opposite direction. They continued to sow cereals in any available areas and were not keen to sow other crops. They reduced grasslands in favor of cereals and fed livestock in such a way that the animals were merely given the chance barely to survive until the following spring. The Russian peasants tilled their arable land carelessly and applied little manure and no mineral fertilizers. A striking example of this strategy was the ploughing up of most hayfields and grassland in the Central Black Earth region at a record rate. The disappearance of the grassland led to continued problems for livestock breeding in this region until quite recently. However, it would be incorrect to say that Russian peasants did all these things because they favored subsistence farming—quite the opposite. Russian peasants were trying to sell their produce on the market. The monetary proportion represented by agriculture and handicrafts in a family's budget reached 40 to 50 percent for peasants in many agricultural regions of the Russian Empire. Moreover, they preferred to sell grain than to feed it to their cattle, and only if the market was restricted or not accessible did they allow themselves and their animals to feed on the home grain reserve. This was simply another strategy of the "survivor".
Although Russia has a colossal territory, the European part of the country has been overpopulated since the beginning of the twentieth century. The problem was how to feed an overpopulated country in a very unstable climate. The Russian peasants, first of all, were not overloaded by problems of breeding livestock. It was too big and risky a business to increase the herd as this required much greater fodder reserves for wintering. By limiting livestock numbers the peasants did not have to worry about acute fodder shortages if a poor harvest occurred. Indeed, Russian farmers received only small amounts of manure and had to rely mostly on the size of the crop area rather than raising productivity. Cereals were a more suitable crop for this as they were extensively farmed. Peasants were able to sow large areas, even if this caused the quality of the soil to deteriorate. The Russian peasants knew that there were new, unploughed lands located somewhere in the south and east of their homeland.
The "survivor" strategy for the country would suggest the territorial expansion of arable land despite some having low potential productivity. The larger crop area in the country the less the chance that all main growing regions would face adverse weather conditions at the same time. Food crises could occur in years of bad harvest, but only if problems emerged in terms of the transportation of agricultural produce from wealthier regions to those suffering from droughts. The mass famine of 1891 was such a case. In the pre-revolutionary decades Siberia became a very important buffer region in years of crop failure in European Russia.
The "survivor" strategy dominated until the mid-1960s. In the Stalin era the increase in area under cereals was the most important target for the new collectivized agriculture. Bread was the major food staple in the diet of the Soviet people, while meat and dairy consumption were at the pre-revolutionary level. All mass famines that occurred in years of crop failure were mainly the result of a deliberately conducted anti-peasant policy on the part of the Communist leadership. This policy (for example, restricting the migration of peasants from affected areas) left millions of Russian peasants with no chance of avoiding famine. No doubt, none of the mass famines in the Stalin era would have occurred if the state policy had been more humane.
In the mid-1950s, Nikita Khrushchev launched a grandiose plan for the ploughing up of 42 million hectares of the "virgin lands" in Kazakhstan and Western Siberia. The plan turned out to be a fiasco. None of the planned targets were achieved. The "virgin lands" suffered from wind erosion and supported low, unstable, and economically unprofitable (for new grain sovkhozes) cereal production. This is true only from the position of the "advancer". For example, the forest zone of Central Russia could not compete with the Ukraine or North Caucasus in terms of profitability, where expenditures on grain production were low. In the Soviet era this difference in the cost of grain production was compensated by the higher state purchase price for grain produced in the forest zone as compared with the steppe regions of the country. Despite very low yields and the unstable character of the harvests, the "virgin lands", in some years, acted as a buffer region when other traditional areas suffered from weather problems. Unfortunately, in 1963 and 1965 grain crises could not be avoided when poor harvests occurred simultaneously in the virgin lands and traditional agricultural regions. It proved afterwards to be a rare event, but it cost Khrushchev his career. The food crises of the 1960s emerged because of a reluctance to accept the very idea of large purchases of grain from abroad and because the Soviet government favored the restriction of grain supplies to the population and livestock sector.
From the mid-1960s, major efforts to transform Russian agriculture into modernized and labor-intensive farming were undertaken by the Brezhnev government. The main target was radically to raise livestock production. New industrial-style livestock complexes were constructed around the country. More grain was allocated for the stable supply of these complexes. However, the shortage of other varieties of fodder became a major challenge that the Soviet Union completely failed to address. Here, the complicated geographical condition of Russia proved to be a determining factor, especially in the case of hayfield and pastureland productivity. For 50 years the total fodder production on a per head basis did not noticeably increased. Despite the allocation of the largest investments in the world, the Soviet Union's achievements were modest. When the crops failed, which happened as frequently as once every three years, fodder crises occurred. In order to avoid the massive slaughtering of animals and to maintain some growth of the herd, the Soviet Union could not help but import large amounts of feed grain from Western countries. The chronic character of grain imports shows the increasing vulnerability of the country to oscillations in the weather, which prevented it from becoming self-sufficient in food production. The food problems also became permanent and obsessive for the Soviet authorities. Large amounts of produce were lost somewhere on the way from the field to the final consumer. All these problems indicate a major failure in the attempt to follow the "advancer" model for Russian farming.
Today, Russian agriculture still dreams of being the "advancer', but the actual transformation is to increase grain production and radically reduce livestock inventories. The decline in livestock inventories of more than 40 percent, which happened during the 1990s, is comparable only with that of wartime. There are no fodder resources in many regions of Russia, while the planting or importing of roots or silage has been made unprofitable by low livestock productivity and low purchase prices. The current grain balance, which allows for the export of part of the grain produced, is only due to low domestic demand. The most negative aspects are connected with the lack of a state subsidy for Russian agriculture, including the grain production sector. This means that many central regions find themselves unable to grow any more cereals as the cost is higher than buying and transporting the cereals from southern regions of Russia. A reduction in the sown area in the forest zone will be the main result. However, from the position of the "survivor" it becomes risky for a country with a very unstable climate to limit its harvest geographically. Some models of climate change show that the main agricultural zone of Russia will experience more frequent droughts while average weather conditions will become milder in the non-productive zone. However, because of the low quality of the soil, the shortage of arable land suitable for cereal growing, and a lack of infrastructure, it is unlikely that the forest zone would replace the steppe regions as the main cereal-growing area. Thus the problem is to increase the sustain-ability of Russian agriculture overall, at least in relation to such important crops as cereals, in the face of the future potential deterioration of the climate in a number of agricultural regions.
It is difficult to imagine a situation in the future in which Russian agriculture will be entirely free of problems. Anomalies in the climate are likely to increase, making it difficult to regulate production and yields with as much certainty as currently exists in many Western countries.
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