1918 - famine looms

Council of People's Commissars
Address to the population on the struggle against famine, 29 May 1918

[Translator's note: This document is instructive in several respects. Firstly, it illustrates the economic position of the Soviet state by mid-1918. Secondly, it reflects the economic assumptions of the régime in its response to that situation. It has very little to say about how more food should be produced, only about how it should be distributed. Thirdly, it highlights the very different approach to shortages in siege conditions adopted by the Soviet state when compared, for example, with wartime Germany. Whereas the German authorities sought to alleviate the situation by reducing social tensions and class struggles (the policy of Burgfrieden - peace within the besieged fortress), the Soviet authorities sought to solve the problem by fomenting class tensions. Finally, it illustrates a lasting theme in Russian and Soviet politics - the tendency to blame economic and social problems on the conscious ill-will of hostile individuals, forces or groups. In this case the impending hunger is presented not simply as the result of economic collapse in war and revolution, but also of the counterrevolutionary designs of the rural and urban bourgeoisie... - Dr Francis King.]


With every passing day the food situation in the Republic is getting worse.

Less and less bread is getting to the net grain consuming regions.

Famine is already here, and its terrifying presence can be felt in the towns, in the industrial centres and the grain consuming gubernias.

The hungry and exhausted workers and poor peasants, who have bravely borne all the onerous consequences of the criminal imperialist war, are appealing to the authorities with the agonising questions:

Why is there no bread?

When will the suffering of the hungry people finally come to an end?

What is the government doing to alleviate the food crisis?

What should the workers and poor peasants do, in order to get out of this situation without letting the famine destroy the gains of the revolution?

The Workers' and Peasants' Government must give clear and definite answers to all these perfectly natural questions, telling the whole truth.

Comrade workers and peasants! The amount of bread in Russia has decreased thanks to the human butchery that the bourgeoisie of the whole world has been carrying on for four years in the name of its criminal and selfish interests.

The war has torn people away from productive labour. For more than three years it kept the Russian landworker under arms, and this led to a decrease in the sown area in the Republic.

Nonetheless, with the greatest exertion of all its strength, in 1917 Russia harvested a quantity of grain which would have sufficed for the entire population of the Republic with some left over.

But the treachery of the bourgeoisie and its hangers-on led to a situation in which the most productive areas fell under the control of the Germans.

The Republic was deprived of the huge stocks of grain which remained in Novorossiya, Malorossiya (Ukraine) and the South Western kray.

Thanks to the treachery of the bourgeoisie, the country is threatened with the loss of those enormous stocks of grain to be found in the North Caucasus.

Only Siberia, Priural'e, part of the Volga valley and certain Great Russian gubernias remain the most reliable sources for supplying grain to the net consuming regions.

If we take stock of all the grain which remains at the disposal of the Republic, it turns out that the remaining quantity, once fodder and seed requirements are taken into account, will barely suffice for the food needs of the population - and this only if all grain stocks are strictly accounted for, all surpluses without fail are taken from those who hold them, and grain is distributed fairly among those who need it.

There is grain around, but it is in short supply. The new harvest will not have any effect on consumption until the middle or even the end of August. Until then, we should neither expect any increase in grain stocks, nor should we slacken our struggle against the breakdown of food supply.

That is the harsh truth, comrades workers and peasants, and the government you placed in power is telling you about it openly.

It is telling you the whole truth not so that your spirits should fall, to the delight of your enemies in the bourgeois camp. The Workers' and Peasants' Government wants you to summon up all your strength, and rally closely around it to struggle against the onset of famine and the counterrevolutionary encroachments of the bourgeoisie, which is trying to use the famine for a new enslavement of the workers and poor peasants, even harsher than before.

We must not lose heart, but must struggle. You must respond to new ordeals with struggle, and it is to this struggle, possibly the most decisive one, on which all the gains of the revolution depend, that the Workers' and Peasants' Government summons you.

How can we struggle against famine? How can we fight the food crisis?

When there is little grain in a country, grain becomes a scarce product. In order to avoid famine or at least alleviate it, all grain stocks must be strictly accounted for.

It is essential to take stock in the most precise way of all grain stores and determine where they are held, so that we know where they can be obtained.

Having determined where the grain is and how much there is, it is essential to take the whole surplus from those who hold it.

Once both these tasks have been fulfilled, grain must be distributed correctly among the hungry, and in particular among the workers and peasants who live by their labour.

These three tasks can only be solved on the all-state level.

There is no one individual organisation, however powerful or important it may be, that is in a position to assess and take all surplus grain in order to distribute it fairly among the hungry.

Only the state, in the form of the central authorities, can cope with this most difficult task.

This is why salvation from starvation must be sought in the preservation of the state grain monopoly and the strict, unrelenting, fulfilment of the central authorities' supply plans.

This is why any deviation from the grain monopoly or violation of the supply plans devised by the government, which alone can account for all grain surpluses, take them from those who hold them and distribute them justly among the hungry, is the most serious crime against the hungry and the Soviet Republic.

Comrade workers and starving peasants, do not believe those who say that salvation from famine should be sought in the abolition of the grain monopoly and fixed prices.

This is said either by those who hope to get rich from famine, or by those who wish to disrupt the state's supply plans in order to intensify the famine in the hope that the hungry people will overthrow Soviet power and bring back the power of the bourgeoisie. It is also said by those who take no account of what is going on and, pushed by hunger, are willing to grasp at any means that come to hand.

Do not believe those who say that famine can be averted by permitting independent grain collections, i.e., by permitting individual groups of hungry people to buy grain on their own account in the producing gubernias.

These so-called independent purchases are a terrible evil, which make the disorganisation of food supply even worse.

Individual groups of starving people, turning up in producing regions to purchase grain, compete with one another, push prices up, cause the owners of grain to hold on to it even more tightly, and disorganise state procurements.

A just distribution of grain surpluses among the starving would be unthinkable if independent procurements were permitted.

Grain will only be obtained by those individual groups of starving people who are best organised, who are able, by raising the fixed prices or other means, to induce the holders of grain to sell grain products.

Consequently independent purchases mean not a struggle between the hungry and the holders of grain, but a struggle between the hungry themselves, between strong groups of hungry people on the one hand, and weaker groups of the same hungry people on the other.

Comrade workers and starving peasants! You should know that every spare piece of bread obtained by one group of starving people in the producing regions is a piece of bread seized by one hungry person from another.

And this means nothing more than war among the starving themselves.

Apart, of course, from genuinely confused people whom hunger has made unable to see the consequences of their actions, those who are urging you along the road of independent procurements know full well what they are doing.

By destroying the grain monopoly, they are setting hungry people against each other, and are impatiently awaiting the moment when famine will smother the revolution.

The workers and peasants set out on the struggle against tsarism and the bourgeoisie in an organised way, and they defeated their enemies.

The workers and starving peasants should set out to struggle against famine in a similarly organised way, not working at cross-purposes.

Without succumbing to the influence of famine, the workers and starving peasants, together with their government, should say to those comrades who are weakening:

Not one single step away from the grain monopoly!

No increase in fixed prices!

No independent purchases, no separate actions!

But it is not enough simply to proclaim the unshakeability of the grain monopoly and of fixed prices.

The most successful implementation of the grain monopoly is only possible under the following conditions:

Firstly, the whole business of supply must be centralised in a sensible fashion. The grain monopoly will only give positive results when all directives from the centre are carried out to the letter in the localities, when the local authorities do not carry on their own independent food procurement policies, but the policies operated by the central government in the interests of the entire starving population.

Secondly, state grain procurement should be carried out with the direct participation of the most conscious sections of the starving workers and peasants themselves. It is certain that starving workers and peasants will get hold of grain more quickly than well fed ones, but only if they are working not apart from, or even alongside, the food procurement organs, but together with them, united with them in a single structure.

Thirdly, the poor peasantry must be united against the rural bourgeoisie which currently holds surplus grain stocks. Unless the poor peasants are united in the producing gubernias, unless they and the hungry are brought together against the kulaks, it will be difficult, as experience has shown, to take the grain from them.

The centralisation of the whole business of food procurement, the organised deployment of conscious cadres of starving workers and peasants and the uniting of the rural poor in the grain-producing gubernias - these are the tasks which the central authorities are trying to resolve in their struggle against famine. The decree newly adopted by the Central Executive Committee of Soviets of Workers' and Peasants' Deputies on the reorganisation of food procurement organs provides the opportunity to resolve them.

The Workers' and Peasants' Government has clearly identified the deficiencies in the law on the grain monopoly.

One of the main deficiencies of that law is that it is incomplete. It does not ensure any correspondence between the fixed prices for grain and the uncontrolled prices for articles of mass consumption, particularly for those goods which are essential in the countryside.

This deficiency will be overcome in the very near future: the central authorities have taken measures to ensure that fixed prices will be established for all items of mass consumption as soon as possible.

Comrade workers and starving peasants, the government you established has no option but to tell you the whole truth.

It is obliged to warn you that the legislative and organisational measures which are being taken now and which will be taken later will only give the desired results in the future.

Weeks and months will pass before a strict and relentless application of the law on the grain monopoly, along with all the other measures to be taken on the way, will bear the desired fruits.

However, grain is needed today and tomorrow. Famine has arrived and cannot be postponed any longer.

How and where can grain be got in the next few days?

Comrade workers and starving peasants, you know where the grain is held.

Almost all grain stocks are held by the rural kulaks.

Having become rich during the war by accumulating enormous sums of money, they have no need to supply grain and are holding on to it, awaiting an increase in the price, or are selling it at speculative prices.

Famine in the towns, famine in the industrial centres, famine in the villages of the grain-consuming regions does not worry them.

Having got rich out of war, they now want to get rich out of famine.

Along with the big bourgeoisie, which was hit hard by the revolution and which never liked the grain monopoly, the rural kulaks are demanding the removal of the grain monopoly and the revision of the fixed prices.

They are not concerned that the removal of the grain monopoly and the revision of fixed prices will give bread only to the rich, not to the starving.

The kulaks do not want to give bread to the hungry and would not give it, whatever concessions the state were to make to them.

Grain must be taken from the kulaks by force.

We must launch a crusade against the rural bourgeoisie.

This is the road the government has taken, and it is calling upon you to join it, comrade workers and starving peasants.

You must answer the call of the central authorities as quickly as possible.

You must quickly form armed detachments of the most seasoned and steadfast workers and peasants, resistant to all temptations and completely disciplined, and put them at the disposal of the central authorities as soon as possible.

Time will not wait. Surplus grain must be taken immediately from the rich kulaks.

The detachments you form, along with disciplined Red Army detachments, under the military leadership of tried and tested revolutionaries and food procurement specialists, will go out to win grain from the rural bourgeoisie.

Merciless war against the kulaks!

This slogan will save us from famine in the immediate future, and it will save and deepen the gains of the revolution.

You should know, comrade workers and peasants, that this may be one of the last battles you have to wage against the bourgeoisie.

To lose it is to lose the revolution.

If you do not want, or are not able, to "win grain" from the kulaks, then you will lose all that you have already won with such effort and such great sacrifices.

Not one step away from the grain monopoly!

Not the slightest increase in the fixed grain prices!

No independent procurements!

All seasoned, disciplined and conscious elements in a single organised food procurement structure!

Fulfil all directives of the central authorities to the letter!

No separate actions!

Complete revolutionary order in the country!

War to the kulaks!

In this way and only in this way, comrade workers and starving peasants, will you defeat the famine and go on to further victories on the road to socialism.

All other ways lead to a worsening of the famine and the demise of the Revolution.

Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars
Vl. Ul'yanov (Lenin)

People's Commissars: Tsyurupa, Lunacharsky, Chicherin, Shlyapnikov, Petrovsky, Lander, Vinokurov, Gukovsky.

Business manager of the Council of People's Commissars:

Secretary: N Gorbunov

Source: S N Valk et al. (editors), Dekrety sovetskoy vlasti, Vol. 2, Izdatel'stvo politicheskoy literatury, Moscow, 1959, pp. 349 - 355.