Food problems

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Food problems were certainly acute in the USSR during the whole postwar decade. The average level of food consumption among the Soviet people was still very low. The first two or three years were, perhaps, the worst in terms of food supply, as grain production was considerably lower than the basic demand (see Figure 6.1.). Even with an average harvest, the Soviet people could not count on sufficient bread supplies. Indeed, they found these years even worse than wartime, because many resources were diverted for the construction of the Eastern European Soviet bloc. At that time there were stories circulating that prisoners (whose rations were strictly determined by calorific intake) from many camps were actually sending food parcels to their starving families on the collectives (Grankshaw, 1959). From 1951 some improvements in the supply of goods and food were seen. However, in 1953, the year of Stalin's death, official statistics, although still unpublished, revealed that Soviet citizens were consuming less meat and fewer dairy products than in 1913 and 1928 (Kiselev and Shagin, 1996). Unfortunately, there is a general lack of information about the food situation for most of the period, with the single exception of the food crisis of 1946.

Most works on the history of the Soviet Union note that the mass famine of 1946, caused by a large-scale drought, was the last in its history. The drought affected the Ukraine, the Central Black Earth region, the Volga basin, the basin of the river Don, and eastern and central parts of the Ukraine. It was reported that more than 50 percent of the sown area of the USSR was affected. However, as has been shown above, the weather conditions were perhaps not catastrophic, while it was the general destruction of Soviet agriculture that was the major cause of the crop failure in 1946. Our estimation of the basic grain balance shows that the country collected 40 percent less than the required seed, food, and feed grain (see Table 6.3.). In Stalin's Russia, this great deficit had to be covered exclusively at the expense of peasants' consumption. Thus mass famine became inevitable in 1946 (and the risk of mass famine was high for any of the first five years).

The crisis of 1946 is still referred to in Russian works as the "unknown famine". No agricultural statistics for regions of the USSR exist for that time. For many years the Soviet Union refused to acknowledge the very fact of mass deaths from famine in 1946. For example, a report reviewing major droughts in the USSR states that the drought of 1946 illustrated the advantages of the Soviet system, as the Soviet peasantry found it relatively easy to overcome the drought and managed not only to sow the winter crop completely but also to obtain a good harvest in 1947, sufficient to meet the total grain demand of the country (Rudenko, 1958). This is untrue. A few official KGB documents were recently published in Russia confirming that the famine of 1946 was severe and occurred in at least four regions of the USSR—Moldova, the Ukraine, the Central Black Earth region and the Low Volga (Kiselev and Shagin, 1996).

According to these documents the severe food crisis had already emerged by the late autumn of 1946 in Moldova, western provinces of the Ukraine, Voronez (Central Black Earth region), and Volgograd (Low

Volga) provinces. The documents reveal that during November and December the KGB confiscated 4,616 private letters from Voronez and 3,275 letters from Volgograd (then Stalingrad) in which peasants complained about a lack of food. Another document mentions some cases of kolkhozniks having swollen bodies because of malnutrition. Further documents reveal a more dramatic situation in Moldova at the beginning of December. In southern districts of Moldova 10,800 cases of famine-related diseases were reported. More than 55 percent of those affected were children. The number of people suffering from dysentery rapidly increased. As in the 1930s, corpses began to be found in the streets of villages and cities. The KGB were worried about numerous rumors of peasants wanting to cross the border into Romania (where they could find help from their relatives). The local KGB branches were ordered to prevent any such attempts (ibid.). All these reports are dated early December 1946, and it is easy to imagine that even worse conditions must have prevailed in the winter and spring of 1947. In his memoirs, Nikita Khrushchev acknowledges that he knew about the mass famine and cases of cannibalism in the Ukraine in the winter of 1947.

A work by V. F. Zima, Famine in the USSR in 1946 and 1947: its origins and consequences, was published in Russia in 1996. It investigates the famine of 1946 in great detail. Although our estimate of the country's grain balance indicates that the situation was critical, Zima's main thesis is that the famine could have been avoided if the state policy had been more humanitarian. The author stresses that the authorities deliberately exaggerated the scale of the drought in order to explain food problems in the country at that time. The harvest of 1946 was indeed very poor, but not catastrophic. Poor harvests had occurred before but had not been catastrophic—for example, in 1945 the harvest was also poor but no famine was reported.

The Soviet authorities in fact provoked the famine by excessive grain procurement in regions that had had relatively good harvests— Siberia, the Middle Volga, and Kazakhstan. Thus not only the regions affected by the drought, but other grain-producing regions, suffered that year. According to Zima many kolkhozes were obliged to deliver as much as 70 to 80 percent of their harvest. The average figure for the country was 52 percent. The number of heads of kolkhozes and sovkhozes who were removed on the charge of "sabotaging grain provision" reached 8,000 during the second half of 1946, and about 7,000 the following year (the total number of kolkhozes was 250,000). The criminal law of

7 August 1932 ("On the safeguarding of state property") was again widely used in cases where peasants had gathered any amount of grain or potatoes from the fields for their own consumption.

The food situation was critical in the winter of 1947. The total USSR grain harvest can roughly be estimated at 34 to 36 million tons in 1946 (about 40 percent of the 1940 harvest, as shown in Table 6.2 for the Russian Federation). Although the state provision campaign was fully carried out, the total amount of grain delivered to the state was only 17.5 million tons, 2.5 million tons less than in 1945 and roughly 50 percent less than in 1940. The state reserve contained 10 million tons in February 1947 (more than in February 1946). The state provided 5.7 million tons for rations to supply industrial workers, party bureaucrats, and the army. About 1 million tons of grain were transported to Eastern Europe for the new allies of the Soviet Union. It was also estimated that about 1 million tons were lost because of poor storage facilities. Thus we can calculate that only 16 million tons were available for the peasants' consumption, or less than 135 kilograms per capita. According to the Soviet norm a region faced the threat of mass famine if grain production per capita was less than 165 kilograms. According to V. F. Zima (1996), the Soviet Union had sufficient grain reserves to avoid the large-scale famine. If the authorities had allocated 10 million tons from its grain reserve for the starving population, then about 210 kilograms per capita (the norm for consumption) would have been available for consumption and large-scale famine would have been avoided. Instead, the situation developed according to the worst scenario. Food aid from the state was negligible and came too late—in July 1947.

In 1946, the food rationing that had started at the beginning of the war in 1941 was still in operation but did little to help Soviet peasants survive in the devastated regions. Rationing covered the bulk of the nonfarm population, but this was far from everybody1.

Reliable statistics on Soviet mortality are lacking for 1946-1947. Zima (1996) estimates that the total number of people who died from the famine reached 1 million. He also gives a figure of about 4 million for people who suffered famine-related diseases (dysentery, pneumonia, etc.), half a million of whom died between 1946 and 1948. Thus the total number of victims of the mass famine could be as high as one and a half million people. This suggestion seems to be supported by demographic statistics for the whole country. The Soviet population at the beginning of 1946 was 170.5 million, but by the beginning of 1951 the figure had fallen to 161.3 million, that is, by 5.3 percent. Between 1949 and 1954, the population of the USSR fell by 4 percent. Thus the rate of decrease of the total population in the years of famine was 1.3 percent (2.2 million people) greater than in the following years. However, such calculations need further study since two other factors could be responsible for this high rate—namely, the large numbers of wounded (in 1946 about half a million military personnel were still recovering in hospital) and the migration of non-Russian nationals, mainly Germans and Poles, from the USSR. However, if Zima's estimate is correct, the famine of 1946 was on a similar scale to the major famines of 1920-1921 and 1932-1933.

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