Food Fight!

Crowd of women, led by Mrs. Ida Harris, president of the Woman’s Vigilance League, at the city hall to protest the soaring cost of food. (Source: Independent, 12 March 1917; International Socialist Review, April 1917) Created / Published

Universal suffering was the hallmark of trench warfare during World War I. As millions died from the innovations in warfare and technology, a more subtle affliction plagued the overwhelmingly peasant population of Russia: food shortage. While the roaring machine guns needed only to be fed yet more bullets to the carnage it produced, the millions of Russian soldiers and their civilian counterparts needed bread, which was in serious scarcity. A combination of wartime demands, monopolization of the food supply, and mismanagement by the wartime government exasperated the already high tensions of post-October Revolutionary Russia. The lack of faith in the tsarists government and a string of defeats culminated in the flash point which unseated the centuries old Romanov dynasty and catapulted Russia into a Bolshevik controlled state with the popular slogan “Peace, bread, land” at its head.  It was quite evident by the war’s conclusion that bread, not social reforms or patriotic fervor, was the key to the people’s hearts.

Albert Rhys Williams: A Cry For Bread 1918. An appeal for bread to cities by peasants in Ukraine and the Volga. Library of Congress

Russia’s focus on the peasantry in the early 20th century had proved to be altogether fruitless by the time peasants had stormed the imperial palace. The Third Duma’s efforts at agrarian reform, while optimistic, were too little too late for the riled masses (Freeze, pg. 262-64). When conflict erupted,  neither the government nor the people were truly ready or unified for the demands of modern warfare in Europe, something already proven by the Russian’s bitter defeat to the Japanese ten years prior. To compete against industrialized nations, Russia needed to turn to “total war” which required a call to arms and war production for the entire nation; however, Nicholas’s government failed to fulfill its promise to the people. Only a few years into the war had passed before the government turned to desperate measures to keep the war economy from collapsing (Freeze, pg. 272). Simultaneous inflation, food shortages, and military desertion fueled the growing disaffection with government and hurt the overall war effort (Freeze, pg. 273). It was at this point that the people’s furor climaxed during a bread riot in St. Petersburg and changed Russia’s fate forever.

A starving Chuvash family near their tent in Samara in post-WWI. From The Sun news outlet.

In the aftermath of the February Revolution, radical changes in government, military, and political direction were ongoing, but food remained the top priority to the masses. Rationing had been in place since 1915 with the institution of the Special Council for Food, but this did little to alleviate the effects of Russian scorched-earth policy and the diversion of resources from food to war production (Lewis Seigelbaum, para. 1). Famine and food lines were commonplace by October of 1917 and the newly formed Provisional Government failed to provide any solution to the humanitarian crisis that was brewing. Monopolization of food production was continued by the Duma, but this merely created higher prices and few answers to the dire issue. Petrograd, the seat of Soviet power and a city on the verge of starvation, finally had enough, and the Bolsheviks took control with their cry for peace, bread, and land.

A women watches her partner starve to death. 1920s. From The Sun news outlet.

The consequences of this are well known today as Russia became a Communist state, but the effects of World War I and institutional ineptitude could not be reversed. Famine and the resulting civil war caused millions of deaths and widespread violence across the Soviet state. In the end, the Bolsheviks continued the same policies as previous administrations, though with greater viciousness and brutality to the misfortune of the Russian people (Lewis Seigelbaum, para. 3) . Survival was fought for through anarchy, looting, and even cannibalism as the state once again outstandingly failed to fulfill its promises . Many lessons were learned as the new regime forcefully consolidated its power and subdued the resulting “White’s” counterrevolution. Change was won for by the need for food, and it proved how little ideology or equality can feed an empty belly. As history has once more shown, a state is only as good as its ability to take care of its people, and Nicholas’ and the Duma’s prospects of a “modern” Russia ultimately led to its demise.

8 Replies to “Food Fight!”

  1. You did a great job emphasizing the importance of bread in the Russian empire during World War I. Without enough food, the foundation of the entire hierarchy that was built upon the peasants began to crumble. This then caused the political system to collapse, ushering a new era of socialism.

  2. I like the approach you took to this blogpost– not looking at the social and political factors of the revolution, but the simple need to survive. I think your post shows why the revolutionary message was so attractive to so many people– some people identified with the message, but others just wanted food and would follow along with anyone who promised that. Great work!

  3. I like how you focused on lack of food during the time because it showed more fuel for the higher disapproval amongst the people of Nicholas and that is was a key factor in changing the leadership. How did the farmers revive their crops after Russia’s scorched earth tactic?

  4. I agree – great point of view in this post. I wonder how we sort out all of the factors that went into the problems with the food supply though? Yes, there’s lots of bumbling and mishandling of policy and logistics. But there are also just the realities of the challenges of fighting a major war on home soil for so long. Everything gets disrupted…

  5. I really enjoyed your post because it was different than a lot of the other posts this week. I was also really impressed with the pictures you included in your post! I think when you consider how dire the situation must have felt when people were starving, you get a fuller picture of what that time in history must have felt like for the Russian people.

  6. I really enjoyed the choice of pictures included within this post. It brings the reader back to how the revolution isn’t just a serious of events, but events that seriously affected millions of people.

  7. Very entertaining post, this kind of ties in with my own research. I did some research on the formation of the red army and learned that if you joined the army not only did you get fed, but your whole family got fed as well. Now I believe that a lot of those soldiers not just to fight for the cause but to, actual keep their families alive and healthy as well. I believe that yes the famines were of course bad, but without them the number of people willing to fight wouldn’t have been anywhere close to the number that they were able to field, and as a result the red army may have not had the man power it needed to win the civil war.

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