Figure 94 Grain production and intensity of drought in the RSFSR 19761990

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Grain production, million tons

Sown area not affected by drought, %

Source: for grain production Sel'skoe khozyastvo v Rossii, 2000.

Some Western experts believe that the weather continued to be the dominant variable in Soviet agricultural production in this period. In 1978, Severin and Carey predicted that relatively favorable weather in the late 1970s would be reversed in the next years, bringing many problems for Soviet agriculture (1978). This did, indeed, happen. The second half of the 1970s was relatively good but the first half of the 1980s seemed to be one of the worst periods in terms of climate (Figure 9.4.). Major problems for Soviet agriculture were caused by large-scale droughts. Figure 9.4. shows that the fluctuation in grain production evidently correlated with the proportion of crop area affected by drought (this area is determined by the Hydrothermal Coefficient of Seljaninov). All the major drops in grain production in 1979, 1981, and 1984 correspond to the occurrence of severe droughts. Those of 1979 and 1981 followed that of 1975 in terms of intensity, while the drought of 1984 was comparable with that of 1972. One specific feature of the climate conditions of the period was the waves of cold air that often followed a drought, as happened in 1980. The occurrence of three consecutive years of poor weather (as observed in 1979 to 1981) was a rare event even for the USSR, and the decline in the grain harvest between 1978 and 1985 should certainly be attributed to the exceptionally poor weather.

The situation was quite different in the second half of the 1980s. Modest grain harvests in 1985 to 1990 cannot be explained by weather

Table 9.7. The main parameters of agricultural production in the USSR, 1976-1990


Livestock inventory

Livestock production

Feed supply

Number of cattle (millions)

Pigs (millions)

Sheep and goats (millions)

Meat (millions of tons) (centners) of tons)

Milk (millions of tons) (millions of tons)

Feed per head (millions)

(in oat equivalent)








































































































































Sources: Severin, 1984.

Sources: Severin, 1984.

conditions. In general, the weather at the end of the 1980s was very favorable. However, the planned growth in grain production was not achieved. Instead it stayed at a lower level than in the late 1970s, even though the weather was more problematic then. The conclusion must be that it was not the weather but the technical shortcomings and mismanagement that accompanied Gorbachev's reforms that were responsible for the stagnation in Soviet agriculture at the end of the 1980s.

Our analysis is made problematic by the lack of official statistics for grain production at regional level for the period 1975 to 1985. For these years, the Soviet Union published only average figures for grain harvests in the regions (for the corresponding plan periods), and it resumed the publication of annual statistics only from 1985. On the other hand, the available figures provide the possibility for tracing the impact of crop failures on the livestock sector for most years. The available data allow a reasonably detailed picture to be drawn (Table 9.7.).

In the three years from 1976 to 1978, average harvests were the highest in the post-war period of the USSR. However, some problems

Table 9.8. USSR grain supply and utilization (millions of tons)

Marketing year, June-July


Imports from the US

Net imports from rest of world

Total imports


Utilization Feed Total

Change in stocks




































































































Source: Foreign Agricultural Circular of USDA, 1976

Source: Foreign Agricultural Circular of USDA, 1976

caused by the weather were reported. For example, Pravda (1977) wrote that harvesting in 1976 had taken place in very complicated weather conditions, although it gave no details. Some decline in milk production was an indication of these weather problems, while the sharp fall in meat production resulted from massive slaughtering in 1975 (Table 9.7.). Despite the record harvest of 1976, the USSR had to import 7 million tons of grain. As a result of a lower demand for feed grain there should have been an excess amount of grain that could help replenish the state grain reserves (Table 9.8.).

In 1977, the decline in grain production in the USSR was certainly caused by poor weather, the main feature of which was the prevalence of unusual cold throughout the whole year with the single exception of autumn. The cold weather was associated with a very stable zone of high atmospheric pressure in the Polar region. In the high latitudes of Europe, east winds prevailed. The Arctic anticyclone spread over a vast territory to the east of the Urals and blocked cyclones moving from the west over European Russia. During the summer, in central regions of European Russia the weather was dominated by an influx of these numerous cyclones, bringing cold and rain. During the year, precipitation was excessive in most regions of European Russia. In July and August, in southern Ukraine, precipitation was 300 and 200 percent of the norm. These figures were the highest ever recorded for this area (Bulletin of WMO, 1978). The wet and cold weather affected crops in European Russia. In the non-black earth zone, a rainy and cold summer resulted in a poor fodder crop (Sovetskaya Rossia, 1977). Some Western sources also reported the poor growth of fodder crops in 1977 ("Lean times ahead..." 1980).

In the Siberian part of the USSR, the winter of 1977 was extremely cold (4 to 9 degrees below the norm) because of the vast Arctic anticyclone. This cold weather was followed by an unusually warm spring, with temperatures 4 to 8 degrees above the norm. The dry warm weather prevailed during the spring and summer and this resulted in a reduction of the crops in the steppe zone of Western Siberia. A warning was issued about the high risk of forest fires in the region of Lake Baikal in September (Bulletin of WMO, 1978). The Soviet geographer U. L. Rauner included 1977 in his list of years of drought, and pointed out that the drought was located in the Siberian part of the USSR (1982).

In 1977, grain production fell to 12.5 percent below the level of 1976. The USSR imported more than 15 million tons of grain. An additional 16 million tons were found from the state grain stocks. However, livestock inventories were still below those of 1974, while meat production only slightly increased above the 1974 level and was lower than in 1975. The country was forced to turn to the world market for unprecedented levels of meat imports that reached 616,900 tons.

In 1978, the USSR reported a record grain harvest of 237 million tons. The weather was wetter than usual. In European Russia during the whole growing season temperatures were 2 to 4 degrees lower than the norm, which made the maturing process longer than usual. In spring, precipitation was 150 to 250 percent above the norm in the agricultural zone of European Russia. In Siberia, the weather was reported to be mild (Bulletin of WMO, 1979).

The autumn of 1978 was difficult for the western regions of European Russia. The Soviet press reported a fodder shortage in the Baltic republics during the winter of 1978-1979 caused by an unfavorable autumn. In Estonia, less than half of the planned quantity of fodder was produced. The deputy chairman of the Latvian Council of Ministers blamed the difficulties of the republic largely on bad weather in 1978, especially at harvest time, which caused substantial losses of fodder, grain, and potatoes (Sovetskaya Latvia, 1979). One Western paper mentioned the hard harvest time, noting, however, that the grain harvest was expected to be well above the average for recent years and possibly to hit a record level (Baltimore Sun, 1978). It is indeed worth stressing that the record harvest of 1978 was obtained despite problematic weather conditions.

In 1978, meat production rebounded to the 1975 level and hit a record high of 15.5 million tons. The pig inventories jumped by 12 percent and cattle increased by 2.3 percent in one year. However, milk production went down compared with 1977, perhaps due to adverse weather in the western regions of the USSR. The considerable increase in livestock numbers led to less feed being available per unit of livestock (see Table 9.7.). Although the grain harvest was sufficient to meet the domestic demand, the USSR purchased more than 15 million tons of grain in Western countries, apparently in order to refill the grain reserves (Table 9.8.). The good harvest allowed the Soviet Union to cut its meat purchases on the world market in order to save foreign currency (Reuter, 1978). Only 184,000 tons of meat were ordered from traditional suppliers including New Zealand and Australia.

The major crisis in Soviet agriculture began in 1979. In that year the weather was very unstable in relation to temperature and moisture. The problems started with very cold spells in both the European and Asiatic parts of the USSR in January. The Siberian anticyclone caused a record low temperature in Western Siberia. In the western part of European Russia in January temperatures were 2 to 5 degrees below normal (Bulletin of WMO, 1980). Severe cold and snowdrifts were reported in many parts of the country creating many difficulties for workers on livestock units in kolkhozes and sovkhozes. Soviet officials called for major efforts to be directed towards ensuring that the production of livestock increased even in these conditions and that numbers were maintained ("USSR national affairs."', 1979).

Fodder shortages in the Baltic republics were attributed to severe frosts in December and January, which additionally hampered the transportation of fodder from other republics. As a consequence, in Estonia in January, 17 percent less meat and 13 percent less milk was produced than in January 1978 (Radio Tallinn, 1979a). This drop in livestock production was detailed by a Western paper in the following way. The trouble began with the crop failure of 1978. Cattle breeding and animal husbandry suffered most, but the Estonian kolkhozes and sovkhozes were not permitted to reduce their herds in the autumn, as they had suggested, in order to manage on their own fodder supplies. They were told that extra fodder was unobtainable and they received cash instead (Daily Telegraph, 1979b).

In the winter of 1979, very unstable weather was observed in the southern Ukraine and North Caucasus. In February, warm weather brought unusually high temperatures (from +12 to +20 degrees). Then this warm weather was replaced by a sharp cold spell, with temperatures falling below -15 degrees. These frosts damaged winter crops and gardens (Bulletin of WMO, 1980).

April was still cold in European Russia, especially in southern areas, but May turned out to be surprisingly warm, with average temperatures 3 to 6 degrees higher than normal. In Moscow it was the warmest ever recorded. The spring heat and the large amounts of snow that had accumulated during the wet winter resulted in severe flooding on numerous rivers. A dramatic situation was reported from the western part of European Russia. In Belarus, exceptionally large snowfalls in the winter resulted in many rivers bursting their banks when the spring thaw came, and at the end of April immense areas of agricultural land were flooded. Winter grain crops were washed away, spring sowing and reseeding were delayed, and the bulk of field work had to be carried out in a very short time ("Masherov expresses alarm..', 1979).

Then the weather situation reversed again. In June, exceptionally dry and warm weather settled over southern areas. In May and June precipitation reached only 10 to 20 percent of the norm (such deficits were observed once every 20 years). Thus a spring-summer drought affected the main agricultural zone of Russia (Bulletin of WMO, 1980). Dry weather also affected central and western regions. In June, in Belarus, drought set in following the spring flooding, with virtually no rain for a month, which resulted in the republic facing a critical shortage of animal feed. Later, the first secretary of Belarus, Masherov, revealed that "in the exceptionally difficult circumstances of the 1979 drought, Belarus has fallen 40 percent short in grain production" and he warned that, with continuing fodder shortages, the coming winter would be just as hard for livestock breeders as the summer drought ("Local leaders detail." 1980). The Baltic republics also complained about the summer drought, and the Volga-Vyatka region faced drought in May and June.

In July, the weather radically changed again. In northern and eastern provinces, cold and rainy weather affected vegetables. Record low temperatures were already observed in the Baltic, Belarus and central provinces. In the central provinces precipitation was 200 to 300 percent above normal and resulted in damage to the crops (Bulletin of WMO, 1980). The late summer and autumn were very rainy, too.

At the beginning of October, early frosts occurred in Moldavia and the Ukraine, and some crops were affected. In October, Soviet papers reported early frosts which were responsible for shortages of vegetables and fruit in many regions of the USSR (Sel'skaya Zhizn, 1979). Thousands of gardens, both on collective farms and private plots, were hit by cold snaps that ruined fruit and vegetables. It was noted that many fruits and vegetables ripen at the same time and must be harvested at the same time, thus creating a huge demand for trucks, leading to shortages.

Weather conditions in the eastern part of the USSR looked much better than in European Russia. Western Siberia and Kazakhstan enjoyed stable good weather during the whole year. Western experts wrote that sheep farming benefited from the unusually favorable weather in 1979 in Western and Central Siberia, Kazakhstan, and most of Central Asia (Wadekin, 1980a).

Due to the very capricious weather of 1979, the grain harvest dropped by more than 25 percent from the levels achieved between 1976 and 1980. Soviet grain production that year was only 179 million metric tons, a five-year low. According to official statistics, fodder production was about half of that planned and 5 million tons less than in 1978 (Sovetskaya Rossia, 1979). Following the poor grain harvest and the mediocre fodder crop in 1979, Western observers did not rule out the possibility of distress slaughtering in the winter of 1979-1980. However, a comparison of the numbers of beef cattle, pigs, sheep, and fowl slaughtered in 1978 and 1979 reveals only a very small difference between the figures in the two years.

The Soviet Union had evidently applied a new strategy for surviving in poor years. For example, in 1972 and 1975, years of severe drought, the USSR slaughtered large numbers of animals because of fodder shortages. Distress slaughtering in those years increased the meat supply temporarily but caused considerable drops in meat production in the following years. A further cost of this strategy was the number of years it took to rebuild the herd. The new Soviet strategy reflected a determination to avoid a repetition of the setback of 1975 at any cost. The Soviet Union tried to keep some growth of the herd with a view to further expansion in a normal year. Large annual imports of feed grain from Western countries, and the state grain reserve, were vital elements of the new strategy.

Grain imports were partly limited for political reasons. Initially, the Soviet Union intended to import about 37.5 million tons of grain during June and July 1979-1980—two and a half times more than in 19781979. In January 1980, after Soviet troops went into Afghanistan, the United States introduced an embargo on sales of American grain and other products to the Soviet Union. Because of the embargo, grain exports from the United States to the USSR were limited to 15.2 million tons. "There is no way the Soviet Union can get through 1980 without slaughtering some of its carefully built up herds", one Western expert said, referring to the effects of the embargo (Philips, 1980). However, the embargo failed because the USSR found other grain exporters. The Soviet Union offered price premiums to Argentina, which then directed its export flow away from Western Europe in favor of the USSR. According to Western estimates, the total grain imports of the USSR somehow reached 30.5 million tons. The Soviets were also carrying out one of their largest stock drain-downs. It was estimated that about 46 million tons of additional feed grain were available for the Soviet Union.

About 126 million tons of feed grain allowed the USSR to keep its large numbers of livestock. The cost was a decline in livestock productivity, as less fodder per head was available (see Table 9.7.). The average weight of cattle slaughtered was 382 kilograms in January/February 1978, and 372 kilograms in January/February 1979; for pigs the respective figures were 105 and 101 kilograms (Kronner, 1980). These figures indicate that growth in meat production could be achieved only by the excessive slaughtering of animals, which the Soviet Union wanted to avoid. Some decline in meat and dairy production seemed to be more acceptable to the Soviet Union. The decline in meat production (by 100,000 tons) was compensated by meat imports, which reached 317,000 tons. Soviet butter production in 1979 was estimated to have decreased by 1.5 percent from the 1978 level to 1.45 million tons. This decline was more than made up for by purchases from the European Community, reportedly at a level of 141,000 tons.

The weather in the following year, 1980, brought no relief for Soviet farmers. In the whole of Europe cold and wet weather dominated. The weather at first appeared promising for a bumper grain harvest in the Soviet Union. The winter had lingered longer than usual while the snow cover protected the spring grain from frost and acted as a form of irrigation. If it melted more slowly than usual, it would not flood the fields. Unfortunately, the weather turned in the other direction. The cold and cloudy weather lasted too long and was still dominant in late spring and early summer. In some regions, extensive crop damage was caused by the returning spring frosts. In the Ukraine, late frosts were observed in May for the first time in 25 years.

In most regions of European Russia, because of the cold and rainy weather, sowing was carried out very late, and thus crops matured two weeks later than usual (Bulletin of WMO, 1981). One Western paper, quoting figures issued by the Soviet statistical board for the period up to mid-July, placed the harvest so far at just over 8 million hectares, a little more than half the area harvested at the same time the previous year (Washington Post, 1980).

Throughout the whole summer the western part of European Russia suffered from continuous rain, amounting to three times the normal amount of precipitation. The rainy summer left large areas flooded outside the Black Earth zone of European Russia. At the same time, good wheat and barley crops in the Don river basin were flattened by high winds and a Ukrainian paper that week mentioned serious hail damage.

In August and September, continuing cloudbursts and cold spells greatly complicated harvesting and winter-crop sowing. In the Baltic republics, Belarus and the western part of the Ukraine, precipitation doubled from the norm for October. In early November, a wave of cold arctic air invaded European Russia from the east (Bulletin of WMO, 1981). Soviet experts described such weather as extremely unfavorable for potato crops. The Soviet population was indirectly warned that there could be a potato shortage caused by the cold, wet summer in western and Central Russia (Reuter, 1980a).

In Western Siberia and Kazakhstan, the weather was far more favorable. After a cold winter, temperatures were higher than usual from April onwards, and summer and autumn were mild.

In 1980, the Soviet Union harvested 189 million tons of grain, 8 percent below the average for the five-year period. Grain imports in the USSR reached the record level of 34 million tons, presumably at higher prices than in any previous year because of crop failures in some other major grain-producing countries (Reuter, 1980b). Only 2 million tons were withdrawn from the exhausted state reserves (Table 9.8.). In total, the feed grain reserve was 2.5 million tons lower than in 1979. Less non-grain fodder had been produced despite a large propaganda campaign. Among other slogans, the Communist Party Central Committee called for the saving of fodder resources at the 7 November anniversary of the socialist revolution (Pravda, 1980b). The Soviet press optimistically reported that farms were heading into the winter with greater supplies of raw and succulent feed than they had possessed at the onset of the previous winter. Izvestia (1980) wrote that many regions faced very unfavorable weather conditions but that many collectives had already learnt how to minimize the losses caused by poor weather. As one Western expert put it, "Soviet kolkhozniks and sovkhozniks had been ordered to grow and stockpile fodder this summer as if their lives depended on it" (Whitley, 1980a). Pravda claimed that the year's reserve of forage and hay exceeded the previous year's reserves almost everywhere. This was not true: official Soviet statistics reveal that fodder reserves were 2.5 million tons lower (in oat equivalent) than in 1979 (Table 9.7.). Western experts also wrote that the quality of the feed, in particular its nutrient content, was expected to be lower than that of the feed produced during the dry summer of 1979, due to rainy weather during the 1980 harvest season ("A preliminary look at Soviet agriculture." 1980).

However, the USSR again successfully avoided mass distress slaughtering. Official figures show that only pig numbers decreased by 0.5 million heads, while cattle numbers remained unchanged and the number of poultry, sheep, and goats even increased. The distress slaughtering of 0.9 million pigs and 0.1 million cattle took place only in January and February, apparently in an effort to keep herd sizes at manageable levels, given current feed reserves. Soviet figures indicate the production of 2.7 million metric tons of beef, pork, lamb, goat meat, and poultry in the first two months of that year, a jump of 13 percent from 2.4 million tons in the same period the previous year (Whitley, 1980a). By making a decision to slaughter animals in January and February, the Soviet Union seemed to have been hoping that the new harvest would allow the herd to recover within the year.

There was a continuing tendency towards a decline in livestock productivity. The average slaughter weight of cattle between January and April was only 364 kilograms, compared with 372 kilograms in the same period the previous year. The average slaughter weight for pigs was 99 kilograms in the first four months of 1980, compared with 103 kilograms in the same period of 1979. The purchase of milk by the state declined, reflecting a corresponding fall in milk productivity per cow (as cow inventories had not changed): in January/February 1978, the figure was 16 million tons; in 1979 it was 15.5 million tons; and in 1980 it stood at 14.5 million tons (Kronner, 1980).

Because of lower livestock productivity, slaughtering on the same scale as in 1978 or 1979 led to smaller meat output. The overall decline in meat production in 1980 reached 2 percent, and that of milk production around 2.5 percent. However, official statistics showed a growth in meat and milk sales in the summer. Western experts suggested that the state reserves and imported food had been used to meet demand (Kronner, 1980). Meat imports were higher than 500,000 tons in 1980. However, the whole picture was more complicated, and after a considerable decline in livestock production in the summer (up to 15 percent) the situation improved in the autumn when kolkhozes and sovkhozes supposedly purchased private livestock on a large scale.7 In total, the country produced 15.1 million tons of meat, and the massive imports meant that the official goal for meat production of 15.7 million tons was achieved (but was still a long way from the initial plan target of 17.3 million tons). Imports allowed the Soviet Union to make ample supplies of meat available for the 1980 summer Olympics.

A large-scale drought the following year (1981) led to the lowest harvests in three years of crop failures. At the beginning of the year the weather was warm, with temperatures exceeding the norm by 5 to 8 degrees. For example, on the Black Sea coast fruit trees were blossoming at the end of January (Bulletin of WMO, 1982). The winter had been mild in central provinces, with little snow.

This mild weather aroused some hopes of a good new harvest. In May, and even in June, both Western and Soviet economists were predicting a bumper crop, initially estimated by the USDA at about 210 million metric tons—although this would have been short of the target of 236 million metric tons for 1981. The basis for this early optimism was the good progress of the winter grain crop, which had benefited from mild weather conditions and adequate rainfall during the spring (Journal of Commerce, 1981a). Unfortunately, adverse weather in July and August, particularly the combination of prolonged dry spells, flash flooding, and high winds in different parts of the grain-producing area, which damaged the spring crops, caused Western experts to revise their initial estimates downwards from a projected 210 million tons to 185 million tons ("Ukrainian writer appeals..." 1981).

That summer, some of the hottest and driest weather this century withered the grain crops from Belarus in the northwest to eastern Ukraine. The drought belonged to the worst central type and affected both production and consumption zones (Figure 9.5.). Forest fires are typical of this type. Indeed, numerous fires ignited by careless campers and other travelers caused serious damage to grain fields (Baltimore Sun, 1981).

Different regions of European Russia complained about the exhausting heat. In the Central Black Earth region (Belgorod province), the dry spring and summer damaged crops (Pravda, 1981). In Moscow, the temperature in mid-June reached 34.9 degrees. Anticipating a fodder shortage in the Moscow region, Soviet officials encouraged hay cutting everywhere, including waysides, ravines, and forests (Izvestia, 1981b). It seemed that the dry weather would continue for ever, Izvestia reported. In many districts of Ryazan province no rain was observed between May and mid-August.

In the Ukraine and the Volga basin, extremely dry weather prevailed from May to August. Precipitation was 25 to 50 percent below the norm. In Kazan (Middle Volga), two and a half months of dry weather devastated the crops (Chicago Tribune, 1981). In many agricultural regions the record heat in July and early August was coupled with dry, searing winds with scant rain and numerous fires. The farming newspaper Sel'skaya Zhizn reported that farmers "greeted the weather with disappointment and surprise. After long, dry days, high winds and showers flattened the ripening wheat in the southern areas of the USSR. This made it difficult to harvest without losses (Journal of Commerce, 1981b). "What we need is rain every few days without high wind", said one source, "and what we have had is dry, warm and windy weather, which tends to scorch the grain and dry it out. It accelerates the ripening process and diminishes protein, reducing quality."

The harvest was also poor in some eastern areas of the country. It was reported that grain crops in wide areas of southern Siberia's Altai region had been left thin and stunted by the hot weather (Los Angeles Times, 1981b).

In European Russia, the dry summer was followed by a cold and rainy autumn. In the harvesting season, temperatures fell below the average by 4 to 6 degrees. Between 7 and 20 September, the amount of precipitation was six times the norm, creating very unfavorable conditions during harvesting (Bulletin of WMO, 1982).

At that time, uncertainty existed about the size of the 1981 grain harvest. According to the USDA's latest estimate, the harvest would be no greater than 165 million tons. The Soviet year-end report released in 1981 contains no figures for the grain harvest. The lowest figure for grain production published at that time was 155 million tons (Times, 1988).

Figure 9.5. Area affected by drought in 1981

Figure 9.5. Area affected by drought in 1981

in 0-25% 51-75% I Non agricultural regions

M! 26-50% ■ 76-100% Moscow in 0-25% 51-75% I Non agricultural regions

Only in 1985 did the Soviet Union release a figure as low as 158.2 million tons. In addition, very poor potato, sunflower, and sugar beet harvests were reported in 1981. Agricultural experts concluded that fodder yields, too, had not only been below expectations but had been even lower than in the preceding year.

At 158.2 million tons, the grain harvest meant that an additional 50 to 60 million tons—at a cost in current prices of some billions of dollars—had to be imported from the West to make up the shortfall. It was not possible to make up such a feed grain deficit entirely with imports, although the lifting of the embargo by Ronald Reagan in spring 1981 gave the Soviet Union greater flexibility in the purchase of feed grain abroad. There was a bottleneck for imports associated with unloading and transportation capacities in the USSR. According to the USDA's estimate, the Soviet Union imported 43 million tons of grain in 1981-1982 (Chicago Tribune, 1982a). It is also unlikely that the Soviet Union had much grain to withdraw from the state reserves. Over the previous nine years, according to US estimates, the Soviet Union had withdrawn 14 million tons more than they had added to the grain reserve (Los Angeles Times, 1981b).

The situation in the Soviet livestock industry was more critical than in any previous year. Despite the feed shortages, farmers somehow man aged to avoid the excessive culling of their livestock herds in 1981. In Moscow province, one farm director said: ". we followed a firm line to maintain the size of the herd, regardless of the deficit of fodder. We did it even in 1975. This year, which has also been extremely dry, we followed this approach too" (Izvestia, 1981c). One Western agricultural expert acknowledged: "Given the amount of feed, they've done an impressive job keeping the herd numbers up. They're obviously determined not to let the herds diminish, because of the time and expense it would take to bring them back up to size again" (Chicago Tribune, 1982a).

Surprisingly, livestock production even slightly increased in 1980-1981. According to year-end statistics for 1981, meat production had rebounded to 15.2 million tons from 15.1 million tons in 1980. Western experts suspected the figure for 1981 was inflated and would be revised downward by at least 100,000 tons (ibid.). Soviet statistics, however, revealed that the gain had been achieved only due to an increase in poultry meat production, which grew from 2.1 to 2.3 million tons (Narodnoe khozyastvo v RSFSR v 1981, 1982). This branch of animal production was more tightly concentrated in state complexes which operated in an industrial fashion and which had been preferentially supplied with feed from the mixed fodder industry. Thus in 1981 it had served as a brake against a sharp overall drop in meat production.

The milk production picture was gloomier. Despite an increase in the number of cows, total milk production declined (see Table 9.7.). The total milk production was 2.2 percent below the 1980 level, while the cow herd had grown by 0.3 million. This meant that productivity per Soviet cow had undergone a serious decline. In 1977, each cow produced about 2.294 kilograms of milk; by 1980 the figure was down to 2.143; and for 1981, the figure was 2.050 kilograms (in the existing purchase price system, Soviet milk farms made a profit if the per cow milk production exceeded 3 kilograms). In the case of cows, it was not reasonable to keep numbers up at any cost. In the West, once a cow's productivity fell to an extent that could not be recovered, farmers would cull it and start raising a new one on better feed (Chicago Tribune, 1982a).

In 1982, the recession in agriculture was still not over. The weather in 1982 was problematic because of waves of cold that arrived in different seasons. The end of the year brought many problems to the whole of Europe because of severe frosts. As described in a bulletin of the World Meteorological Organization, severe frosts in December paralyzed life in most countries of Europe (Bulletin of WMO, 1982). In the first month of the winter, sharp cold and strong storms were observed in European Russia, too. Such weather damaged winter crops because the thin snow cover gave little protection from frost (Bulletin of WMO, 1983). One Western paper mentions the bitter cold weather that blew in on New Year's Day, and how some problems with snow cover existed in the more southerly regions of Russia (Chicago Tribune, 1982a). It was also reported that the early summer in European Russia was unusually cold, but the second half of the year was dry and warm in the European part of the country. The weather in Siberia was again milder than in European Russia.

Although the Soviet news agency TASS declared that grain production had "noticeably increased" from 1981, the results for 1982 were not published by the Soviet statistical board, clearly indicating that the harvest was below expectations. The target for 1982 was 240 million tons, but Western experts believed that the harvest might not have reached 190 million tons, and could have been lower. Later, the Soviet statistical board issued a figure of 186.8 million tons. Thus the feed grain shortage probably reached critical levels (at presumably more than 30 percent). In autumn, a feed grain shortage was reported in many regions. Western diplomats said that a poor harvest that year could encourage the feeding of bread to animals. The US agricultural council in Moscow reported some indications that the Soviet Union was disappointed with the low quality of hay and silage caused by excessively cold and rainy weather (Journal of Commerce, 1982). It was predicted that the Soviet Union would have to import as much as 40 million tons or more to make up the shortfall in its crop and refill its depleted grain reserves (Guardian, 1982).

The Soviet authorities could no longer lay the blame for the failure of Soviet agriculture exclusively on the weather. In a speech to the Central Committee in May, President Brezhnev acknowledged that the results he had hoped for had not been achieved. In the past he had blamed poor weather rather than inefficiency for the Soviet Union's poor harvests. However, with the Soviet Union facing its fourth bad harvest in a row, the Soviet leader blamed the system rather than the weather for the failures in Soviet farming. The ruling Politburo ended 1982 with a December appeal to farm workers to complete the spring sowing on time and a warning to farm managers they would be held "personally responsible" for this task (Smale, 1983).

This criticism had a reasonable basis. It seems that while the Soviet Union had learned to cope with feed shortage in poor years, the problem of great losses of potential harvest in a normal year became a challenge. The relatively low harvest in the following, good weather conditions in 1983 confirmed this. That year the USSR enjoyed extremely mild weather in such major growing winter-crop areas as the eastern Ukraine, the Lower Volga valley, and the Northern Caucasus. However, the grain harvest in the Russian Federation was only 192.2 million tons, less than that in the poor year of 1977. Western experts wrote that Soviet farmers had had a late start sowing the winter grain crop in the previous fall and had thus probably missed their target of planting 36.4 to 37.4 million hectares (90 to 92.5 million acres). Western estimates were that they sowed only 33.4 million hectares (82.5 million acres). This is important because the wheat crop is high yielding. In addition, Soviet farmers apparently had a shortage of seed for spring sowing. According to the Soviet press, Russian farmers had less than 75 percent of the seed they needed, and this situation was "unsatisfactory and alarming" (Wall Street Journal, 1983).

The US agricultural department had estimated that Soviet grain imports in 1983 would be the lowest for four years (ibid.). However, it was reported in 1983 that a new trade agreement had been signed between the United States and the USSR. The agreement obliged the USSR to purchase annually no less than 9 million tons of American wheat, maize, and soy-beans over five years, at a cost of 10 billion dollars. According to another agreement, the USSR was obliged to purchase no less than 5 million tons of grain from Argentina over five years ("Food supply in the USSR.."', 1984).

The weather in 1984 was extreme throughout Europe. In various European countries many new records for precipitation and temperature were registered. In European Russia, average temperatures in January and February were above the norm. In the spring months, too, temperatures were four to six degrees higher than usual. At the same time, most of European Russia experienced limited precipitation. Water levels in most rivers and reservoirs fell by 30 to 50 percent. The same picture was observed in Western Siberia, where the first half of the year was dry and levels in many rivers were low. Autumn was also dry (Bulletin of WMO, 1985).

The hot weather was accompanied by sukhovei, and in June there was a severe dust storm in the North Caucasus. Because of a similar dust storm in Rostov oblast, about 800,000 hectares of winter wheat crop were destroyed and had to be replanted. According to one Soviet paper, the wind eroded an estimated 297 tons of soil from each hectare of ploughed field, but only 69 tons from fields where non-moldboard tillage had been used, clearly advocating the latter agricultural technique (Sovetskaya Rossia, 1986a).

During the harvesting period in 1984, the Ukraine, like many other regions of the USSR, suffered unusually adverse weather conditions. Heavy rainfall reduced both the quantity and quality of crops in both the western and central provinces. This was followed by frosts that caused further damage (New York Times, 1984). Another paper wrote that, once again, the Soviet Union was facing a dismal harvest. Reports of a disappointing wheat crop emerged from the Ukraine—a drop of 25 million tons from the previous year. From the southern Soviet republics came news that the fruit and vegetable harvest was also disappointing (Christian Science Monitor, 1984).

The Soviet government did not publish grain production figures itself, probably because these figures were embarrassing for the Kremlin leadership. Later, Soviet statistics revealed that the harvest was only 172.6 million tons (Narodnoe khozyastvo SSSR v 1985, 1986). The problem of feed grain shortages was solved by importing more than 40 million tons of grain, but the shortage of other fodder varieties was more difficult to overcome. The statistics show that the USSR had to slaughter excessive numbers of pigs in order to maintain the 1983 level of meat production. At that time the Soviet Union was still increasing its cattle herd, probably to support a growth in milk production, which was even higher than in 1983. In the autumn of 1984, the Soviet press launched a large-scale propaganda campaign encouraging the saving of grain and its replacement with other feed.8

The period between 1985 and 1990 is better documented. The Soviet Union started publishing figures on grain production again at regional level (Table 9.9.). In general, climate conditions were unusually stable during these years. The deviation from average grain harvests for the whole period was 5 percent lower—half that between 1976 and 1980. This stability was evidently attributable to favorable climate conditions. No drought was observed: on the contrary, the period was characterized by the prevalence of very warm and wet weather.

Only local weather anomalies, mainly associated with either frosts or excessively rainy weather, were reported by Soviet and Western

Table 9.9. Grain production in the economic regions of the Russian Federation, 1980-1990 (millions of tons)






















Central Black Earth




























W. Siberia





















Source: Narodnoe khozyastvo SSSR, various years.

Source: Narodnoe khozyastvo SSSR, various years.

sources throughout the period. For example, January and February 1985 were very cold elsewhere in Europe, including European Russia (Bulletin of WMO, 1986). In the Central Black Earth region in 1985, perennial grass crops were reported to have been damaged by winter frosts (Sovetskaya Rossia, 1986b). These frosts were apparently responsible for some decline in winter cereal crops (Table 9.9.). Severe cold weather in January and February was also reported in Kazakhstan. There was a large daily fluctuation in temperature. Severe frosts occurred, with temperatures falling as low as minus 30 degrees. Such temperatures had not been seen in the republic for a long time (Izvestia, 1985). As Kazakhstan is a growing area for spring crops, the total harvest was not as badly affected.

These problems did not seem to affect the livestock sector. The policy of the Soviet Union to keep its herds intact in years of drought seemed to be working, since by as early as 1985 the Soviet herd had reached an acceptable size and had then stabilized, allowing improvements to the feeding regime.

Few problems were reported in 1987. Early in the year extremely low temperatures were observed in the Urals and Western Siberia. The rest of the year was also wet and cold, especially in the west of European Russia. Western experts wrote of "very harsh winter conditions" in 1987 ("Soviet economy in trouble", 1988). The weather mainly brought problems for Soviet farmers in the harvesting period. They blamed a lack of storage in the autumn, which meant that grain was left to rot in the rain-soaked fields (Reuter, 1987). Although more grain had been harvested, the total fodder reserves in 1987-1988 were lower than in the previous agricultural year.

Throughout the whole of 1988, European Russia enjoyed warmer than usual weather (with the single exception of November). Spring was especially mild, with temperatures three to seven degrees above the norm. However, a large area located to the south of the Moscow region suffered from extremely rainy weather in June and July. Such rainy weather had not been observed there for the previous hundred years and was a likely cause of crop deterioration. It was reported that large areas of cropland were flooded and crops rotted in the fields (Bulletin of WMO, 1989). Indeed, in 1988 a relatively low grain harvest was reported in Soviet statistics.

The two final years, 1989 and 1990, were the most favorable in terms of weather. These two years were the warmest in the twentieth century. In February 1989 the average temperature was 0.5 degrees, and in 1990 as much as 0.3 degrees, above the norm. On 27 February 1990, the temperature reached a record 7.7 degrees higher in central regions. At the same time there was record precipitation, sometimes bringing problems in winter for southern regions because of the interruption of transportation. Exceptionally warm and wet weather in spring produced good harvests in the key agricultural regions: the Ukraine, North Caucasus, and Volga basin. However, the total grain production was lower than, or about the same as, in the late 1970s. Production in 1989 was at the level of 1977, although the latter year had experienced poorer weather. The harvest of 1990 did not reach the level of 1976 and 1978, when 224 and 237 million tons had been produced.

9.3. Food problems

"Is it possible, comrade, for a horse to gallop from Leningrad to Moscow?" went one popular joke in the USSR. "In theory it is possible, but not in practice, because the horse would be eaten in Kalinin."

During this period the Soviet Union found itself faced with a chronic food crisis which required some emergency measures, such as food rationing, to be undertaken by the Soviet government. Throughout the whole period, Soviet newspapers were full of finger-pointing exposés of

Table 9.9.1. Per capita consumption of selected important foodstuffs in the Russian Federation (kilograms per annum)











































Eggs (units)




























Source: Narodnoe khozyastvo v RSFSR v 1988, 1989.

Source: Narodnoe khozyastvo v RSFSR v 1988, 1989.

basic foodstuff shortages. Soviet citizens claimed that the food stores were emptier than they had been in years. Although nobody was starving, the diet had become more patchy and monotonous after some improvement in quantity and quality in the 1970s (Baltimore Sun, 1978). The question everyone was asking was why the Soviet Union was unable to provide the variety of food that had been available, even if not affordable, in the old days.

One finds a striking difference between the chronic food shortages reported in the press from all regions of the country, and the Soviet statistics that show a relatively high consumption of basic foodstuffs (Table 9.9.1.). In 1980, when the Soviet Union was de facto introducing the rationing of certain foodstuffs, it was officially announced that the average Soviet person's food intake was 3,200 kcal per day, while in the USA it was 2,800 kcal per day. Soviet statistics revealed that the average consumption of meat had reached 57 kilograms. In the Baltic republics a record 76 kilograms was reported to have been achieved, the same as in England. The average per capita consumption of milk and dairy products in the USSR in 1978 was said to have reached 321 kilograms, and in the Baltic republics as much as 458 kilograms. The latter figure was higher than in England and Denmark (Radio Riga, 1980).

According to official statistics, the Soviet consumer was fairly well nourished. However, as Nikita Khrushchev once observed, "You cannot make pancakes out of statistics" ("Food shortage in the USSR...", 1980). The same could be said by Soviet citizens in the late 1980s. "Where are the 64 kilograms of meat I'm theoretically supposed to get every year?" a retired worker in Kirov complained to Pravda, adding that he was able to buy only about 1 kilogram of sausages a month, and that "sometimes I'm lucky enough to find some bones for soup" (New York Times, 1988).

One of the widely accepted explanations is that some inflation of Soviet statistics on livestock production and consumption was caused by a wider definition of "meat" than in Western statistics. The Soviet definition of "meat" included lard, pork fat, heads, and edible organs, which are excluded from the Western definition. According to the USDA estimate, the Soviet definition gave 11 to 15 percent of additional "meat" (Foreign Agricultural Circular, 1978). Modern Russian statistical reports recognized that there was an exaggeration in Soviet data on meat consumption (due to including edible organs, fat, etc.), giving a correction of 8 to 10 percent for the Soviet data on meat consumption (Pokazateli sotsialnogo razvitiya, 1993). However, this difference is not sufficient to explain the striking gap between Soviet data on meat consumption and the actual amount of meat to be found on the shelves of Soviet stores. The gap was evidently larger than 10 to 15 percent.

In 1988, at the peak of the glasnost ("openness") policy on the part of the leadership, Pravda published an unprecedented and candid article admitting that consumption figures had been falsified. For years it had been reported that Soviet citizens consumed an average of 64 kilograms of meat a year, but Pravda claimed that government investigations had found it was not true. "The figure was born in the 'years of stagnation' (the name for the Brezhnev era) and earlier, when we threw dust into the people's eyes and tried to show them how well off they were." It noted that official figures consistently included large amounts of fat and meat products. In fact, actual figures showed that meat consumption among the poorest 43 million people (around a seventh of the population) had fallen 30 to 35 percent since 1970. There was often not enough meat in state shops to satisfy even the amount allowed in rations (Reuter, 1988). In 1970, average meat consumption was about 48 kilograms a year. It can be suggested that in 1988 a considerable part of the Soviet population consumed about 32 to 34 kilograms of meat a year, 47 percent less than official figures.

This figure can be also confirmed by the paper Trud, which, on 8 January 1987, described the food situation in Klaipeda (Lithuania). This revealed that the city consumed about 10 tons of meat a day. According to the paper, this amount allowed each family only 1.5 to

2 kilograms of pork and beef per week. This meant that only about 32 kilograms per capita were available for the average citizen of Klaipeda in 1981-1982, while official statistics indicate that the Lithuanian republic consumed more than 70 kilograms per capita a year (Trud, 1987).

Statistics on food consumption on a per capita basis are directly calculated from the output figures and size of population. Thus, agricultural statistics on food consumption include losses of foodstuffs and raw products due to improper handling. The Soviet Union was well known for the great losses of agricultural products incurred through storage, transportation, and organizational deficiencies. The more food the Soviet Union produced, the more it lost. Transportation bottlenecks were frequently cited as the cause of shortages of vegetables and fruits. A typical example was reported by a Western paper in 1979. In Astrakhan, on the Caspian Sea, a good melon harvest was being wasted because the Volga river administration failed to supply the ships to transport the fruit upriver to central Russia (Baltimore Sun, 1978).

The large concentration of people in industrial centers made proper distribution vital, and here, as Western experts stressed, the Russians lagged badly behind. The Soviet rail network was overloaded, ripe produce waited at stations for transportation, and food wagons could be delayed for days in sidings. There were virtually no refrigerated rail cars or lorries, and inadequate cold storage centers (London Times, 1980). Frozen foods were almost non-existent in the USSR compared to Western countries, although they are a very efficient way of distributing food and keeping it fresh. Western experts wrote that "TV dinners" and various other kinds of frozen foods would only reach the Soviet Union in the future, but that they would make available to Soviet citizens all year round foods that were at present hard to come by (Journal of Commerce, 1979).

One should also bear in mind that figures for food consumption say nothing about actual availability in the stores, since the latter also depended on the purchasing power of the population. For example, at present Russian shops are full of a wide variety of meat and dairy produce, although statistically the country consumes 40 to 45 percent less than at the end of the 1980s (Sel'skoe khozyastvo v Rossii, 2000). The reason is the weak purchasing power of the modern Russian population now that there is free pricing of food.

Soviet experts, and many of their Western counterparts, pointed to price stability as one of the major factors bringing about a deterioration

Table 9.9.2. Proportion of Soviet family budget spent on food consumption per month, 1960-1975


Price for

Cost of food basket, ruble

Table 9.9.2. Proportion of Soviet family budget spent on food consumption per month, 1960-1975

1 kg





























Eggs (units)


















Total cost per person





Total cost per family





Average wage





Family budget





Cost o

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