The period of economic stagnation experienced by the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev began with poor agricultural performance. Though Russia was recently industrialized, the suffering breadbasket took a toll on the economy as a whole and caused massive demographic shifts.
Brezhnev’s 1978 speech, “On the Further Development of Agriculture”, was full of savory statistics and improbable predictions meant to appease rural dissatisfaction and convince the public of guaranteed economic recovery in the near future. Citing the success of the last nine 5 Year Plans, Brezhnev confidently conveyed the “fundamental importance” of reducing the gap of earnings between the “rural toilers and those of the industrial workers” and that “everything possible has been done to intensify agricultural production”.
In reality, pretty political literature could not camouflage the starving people and growing unrest caused by grain shortages. The 1970’s proved that “agriculture was still the Achilles heel of the Soviet Prometheus”, as output could not keep up with demand or rising production costs (Freeze 440). In 1975, the Soviet Union only produced 140 million tons of grain (Freeze 441), which was 76 million short of their goal and 120 million behind China’s yield from 1974. Due to limited access to ports, the state could only import 40 million tons of grain, which was not enough to compensate for their deficiency. Soviet agriculture consumed an unheard of 23% of investment capital, 5 times more than the United States during that period, in addition to increased subsides and the government’s desperate call for city dwellers to create garden plots (Freeze 441).
This intense economic decline saw the deterioration of village life in the heartland of Russia. Between 1939 and 1989, the rural population of the USSR lost over 30 million people, and more than 140,000 Russian villages have been abandoned in the last three decades. Leaving the despair of the country, migrants went to the cities or consolidated villages. “Many residents of small villages decide that if they’re going to have to leave the place they’re used to anyhow, they’d might as well move directly to a suburb or a city”. This exodus disturbed a major aspect of Russian culture and tradition, as established settlements of “our grandfathers and great- grandfathers have disappeared from the face of the earth.” The flight from the countryside still continues today, as Russia could lose up to 50 million people in the next 50 years.
Freeze, Gregory L. “From Stalinism to Stagnation 1953-1985.” In Russia: A History, 440-1. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.