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.
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.
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.
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.