In its nearly 70 years of existence, the Soviet Union witnessed tragic famines, regular food supply crises and countless commodity shortages.
In the first half of the 20th century, Joseph Stalin implemented drastic economic reforms that saw farms collectivised, peasants criminalised and deported en masse and grain requisitioned in unsustainable quantities. As a result, famine devastated swathes of the USSR, especially Ukraine and Kazakhstan, from 1931-1933 and again in 1947.
Into the second half of the 20th century, Soviet citizens were no longer starving to death in great numbers, but the Soviet diet remained heavily reliant on bread. Commodities such as fresh fruit, sugar and meat would intermittently grow scarce. Even into the late 1980s, Soviet citizens could expect to occasionally endure rationing, bread lines and empty supermarket shelves.
Here’s why the distribution of food presented such an enduring problem for the Soviet Union.
In Bolshevik Russia
Even before the Soviet Union was formed in 1922, food shortages had been a concern in Russia. During World War One, for example, the war turned swathes of farmers into soldiers, simultaneously increasing demand and decreasing output.
Bread shortages and subsequent unrest played into the 1917 revolution, with Vladimir Lenin rallying revolution under the promise of ‘peace, land and bread’.
After the Russian Revolution, the empire became embroiled in a civil war. This, coupled with the lasting effects of World War One and the political transition causing food supply issues, led to a major famine between 1918-1921. The seizing of grain during the conflict exacerbated the famine.
Ultimately, it’s thought that 5 million people may have died during the 1918-1921 famine. As the seizing of grain was relaxed into 1922, and a famine relief campaign was instigated, the food crisis eased.
The Holodomor of 1931-1933
The early 1930s witnessed the worst famine in Soviet history, which primarily affected Ukraine, Kazakhstan, the North Caucasus and the Lower Volga region.
In the late 1920s, Joseph Stalin collectivised farms across Russia. Then, millions of ‘kulaks’ (supposedly wealthy peasants) were deported or imprisoned. Simultaneously, the Soviet state tried to requisition livestock from peasants to supply new collective farms. In response, some peasants slaughtered their livestock.
Nonetheless, Stalin insisted on increasing the export of grain from the Soviet Union abroad to achieve the economic and industrial targets of his second Five Year Plan. Even when farmers had limited grain for themselves, let alone to export, Stalin ordered requisitions. The result was a devastating famine, during which millions of people starved to death. The Soviet authorities covered up the famine and forbade anyone from writing about it.
The famine was particularly deadly in Ukraine. It’s thought that some 3.9 million Ukrainians died during the famine, which is often referred to as the Holodomor, meaning ‘murder by starvation’. In recent years, the famine has been recognised as an act of genocide by the Ukrainian people, and many perceive it as a state-sponsored attempt by Stalin to kill and silence Ukrainian peasants.
Eventually, seeds were supplied to rural regions across Russia in 1933 to ease the shortage of grain. The famine also saw the instigation of food rationing in the USSR as the purchasing of certain goods, including bread, sugar and butter, was restricted to certain quantities. Soviet leaders would turn to this practice on various occasions throughout the 20th century.
During World War Two
World War Two saw the reemergence of food supply issues in the Soviet Union. One of the most notorious cases was during the Siege of Leningrad, which lasted 872 days and saw the Nazis blockade the city, shutting off key supply routes.
The blockade led to mass starvation within the city. Rationing was enforced. In their desperation, residents butchered animals within the blockade, including strays and pets, and cases of cannibalism were recorded.
The famine of 1946-1947
After the war, the Soviet Union was once again crippled by food shortages and supply issues. 1946 witnessed a severe drought in the Lower Volga region, Moldavia and Ukraine – some of the USSR’s chief producers of grain. There, farmers were in short supply: the ‘dekulakisation’ of the rural USSR under Stalin had led to the deportation of thousands of workers, and this dearth of farmers was worsened further by the toll of World War Two. This, coupled with unsustainable Soviet grain export targets, led to widespread famine between 1946-1947.
Despite reports of mass starvation in 1946, the Soviet state continued requisitioning grain to export abroad and to redirect from the countryside to urban centres. Rural food shortages worsened into 1947, and it’s thought that 2 million people died during the famine.
Khrushchev’s food campaigns
While 1947 marked the last widespread famine to occur in the Soviet Union, various food supply issues would endure throughout the USSR into the second half of the 20th century.
In 1953, Nikita Khrushchev instigated a vast campaign to increase the USSR’s grain output, hoping that doing so would provide more agricultural feed, hence diversifying the bread-heavy Soviet diet by increasing meat and dairy supplies. Known as the Virgin Lands Campain, it saw corn and wheat planted on unfarmed lands across Siberia and Kazakhstan, and in increased numbers on collective farms in Georgia and Ukraine.
Ultimately, corn didn’t grow well in colder regions, and farmers unfamiliar with cultivating wheat struggled to produce bountiful harvests. While agricultural production numbers did rise under Khrushchev, harvests in the ‘virgin lands’ were unpredictable and living conditions there undesirable.
The late 1950s then saw Khrushchev champion a new campaign, hoping to see the Soviet Union beat the US in producing key foodstuffs, such as milk and meat. Khrushchev’s officials set impossible quotas. Under pressure to meet the production figures, farmers killed their livestock before it could breed, just to sell the meat sooner. Alternatively, workers purchased meat from government stores, then sold it back to the state as agricultural output to inflate the figures.
In 1960s Russia, though food supplies never dwindled to the devastating levels of the preceding decades, grocery stores were scarcely well stocked. Vast queues would form outside stores when fresh supplies came in. Various foodstuffs could only be acquired illegally, outside of the proper channels. There are accounts of stores throwing food out, and an influx of hungry citizens queueing to inspect the supposedly perished or stale goods.
1963 saw drought stunt harvests across the country. As food supplies dwindled, bread lines formed. Eventually, Khrushchev purchased grain from abroad to avoid famine.
The perestroika reforms
Mikhail Gorbachev championed the USSR’s ‘perestroika’ reforms of the late 1980s. Loosely translated as ‘restructuring’ or ‘reconstruction’, perestroika witnessed sweeping economic and political changes that hoped to increase economic growth and political freedoms in the Soviet Union.
The perestroika reforms granted state-owned businesses greater freedom in deciding their employees’ pay and working hours. As salaries crept up, store shelves fell empty quicker. This led to certain regions hoarding goods, rather than exporting them around the USSR.
The Soviet Union found itself torn between its former centralized, command economy and aspects of an emerging free-market economy. The confusion led to supply shortages and economic tensions. Suddenly, many commodities, such as paper, petrol and tobacco, were in short supply. Bare shelves in grocery stores were once again a familiar sight. In 1990, Muscovites queued for bread – the first breadlines seen in the capital for several years. Rationing was introduced for certain goods.
Along with the economic consequences of perestroika came political repercussions. The turmoil exacerbated nationalist sentiment amongst constituents of the USSR, diminishing Moscow’s hold over members of the Soviet Union. Calls for increased political reform and decentralization grew. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed.