The Victims of Communism Foundation's Blog

Breadlines and Shortages: The Soviet Food Supply

Breadlines and Shortages: The Soviet Food Supply

One of the first images most Americans associate with communism is the breadline. All of us have probably seen photos online of the long lines that snaked out from grocery stores in the former Soviet bloc, or of their empty shelves. “There can be no doubt,” writes economist D. Mario Nuti, “that in all those economies, shortage phenomena (including rations, queues, waiting lists, forced substitutions, purchase postponement, and outright desistance) were general, frequent, intense, and chronic.” Photos of long lines and empty shelves probably give some sense of how “general” and “frequent” food shortages were in the former Soviet Union. But to understand the real meaning of “intense” and “chronic” one must look a bit deeper into the historical record.

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was partly provoked by bread shortages. Unfortunately, communist policies did nothing to allay these: quite the opposite. “War communism,” Lenin’s initial, utopian push to nationalize the entire economy and establish a money-free communist system, all in the middle of the Russian Civil War, devastated food and industrial production of all kinds. In 1919, the Bolshevik state could provide less than half the rations it allotted, even in provincial capitals.[1] By 1920, grain production was at only 60 percent of its prewar level.[2] It was, in Peter Gatrell’s words, “an economy of absolute shortage.”[3]

After the interlude of the “New Economic Program,” when Lenin grudgingly “retreated” from communism in order to salvage the country’s economy, Joseph Stalin renewed the socialist offensive of industrialization and collectivization. The horrendously violent collectivization of Russian peasant agriculture was undertaken in part to increase the state’s direct control over the food supply. But, as before, the state was hardly prepared to replace huge swathes of the private economy. Goods disappeared from stores. Bread and most other staple goods had to be rationed. This led to another retreat—the legalization of small-scale private cultivation.

Thus, under Lenin and Stalin, shortages of food and other commodities plagued Russia. The Povolzhye Famine of 1921–22 resulted in approximately five million deaths, and the “Great Famine” of 1932–33 claimed at least two million. The 1946-48 famine claimed 1.2 million more lives. All three had as major causes communist food requisitioning and food allocation policies and all culminated in horrible starvation.

Stalin’s successors Khrushchev and Brezhnev were preoccupied with increasing the Soviet standard of living. Khrushchev invested significantly in housing and consumer goods, and unlike Stalin, invested in the Soviet Union’s large agricultural sector rather than seeing it simply as a source of food to seize and extract. Khrushchev also increased wages, which in a situation of scarcity, only exacerbated shortages. When he tried to remedy this by raising state-set prices, he faced riots. Khrushchev and Brezhnev internalized the lesson: don’t touch state-set prices. But this led to more lines and more shortages. To allay popular discontent, Brezhnev invested in huge grain purchases from abroad—in a that produced over 160 million tons of cereals in 1970.

Brezhnev also restored the right—abrogated under Khrushchev—of collective farm workers to cultivate small private plots for their own consumption and for private sale in farmers’ markets called rynky. The inefficiency of the Soviet collectivized economy is highlighted by the fact that by 1980, these private plots, which covered only 3% of sown farmland, produced over a quarter of the USSR’s agricultural output.

Under the centrally-planned communist economy, low quality, scarcity, long waits, and long lines were the rule. Uniform pricing meant that terrible restaurants were just as expensive as the best, and that Soviet butchers sold hunks of meat undifferentiated by cut or grade for flat fees. Finding rare “deficit commodities” required special knowledge, or just being in the right place at the right time when a shipment came in. The better-stocked shops of Moscow attracted provincial shoppers from 50 or 100 miles away. In the Soviet Union, “purchasemanship” was more important than salesmanship.

Chronic food and commodity shortages continued into the 1980s across the entire USSR. General Secretary Brezhnev declared food scarcity an “economically and politically” central problem. In Poland, food shortages played a role in the genesis of Solidarity, the trade union that would eventually help bring down Soviet domination and communist rule in that country. As the 1980s progressed, the incoherent mix of reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika, combined with his refusal to touch state-set prices, worsened shortages and lines. The uncorrectable stagnation of the centrally-planned economy helped lead to the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.

Food shortages had been a problem since the very beginning of the communist experiment. The Soviet state used its immense power and coercive control to completely restructure and collectivize agriculture across the world’s biggest country, killing millions in the progress. It integrated agriculture into its immense central planning structure. And yet the Soviet Union’s socialist economy could not even provide basic foodstuffs in satisfactory quantities.

[1] R. W. Davies, Soviet Economic Development from Lenin to Khrushchev (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 19.

[2] Esther Kingston-Mann, “Transforming Peasants in the Twentieth Century,” in The Cambridge History of Russia, ed. Ronald Grigor Suny, vol. 3, The Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 418-9.

[3] Peter Gatrell, “Economic and Demographic Changes: Russia’s Age of Economic Extremes” in The Cambridge History of Russia, ed. Ronald Grigor Suny, vol. 3, The Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 390.