Table of contents:

The cruel famine of 1921, as it was
The cruel famine of 1921, as it was

After the Civil War, a fierce famine began, the likes of which Russia had not known since the time of Boris Godunov.

At the beginning of Dmitry Furmanov's novel Chapaev, it was described how Red Army workers from Ivanovo-Voznesensk (an industrial region) were surprised by the abundance of wheat bread in the Middle and Lower Volga regions - it became cheaper from station to station. This was in 1919. Two years later, the grain paradise of the Volga region will suffer a disaster associated primarily with the policy of the party, for which the Bolshevik workers fought.


Russia has long been a zone of risky agriculture: crops in the north were always threatened by frosts, and in the south - by regular droughts. This natural factor, plus the inefficiency of agriculture, periodically led to crop failures and hunger.

Empress Catherine II took preventive measures against famine: she created grain warehouses ("shops") in the provincial centers to sell grain at a fixed price. But the steps taken by the government were not always effective. Attempts during the reign of Nicholas I to force the peasants to grow potatoes (as an alternative to grain) led to riots.

In the second half of the 19th century, educated people began to think about how to properly solve the problem of regular crop failures and starving peasants. Alexander Engelhardt, in Letters from the Village, showed that it is not professional beggars who go to neighboring yards for "pieces", but peasants who do not have enough grain before the new harvest and this shortage is systemic. According to another connoisseur of the people - Nikolai Nekrasov, it was hunger that forced the peasants to do things unusual for them - for example, to build a railway: “There is a king in the world, this king is merciless. Hunger is his name."


But the terrible famine of 1891 after another crop failure showed that no solution had been found. The treasury spent half a billion rubles to help the victims, but it was not possible to avoid deaths from food shortages. However, hunger rallied the public, from Leo Tolstoy to his opponent John of Kronstadt, in a desire to both help the peasantry and prevent new disasters.

After the revolutionary events of 1905, the problem of crop failures and hunger receded into the background. The play by Leonid Andreev "Tsar-Hunger" was devoted to the vices of modern civilization, and not to the problems of a starving village. The gross harvest of grain before the World War was twice that of the first years of the reign of Nicholas II. The right to leave the rural community, new railway lines, and the slow but steady intensification of labor in the countryside gave rise to hope that Russia would not be threatened by famine in the 20th century.

From abundance to monopoly

The First World War led to food problems in almost all countries involved in the conflict. But not for Russia at first. The halt in exports left Germany and the Entente without Russian grain. And in the Russian Empire, there was plenty of cheap bread. The soldier's daily ration was 1200 grams of bread, 600 grams of meat, 100 grams of fat - an unrealizable dream of Soviet soldiers during the Great Patriotic War. The rear did not live in poverty either: for example, if before the war the consumption of sugar was 18 pounds per capita per year, then during the war it increased to 24 pounds.

Since 1916, peasants have been holding back their grain, waiting for price parity to return.

In 1916 and 1917, the situation was not so happy anymore. The price of bread has almost doubled, the price of meat - two and a half times. The prices of manufactured goods jumped even more. According to the then calculations, a peasant, having sold a pood of wheat before the war, could buy 10 yards of chintz, and now - only two.

Civilian metal products have risen in price eight times. And many peasants began storing grain, waiting for the pre-war price parity to return. Added disruptions in transport and ad hoc food shortages in large cities.One of these events in Petrograd, in February 1917, became a catalyst for street riots, a soldier's revolt and, as a result, the overthrow of the tsarist government.

The interim government realized the problem. On March 25, the state grain monopoly was introduced. Food and fodder crops, including the crops not yet harvested in 1917, belonged to the state. The owner kept only the grain needed for the family and the hired workers, plus seed grain and feed for livestock. The rest of the bread was bought at a fixed price. Moreover, in the case of concealing grain from government agencies, the purchase price was halved. Those who did not want to hand over bread were threatened with requisition.


One of the main problems of the Provisional Government was the lack of its legitimacy in the eyes of the people: the peasants did not understand why the new authorities demanded from them what the previous, much more familiar and understandable tsarist regime did not demand. As a result, in the fall of 1917, on the eve of the Bolshevik coup, only 280 million poods (4.5 million tons) were purchased from producers, instead of the planned 650 million poods. Failures in grain procurement became an indirect reason for the overthrow of the Provisional Government.

One of the first decrees of the Bolsheviks - "On Peace" - paradoxically facilitated the solution of the food problem: the demoralized army began to disperse, thereby reducing the number of eaters on state support. However, this was only a delay: the urban population was left without bread, both the proletariat and the inhabitants, whom the new government recognized as an “unworkable element”. The Soviet government did not abolish the grain monopoly, but supplemented it with decrees.

In May 1918, the People's Commissariat for Food was given extraordinary powers in the fight against the "village bourgeoisie", that is, with any producer who had bread. So the measures to provide the country with food became a class war.

There was a famine, the people were dying

Let's go back to Furmanov's novel. “The closer to Samara, the cheaper the bread at the stations. Bread and all products. In hungry Ivanovo-Voznesensk, where they did not give out a pound for months, they used to think that a crust of bread is a great treasure. And then the workers suddenly saw that there was plenty of bread, that it was not at all about lack of bread, but something else … One should have believed that, moving into the Samara thickets, everything there would be cheaper. At some station, where the bread seemed especially cheap and white, they bought a whole pood … A day later we arrived at the place and saw that it was whiter and cheaper there …"

The novel "Chapaev" is not only the basis for the cult Soviet film, but also a very important historical narrative. He proves that in 1919 in the Volga region there were no prerequisites for hunger, bread could be bought openly. The workers from the industrial non-black earth regions guessed correctly that the problems of the cities were not in lack of bread.

From this observation, two practical conclusions could be drawn. First, it is necessary to restore transport and interest the peasants-producers in the delivery of grain to the state so that bread becomes available in Ivanovo-Voznesensk and other factory cities. The second presupposed the requisition of grain from the peasants, as a punishment not only for concealing it, but also for the “wrong” class origin of the owners.


From the middle of 1918, the Soviet government confidently followed the second path. Food detachments were sent to the countryside. To help them, village committees of the poor - kombeds - were created with a predetermined function: to help local Soviet authorities in the procurement of food. This immediately led to peasant uprisings.

In 1918, the Bolsheviks did not have the opportunity to pump out grain from the villages on a massive scale. They controlled a relatively small area, and the system of forced requisitions had not yet been formed. That is why in the Volga region at the stations it was possible to buy inexpensive bread. But the sovereignty grew stronger and the pressure on the farmers intensified.

In addition, the number of government eaters has increased. By the end of 1919, the size of the Red Army reached three million people, and in 1920 - 5.3 million. The Volga region turned out to be a resource base for two fronts at the same time - the Southern one, against the White armies of Denikin and Wrangel, and the Eastern one - against Kolchak.

The first cases of famine in the region were noted back in 1920. By the summer of next year, it became clear that a catastrophe was beginning that had no analogues in the modern history of Russia: the drought in the Volga region destroyed the already significantly reduced crops. The usual "old-regime" measure to combat hunger: the delivery of bread from provinces not affected by the drought was excluded. In the fourth year of Soviet power, grain reserves were not left anywhere.

Dissolve the army, devour Ukraine

In the spring of 1921, the Bolsheviks realized that their policy had disappointed the majority of the population and, above all, the peasants. This disappointment was symbolized by the uprising in Kronstadt and widespread peasant unrest. In March, the decree of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee replaced the surplus tax in kind, which made it possible to freely sell surplus products.

However, this reasonable measure was at least a year late. Farms in the Volga region, as well as in other regions, have no grain left to increase sowing this season.

To save state resources, a landslide reduction of the Red Army was carried out: by the end of 1921, its strength amounted to 1.5 million people. At the same time, a project proposed by Vladimir Lenin himself appeared, which, on the contrary, provided for the military mobilization of rural youth from a starving territory - from five hundred thousand to one million people.


Ilyich proposed to place a contingent of young people on the territory of the Ukrainian SSR: “if an army from hungry provinces was put in the Ukraine, this remnant (of bread) could be collected … so that they would help to strengthen the food work, being purely interested in it, especially clearly realizing and feeling the injustice of the gluttony of the rich peasants in Ukraine ". Ilyich's companions still did not dare to resort to this savage measure: to place half a million hungry and embittered soldiers in the rich regions.

But when it became clear that decrees alone would not be able to save millions of people from starvation, Lenin and his associates took an incredible step. On August 2, Soviet Russia appealed to the whole world, but not with a demand for recognition, and not with an appeal to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat everywhere. The Council of People's Commissars notified the world bourgeoisie that "the Russian government will accept any help, from whatever sources it comes."

Lenin told the press to ridicule and poison the anti-hunger committee

Kukish for NGOs

In the first phase - in the summer of 1921 - help came from an unexpected source. The monstrous famine caused a phenomenon that was almost forgotten in the country: the consolidation of social forces belonging to the Soviet regime without enthusiastic loyalty, but ready to temporarily forget their differences and start active work to solve the problem.

On June 22, a member of the cooperative movement, agronomist Mikhail Kukhovarenko and economist Alexander Rybnikov spoke at the Moscow Society of Agriculture. They returned from the Saratov province and made a report on the topic: "Crop failure in the South-East and the need for state and public assistance." Four days later, Pravda published an article acknowledging the severe famine in the Volga region, as well as the fact that the calamity was larger than the famine of 1891.

Such a reaction of a semi-official newspaper to the report gave rise to hopes that, as under tsarism, the whole country could unite against hunger. Under the Moscow Society of Agriculture, a committee was created to combat hunger - Pomgol. It included figures from different spheres: art critic Pavel Muratov, friend and colleague of Leo Tolstoy Vladimir Chertkov, writer Mikhail Osorgin, philologist Nikolai Marr and other people known since pre-revolutionary times.The committee was chaired by the chairman of the Moscow council, Lev Kamenev. The honorary chairman was the writer Vladimir Korolenko, a veteran of the fight against the famine of 1891.


The creation of the public Pomgol looked like a sensation. Since the seizure of power, the Bolsheviks have consistently got rid of political allies and suppressed any activity, including charitable, that did not arise by order. It seemed that an unprecedented misfortune forced them to interact with the creative and economic intelligentsia.

The game of cooperation with the nongovernmental organization did not last long. In the Bolshevik press, the committee was referred to as "Prokukish", after three figures: the former Minister of the Provisional Government Sergei Prokopovich, his wife Yekaterina Kuskova and the liberal politician Nikolai Kishkin. Lenin frankly wrote: “From Kuskovaya we take the name, signature, a couple of wagons (food) from those who sympathize with her. Nothing else. " He told the party press: "in hundreds of ways to ridicule and poison" Kukisha "at least once a week."

After receiving the first batch of foreign aid, Pomgol was disbanded, and most of its members were arrested. Compared to the subsequent repressions, their fate was not very dramatic - someone went abroad, and someone even made a successful career in Soviet Russia. So, most likely, the last chance for the existence of an independent public organization capable of interacting with the communist government, if not controlling it, then at least advising, was missed.

Rejecting the outstretched helping hand, the Bolsheviks acted cynically and rationally. Even those of the future leaders, who were in exile and emigration during the First World War, had an idea of ​​the work of Zemgor (the main committee for supplying the army of the All-Russian Zemstvo and City Unions) and the military-industrial committees.

These organizations helped the government but also criticized it. Therefore, famine seemed to the Bolsheviks less of a threat than any independent institution.

A lesson for power, a lesson for the world

Soon enough, Pomgol appeared again - a purely government organization whose task was to coordinate the actions of local and central authorities. The Small Soviet Encyclopedia (the volumes of the first edition were published from 1928 to 1931), although it wrote a lot about the opponents of Soviet power, the public Pomgol did not mention the public Pomgol in the corresponding article, only the official structure.

In the fall and winter of 1921, when famine in the Volga region reached its apotheosis, large-scale supplies of monetary, food and other aid began to Soviet Russia, primarily from the American organization ARA, as well as from European countries. However, polar explorer and philanthropist Fridtjof Nansen accused Western governments that they could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives if they had started helping much earlier.


Photographs of skin-clad skeletons of children - living and dead - have had a stronger impact on Western society than news of repression. At the same time, the Bolsheviks, as always, turned out to be skillful tacticians. They did not start seizing jewelry from church communities (of course, for the sake of saving the poor) immediately, but only in February 1922, when Western aid was already pouring in. The world media reported from the field that the situation was much worse than it was thought, and no one would dare to stop food supplies.

Cancellation of surplus appropriation and American wheat did their job. By the summer of 1922, hunger had subsided. The peasants willingly sowed arable land, calculated income from the sale of grain surpluses and did not think that seven years later they would no longer take away their bread, but the land.

After 1921, Western countries associated communism with hunger

The Bolshevik Party and, first of all, its General Secretary Joseph Stalin made conclusions.The next offensive against the peasantry, collectivization, will turn out to be a deliberate military operation, and famine will not only be an accidental consequence, but also a directed measure.

There is practically no photographic evidence of the Holodomor of 1933 - the performers took care. The Soviet public did not try to create independent committees, but only approved of collectivization and its heroes, like Pavlik Morozov.


But the Volga famine has become an equally important lesson for countries whose residents start their morning by reading newspapers. Bolshevism presented itself as a renewing force capable of building a new, just world, without wars and hunger. And if the Civil War in Russia looked like a natural consequence of the World War, not very terrible against the background of the pan-European massacre, then the monstrous, cannibal, medieval famine turned out to be the most effective anti-communist propaganda.

Marxism did not die in 1921. But since then, no communist party in Europe has been able to take power by parliamentary means. Communism has dabbled in the leftist intellectual elite, from student demonstrations to collaboration with Soviet intelligence. For the middle class - the “layman” in the eyes of this elite - communism has always been associated with hunger. The tragedy in the Volga region became one of the blackest pages in the history of the USSR and Russia, and for the rest of the world - an inoculation against Bolshevism.

Popular by topic