Summary

In the pre-war decades of the Russian Empire, the agricultural sector developed quickly. There was a remarkable increase in grain production which outpaced the unprecedented high growth in the Russian population. It is important to understand that the increase in grain production by 50 percent occurred as a result of more land being placed under cultivation. Grain exports became the major item in Russian external trade. The government was successful in developing the largest railway network in the world. The tariff system encouraged the rapid transportation of agricultural products from east to west. The internal agricultural market also developed at a high rate.

However, this success concealed the very restricted consumption of livestock products on the part of the Russian peasants. The Russian livestock sector merely stagnated, or actually fell into crisis. The Russian peasants had developed grain production only at the expense of the livestock sector (they had ploughed up meadows and planted more food cereals than feed crops). They were behaving in a quite reasonable way for a market economy, since livestock breeding had never promised to be profitable in Russian conditions due to the necessity of long stall periods and the low natural productivity of Russian meadows. The desperate condition of the livestock sector was the price of the positive balance of grain in the country, which was very important for a country located in an unstable climatic region.

Fortunately, the weather was exceptionally favorable in the pre-war decades. Only 3 of the 20 years were dry, a very good record for the Russian climate. There is no evidence that any of these droughts caused acute food crises or mass famine similar to the disaster of 1891. However, it does not mean that the country proved to be stable in terms of food production in the pre-war period. The problem was that the grain balance, although positive, was based on very restricted peasant consumption. It encouraged peasants to react to crop failure largely by cut ting the amount of grain for sale on the market. As a result, the amount of grain available on the market (and prices) fluctuated sharply. A grain shortage could emerge if peasants began to consume more grain within their households. In 1916-1917, quite unexpectedly, a food crisis developed in major Russian cities for one single reason: faced with the dismantling of the free market mechanism, peasants began to keep some grain to fatten their cattle and this, in combination with certain other factors, paralyzed bread supplies to the central cities. As is well known, the revolution of February 1917 began in the bread queues of Petrograd.

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