One thing I never understood about the Soviet Union were the famines and near-famines; those that were not explicitly engineered by the regime like Holodomor.

How could a nuclear power suffer from famines and near-famines?

These problems with food production even continue to this day; as Russia has been a huge importer of food from the European Union until recently. One would think that a producer of technological wonders, both during the Soviet-era and since, would find a definitive solution to these food production problems.

Why was or has no definitive solution been found and implemented, seemingly to this day?

Agronomy hardly seems to be rocket science, and also there was and still is a lot of fertile land available.

EDIT: Chief among the famines would be the famine of '47, when the Soviet Union was firmly walking on the nuclear path (the first nuclear test was made in '49). Incidentally, this was also the year when a "technological wonder", the AK-47, started being produced. We can still read about this weapon in daily news. Among the near-famines I thought about the post-WW2 bad harvests and systemic failures in agronomy, that made grain imports necessary. These might have developed into true famines.

  • 4
    Have you done any preliminary research into the problems of command driven economies? Five year plans? collectivization?
    – MCW
    Oct 16 '14 at 13:08
  • 3
    @Mark C. Wallace Tsarist Russia also suffered from a lot of deadly famines. It was not command-driven.
    – Anixx
    Oct 16 '14 at 13:10
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    Nuclear capability and food production are definitely not linked. Its easier to build bombs than control weather, water availability, etc. India is a prime example. Having said that, let's also keep in mind that famines are often the result of distribution issues rather than production. Since the Bengal famine in 1943, India has had bad production years, but not really famines. Food was procured from other parts of the country or were imported, and then distributed.
    – Rajib
    Oct 16 '14 at 14:22
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    India has successfully sent a mission to Mars. Yet one 136 kms from where I sit (yards away from the Indian Space Research Organization HQ) lies Anatapur district with low rainfall and extremely poor crop production. Not much that the govt. has been able to do about this. Sure technological advances improve living conditions- but a direct correlation between actual achievements in technology and food production may be taking it too far.
    – Rajib
    Oct 16 '14 at 14:39
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    Most of the answers here seem uninformed by the Nove/Millar debate. ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/27065/… public.econ.duke.edu/webfiles/treml/millar-n.293 Oct 16 '14 at 20:30

I think implicit in this question is an underestimation of the difficulty of feeding a nation. In a market economy, it seems to happen magically as prices coordinate labor and resources, but commanding the millions of people with disparate knowledge successfully is actually incredibly difficult. Consider the famous example of the pencil http://www.econlib.org/library/Essays/rdPncl1.html. Farming and delivering the multiple types of food needed for proper nutrition to millions of people while adapting to weather and weighing the costs relative to every other productive use of labor and capital is quite possibly as complicated or more complicated than nuclear science, yet it has to be done right year after year.

Historically, reduction and elimination of famine in parts of the world is a fairly recent phenomenon. Technology is a big part of the story, but the coordination of markets is definitely part of the story as well.

  • So, the criminal genius Stalin and the bureaucracy were in charge of agriculture and other economic matters. The problem was, that agriculture and other economic matters are in truth no less complicated than science and technology. But the bureaucrats were no rocket scientists either, rather, they were placed according to their political reliability/loyalties/connections. Oct 17 '14 at 6:56

A few points not covered in other excellent answers:

  • Wealthy peasants, the Kulaks, were specifically targeted by Soviet regime. Whilst these peasants were comparably wealthy and resistant to land reform - they were also the farmers most likely to be literate, skilled and possessing efficient farming infrastructure. Killing these peasants reduced the agricultural output of the USSR.
  • The political stranglehold that Trofim Lysenko and Lysenkoism had on Soviet agronomy. The guy was a political hack that basically undermined a generation of scientists.
  • Some countries have less arable land than others and so trade other goods and services for food. The USSR had few healthy trade relationships outside of the Warsaw block.
  • Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Despite left-right hand wringing about the USSR, the attitude towards the common population has been remarkably consistent across various regimes from the Tsars to the Bolsheviks to today's oligarchic kleptocracy. Indeed, we can blame it on the one-two punch of the Mongol Invasion and the Black Death. The Mongols destroyed the Kievan Rus, the last democratically inclined nation in the region; replacing it with Tartar overlords. The Black Death altered the relationship between nobles and peasants due to skill shortages. In Western Europe the re-negotiation resulted increased autonomy and power to the people (or guilds), but in Eastern Europe the nobles tightened their hold on serfs and serfdom; an attitude shift that has lasted to this day.
  • Very good. It was easy for Hilter to point fingers at the "primitive" Slavs, without burdening himself with deeper reasons for Soviet squalor of the time. Oct 17 '14 at 6:58

You are making a number of assumptions here which are not correct. The basic mechnanism of the pre-war famines was this:

Stalin was pursuing a policy of rapid and extensive industrialization. This policy, which was not based on organic growth, necessitated the purchase on a huge scale of Western (largely American) technology and expertise. Whole factories were purchased in the US and installed in Russia under the supervision and guidance of American engineers.

This required in turn huge hard currency outlays which could only be built up quickly by exports. The sale of gold confiscated from wealthy citizens and objects of art (such as Russian icons) provided some currency but most came from the export of enormous quantities of grain.

This grain was forcibly extracted from peasants, with no concern at all whether they had enough - either to plant or to eat. Inevitably, they starved.

That's how it was.

So, as you see, the USSR in the relevant timeframe was not importing grain, it was exporting it big time. (The imports only started in 1962 or so, as a temporary expedient). But is was not exporting surplus, it was exporting its basic stock. Another point to correct is that the ultimate "end-users", the city dwellers, did not starve. It was the producers, the peasants, who did, as I have explained above. Finally, the Soviet citizens did not know anything about life in the West. They were fed propaganda to the effect that Western conditions were much worse for common folk and many of them sincerely believed their standard of life was higher than that of their Western counterparts.

  • Nice answer and during the Holodomor, the grain was taken from the lowly Ukrainians. Two flies taken care of in one swat. Could you please expand your answer to the time after the SU was an industrialized country? I know about corruption, mismanagement, distribution problems... But technology could, perhaps, trump all these problems by making possible the production of sufficiently large quantities of food to make imports unnecessary, despite all the problems. Oct 16 '14 at 18:16
  • Would killing less farmers (widely employed in the GULAG projects) also have helped? Essentially, it seems the industrialization process was a kind of all-consuming monster, devouring everything. But what about later imports? Why was there no agricultural A bomb? Oct 16 '14 at 20:18
  • @user1095108 I don't know much about the 1946-7 famine, but apart from that I think there were no more famines in the USSR after the war. Basically, the grain imports were used to offset the systematic underharvesting. The factors you mentioned (corruption etc. all played their role), for instance a lot of grain was habitually lost due to poor storage facilities). However, the two main factors were: (a) the depopulation of the countryside by the early famines, the GULAG system, and the constant drain of young people who fled virtual rural serfdom to the towns. (b) forced collectivization Oct 16 '14 at 21:22
  • @user1095108 which completely disincetivized the peasants. Oct 16 '14 at 21:23

A lot of the time it was the Soviet Union government deliberately trying to starve some of their people to get rid of the "undesirable" people.
Sometimes it was because the Soviet Union government didn't know how to properly feed their people, and when they did they chose to ignore the people.

The last major famine in the USSR happened mainly in 1947, because of collectivization, war damage, the severe drought in 1946 in over 50% of the grain-productive zone of the country and government social policy and mismanagement of grain reserves.

Also, some famines were not preventable, like the Great Famine of 1315–1317. Crops failed nation-wide and back then they did not have the technology to prevent such a catastrophe.

The same can be said for Russia, when Stalin was in power. Millions of his people died in Russia! Why? Because he didn't care to feed them.

  • not quite. The main reason was that the Soviet government deliberately caused the famines in order to wipe out "undesirable" sections of the population.
    – jwenting
    Oct 16 '14 at 13:59
  • @jwenting I can't say I'm surprised. I didn't find any information about this during my research, do you know where it is? Thanks!
    – Chantola
    Oct 16 '14 at 14:01
  • I recommend "Harvest of Sorrow," by Robert Conquest, the severely reduced the number of Ukrainians.
    – Tom Au
    Oct 16 '14 at 14:04
  • @jwenting I specifically excluded those kinds of engineered famines from my question (i.e. Holodomor-like famines). The SU was a huge importer of grain. Without them, "true" famines might have occurred and there were near-famines. With the huge production potential (unrealized), that the SU had, other problems (such as distribution, corruption, ...) might have become less relevant. The lack of farmers (killed in the gulags) could be a part of the answer, though. Oct 16 '14 at 14:13
  • @user1095108 to answer your question, it was because they simply didn't care and didn't know any better.
    – Chantola
    Oct 16 '14 at 14:15

This is a question about economics, not history.

Feeding people is no easy task. The typical person can easily eat through a panel truck full of food every year. The cost of this includes not only producing the food, but transporting and distributing it. Growing food and getting it to market is hard work and the farmer will demand something in return or he will not act. If someone cannot give the farmer something he wants or convince someone else to pay in their stead, they will receive no food and starve.

People will also starve if the economic process is obstructed or interfered with. For example, if soldiers prevent a farmer from transporting his goods from one place to another freely, or from selling his goods, or if they steal his produce, then this will result in a lack of food trading in the area in which the soldiers are operating, thus producing starvation, even if the inhabitants have money to pay.

The large Soviet famines involved both of these factors: people having no wealth to buy food and military/police forces interfering with food production and trading.


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