Food Supply in 1917

This is an appeal of the cities to the peasants of the Ukraine and the “Volga in 1918. Now it is this Volga region that is stricken with drought—the worst since 1873. These peasants in turn are appealing for bread.”

1917 was a difficult year for Russians of all social standings. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a huge turning point for the Russian Empire and there were many factors that contributed to the overthrow of the Tsar. My focus of this blog post will be about the food riots and pogroms that occurred in the weeks leading up to the October Revolution, but these riots were not uncommon in the beginning of the year either. Module 3 of the Digital History Reader notes that food shortages was one of this biggest causes for unrest in early 1917 and contributed to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the largest of these being the strike in St. Petersburg on February 23 (International Women’s Day), when female workers protested the high prices of bread and food shortages. The next day saw multiple (underground) groups protesting and essentially shutting down all of the city (some people even reached the center of the city). Only once troops were ordered to begin shooting at the demonstrators were the crowds dispersed. This strike was so hugely important that it started the February Revolution. Sadly, the riots only continued throughout the year and soon escalated into pogroms, a persecution and subsequent massacre of a particular ethnic group. The Petrograd Telegraph Agency has several extracts of telegrams that were sent during September and October 1917 that report about these riots/pogroms that are occurring all over Russia.

What shocks me most about these telegrams is how violent the protestors would get, which says a lot about how upset they were with the horrendous conditions they dealt with on a daily basis: “Rostov-on-Don, October 10. In Azov, as a result of the dissatisfaction of the population with the rise in the price of bread and flour, disorder broke out. A crowd of residents marched to the city hall, broke into the food department, and attacked the government employees, who fled. When a member of the municipal government, Makarovskii, attempted to quiet the crowd, be was thrown down the stairs from the second floor, […]”

Two telegrams from Kharkov, in the Ukraine, describe the riots that have erupted: “Kharkov, September 24. […] On the evening of September 22 a wine storehouse was broken into and a large amount of liquor seized. The drunken crowds who took part in the destruction of the wine storehouse started to march through the streets singing and creating a disturbance. The population of the city is alarmed. The Jews have left the city. All stores are closed and the residents do not venture on the streets. Soldiers from the local garrison took part in the disturbance. A detachment of troops was sent from Kharkov to establish order and cadets were summoned from Chuguev …”

“Kharkov, October 11. During the past few days pillaging has been going on in the city. […]. Brigands plunder the goods and handle the proprietors roughly. It is in this way that … an innocent artisan, the Jew, Morein, was killed. During the night, the agitation for a pogrom has become stronger and the uprising has assumed a threatening character, being concentrated in the center of the city, on Pavlovskii Square. […] on the fences are hung proclamations using monarchist slogans and calling for a pogrom and for a massacre of the Jews; a dry goods shop has been wrecked; many of the pogrom-makers wear soldiers’ uniforms …”

These shortages allowed the Bolsheviks to take advantage of the situation, using the “deceptively simple platform of ‘bread, land, and peace'” to come to power in October 1917. However, the drawn-out process of restoring the food shortages back to normal wouldn’t be solved immediately, as this was a revolution that involved all aspects of social, economical, international and political life in Russia. To restore order, the Bolsheviks and Lenin would have to work endlessly, “Lenin’s fledgling regime began to rule in the midst of a disastrous war and a disintegrating economy, while struggling to consolidate and defend its hold on political authority. Overcoming such challenges would require the acceptance of a punitive peace with Germany, followed by swift mobilization for a brutal civil war.” DHR, Context)

I think it’s easy to forget that this revolution was a drawn-out process for all parties involved, a majority of 1917 was spent trying to find a good balance, “the year… was a complex story of ‘dual power’, the Provisional Government representing ‘Society,’ the soviet representing workers, peasants and soldiers.” (Freeze, 275) At the top of this post is a government advertisement from 1918 appeals to the peasants to aid the people of Northern Russia who are suffering under the worst drought in the Volga since 1873; the article asks them to help defend them against their enemies, both the German bourgeoisie and also the peasants/workers who are striking and hindering all transportation. The collective struggle across Russia really seemed to disable the country, something that eventually resulted in a crippling civil war between the Red and Whites. All of the events that happened in 1917 really just reinforce the fact that this tumultuous year was only the beginning of the struggles that Russia had to deal with in the early 20th century.


<a href=””>DHR, Context</a>

<a href=”″>Food Riots and Pogroms, 1917</a>

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 275. Print

Image, taken from <a href=””>Food Supply Images</a>

Original Source: Albert Rhys Williams: Through the Russian Revolution. New York: Boni and Liveright. 1921.


The Lena Goldfields and Russian Mining in the Early-20th Century

My previous post explored some of the questions that arose about the workers of the Bakaly mines in Western Russia. The picture that inspired these questions, Work at the Bakalskii Mine Pit, by Sergeii Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii gave me few answers. Dr. Nelson prompted me to learn more about the goldfields located on the Lena River in south-eastern Siberia. The Lena originates in the Baikal mountains and flows for almost 2800 miles before emptying into the Arctic Ocean, it is the 11th largest river in the world and, like the mines of Western Russia, rich with natural resources.

In the late-19th century, massive deposits of gold were found on the banks of the river, which led to a massive influx of workers and businessmen who wished to cash-in on the riches that lay in wait. As I mentioned in my previous post, I wondered why the peasants working the Bakalskii mine pit chose to stay in an industrial profession, were they forced to stay to fulfill some obligation to the owner of the mine? This isn’t so with the Lena goldfields. The people came running to become a part of the madness and become rich. However, there were industrialists and nobility who had the upper hand, establishing a company that allowed them to earn the money, essentially elbowing everyone else out of the way. Stingy as they were, the workers were subject to harsh working conditions, and it’d safe to assume that the conditions the miners worked in were similar in mines all across Russia.

Picture taken immediately after the Massacre

The Lena Gold Mining Joint Stock Company, also known as the Lenzoloto, took over operations of a majority of the goldfields, eventually making profits upwards of 7,000,000 rubles a year.¹ Company shareholders (which included British industrialists, Russian nobility and even our friend, Sergei Witte) lived comfortably, but the workers of the goldfields weren’t so fortunate: 16 hour work days, appallingly low pay (workers were often paid with food stamps, which could be exchanged for food that was often inedible) and a frighteningly high number of “traumatic” accidents–700 incidents reported for every 1,000 workers.¹ Much of the workers’ pay that wasn’t coupons was taken away to punish them for “poor work” and fines. Barely able to keep their families fed, the workers began to strike on February 29, 1912 (hundreds of workers walked off of the Andreyevsky field after being issued rancid meat at the company store, reportedly made from horse penises.)¹ Soon, thousands of workers joined them and the Lenzoloto had to scramble to appease them and get production moving again. Willing to put up a fight, the newly organized strike committee set these demands–a 30%wage increase, elimination of fines, the 8-hour day, and an improvement of food issued at the stores.¹ After almost a month on strike, the government was alerted to the crisis and sent troops in from Kirensk (about 400 miles away) to quell the discontent and hopefully avoid meeting the demands. On April 17th, the troops promptly arrested the strike committee, which led to 2,500 workers marching on the prosecutor’s office, demanding their release. Instead of a peaceful resolution, the troops fired on the workers, wounding 250 and killing 270 people.² Little did the government know, this would set off a string of strikes across the country. It seems that the workers at the Lena goldfields weren’t the only people being oppressed by harsh working conditions and horrendous pay, and the strike and subsequent massacre at the Lena goldfields saw the return of militancy among workers in Russian industry: “the revitalized unrest continued to intensify right up to the outbreak of war in 1914…”³

Mining was an extremely important part of 20th century Russia. As I mentioned above, gold mining was a huge source of income for the economy, so a strike (on any level) was devastating. The final outcome of the Lena goldfield strike resulted in all the families abandoning the area by the end of August 1912; this abandonment was a huge blow to the Lenzoloto. Despite all the work put into the reforms in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the Russian government still hadn’t fully given the peasants/workers all the credit they were due. Greed seemed to run rampant during these years before the 1917 Revolution and it was the workers (by and far the most important part of industrial production) who suffered. It seems evident by the rising number of strikes among workers that there was some sort of disconnect in the government. Treating the workers well would have ultimately saved industry, but I think it’s difficult for people who worked for the government to understand what really needed to happen. Instead, they lived in a fantasy-world where they believed that simply freeing the serfs and calming unrest would save Russia. If anything, it made working conditions worse even quicker. The workers and peasants were treated like an invisible workforce that shouldn’t be allowed basic human rights, a fact that made them retaliate even more fiercely. The massacre that occurred at the Lena goldfields was bound to happen under the conditions, but I very much doubt the government thought that it would be the spark that lit the flame that would change Russia’s history forever.

*Fun Fact: Vladimir Lenin (born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov) is said to have adopted his new name from the River Lena and he published What Is To Be Done? under this pseudonym. However, this isn’t confirmed, but perhaps his exile in Siberia from 1895-1900 inspired his new name, one that would be remembered for many, many years afterwards.


¹ “1912: The Lena massacre.” N.p., 15 Sep 2007. Web. 8 Sep 2013. <>.

² Aksenov, Iu. S. “Lena Massacre.” The Great Soviet Encyclopedia. 1979. < massacre>.

³ Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 263. Print

The Bakalskii Mine Pit


The Ural Mountains are located in western Russia and are known for having large resources of iron, minerals and even semi-precious gemstones. This mountain range has been mined since the 1500s, and this image by Sergei Michailovich Prokudin-Gorskii depicts a small, family-run mine in the Bakaly hills outside of Yekaterinburg. It was one of the first major cities to be industrialized, with Tsar Peter the Great taking full advantage of the proximity of the iron deposits and ores in the hills outside the city. He took note that these natural resources would be a critical component of, “the rapid industrial development necessary to bolster Russia’s military power.”* The location of the city was crucial to international affairs, as it served as a major cultural/industrial center between Russia and Europe, as well as the capital and administrative center of Sverdlovsk Oblast (essentially a Russian state).

Now, onto the picture. I find it so fascinating, mostly because mining labor isn’t the first job that comes to mind when one mentions Russian serfdom. The Freeze text mentions an innumerable amount of reforms that concern the emancipation of the serfs, but many of them deal with agriculture as opposed to industry. Granted, these reforms weren’t concerned with the industrial revolution, they focused on emancipating the serfs from their obligations on farms as well as the revolts that arose from the changes. That leads me to wonder what, if any, reforms were directed toward the mining of the Ural Mountains. This may be a line of inquiry that I can explore in future blog posts!

Freeze notes that Russian industry was painfully slow to develop; machinery had to be imported, as well as a large portion of its iron and steel to facilitate industrialization, but industrialization could not be spread without a railroad to transport these goods. Laboring workers, serfs or otherwise, were equally hard to come by.† Granted, this was occurring in the late 19th century, a good 25 years before the Prokudin-Gorskii picture was taken. While reading the text, it seems that Russian people can be divided into quite a few classifications. I know very little from looking at this picture, but from what I’ve deduced from Freeze’s descriptions, I would say these people fall between the workers, meschane (“rank and file ‘burghers'” [221])†, and peasants. The worker class being made up of citizens who had roots in the “metallurgical and textile plants of the eighteenth century.” [222]. The meschane was comprised of pretty much everyone who wasn’t nobility, clergy or professionals: “ranging from petty merchants and skilled artisans to the unemployed, unskilled and unwanted.” [222]†. Regarding the peasants, Freeze explains that the family unit began to change from the “gradual breakup of the patriarchal, extended family,” to the “formation of smaller, independent family units.” [221]†.

So where did families such as this one stand in Russian society? What kind of mine was this family operating? Were these people former serfs who were finishing up their obligations to land-owners? There is frustratingly little information on these peasant miners, but the Russian government was busy quieting the discontent on the agricultural front, pushing the industry to the side for the time-being. Unfortunately, this picture has really brought up more questions than answers, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. The beauty of Prokudin-Gorskii’s images is that they can tell a story if you just take the time to do a little digging after the first glance; they implore the viewer to learn as much as possible about this tiny slice of Russian history and culture on the eve of an immensely important revolution.

This image is titled: Work at the Bakalskii Mine Pit
Created by: Prokudin-Gorskii, Sergei Mikhailovich, 1863-1944Permanent Record:

*United States. Consulate General of the United States, Yekaterinburg, Russia. Yekaterinburg & Sverdlovsk Oblast: History, Politics and Economics. Print. <>.

† Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 216, 221-222. Print.