World War II: Soviet Home Front--Food


Figure 1.--This photo was taken in 1944 on a kolkhoz (collective farm) in Altai Krai, Russia. The harvest failed in 1943. The Soviet food supply was in desperate conditions at the time because of the German occuopation of some of the country's best agricultural lands. Lttle food was available to aliviate famine conditions. Altai Krai has rolling foothills and is located north of western Kazakhstan in the edge of the great Eurasian Steppe. It was art of a great crossroads in the ancient world as the famed Silk Road passed through. It was one of the areas east of the Eurals where dismantled factories were set up. Over 100 evacuated plants from western regions including 24 plants of All-Union importance were set up in the duistrict.

Food was a difficult problem in the Soviet Union before World War II. Stalin for both ideological and political reasons decided to collectivize agriculture once he was in full command of the Soviet state. He hoped collectivuization because it aklso meant mechanization would increase harbvests. It was one part of the First Year Five Year Plan to rapidly industrialize, The idea was to extract more grain from the peasantry to feed industrial workers in the expanding cities. When the Ukranian peasantry resisted, he orcestrated the Ukranian Famine. Millions perished, including the Kulaks--the most prosperous peasants. They were the most prosperous of course because they were the best farmers. And as a result, instead of increasing harvests, food production plumeted. Soviet agriculture never fully recovered. It was further hampered by another of Stalin's ideological initiatives--supporting Trotim Lysenko. Lysenkoism put back Soviet genetics, including developing hardy grain strains a generation. As a result food shortages existed in the Soviet Union before the German invasion. After the invasion, the food situation got much worse. Food was one of the most difficult problens faced by the Soviet Union during World War II. The phenomenal early successes of Barbarossa left the Germans in control of most of the best agricultural land of the Soviet Union--the highly productive black soil lands of the Ukraine and adjacent areas of Russia and Bylorussia. This had been one of the major attractions that had drawn Hitler to the East. Hitler believed that the vast tracts of productive land would feed the Reich during the War. It did not. It did meet the needs of the Whermacht, but very little food from the East reached German civilians. But it did deny food to the embattled Soviets, creating one of the Soviet regime's major problems. Thec Whermacht only fed the Soviets working for them. All other Soviets had to fend for themselves. No one really knows how mant Soviet citizens died during the War. Estimate generall range in the 25-30 million range. Some estimates are even higher. There were about 9 million military deaths. That number is fairly well accepted. Less clear is the mumber of civilian deaths. One of the leading causes of civilian deaths was starvation. The Germans starved civikians in the oxxupied areas and the Soviets Union simply did not have enough food to feed its population after the Germans occupied the Ukraine and other food producubng regions. We know that some 1 million Lenningraders starved. The numbers who starved outside Leningrad in iccupied and unoccupied regiions will never be known with any precissiion. Another 1-2 million surely starved. [Collingham, p. 317.] The actual total is probably higher, especially if you include causes that were brought on by starvation. While much of this occurred in the occupied area there are many reports of starvation in the unoccupied areas, bodies on thecstreets or peoopler collapsing as rthey worked in ae plabts. [Moskoff, p. 37.] One author contends that of war-related causes such as conditiins brought on or worsened by chromic malnutrition are considered, the death toll would be well over 30 million. [Miller, p. 284.]

Russian Agriculture

Serfdom was the medieval European farm labor system. It was not strongly introduced to Russian until the end of feudalism in Western Europe (late-16th century). Tsar Alexander II freed the serfs (1861), but it was done so as not to alienate the landed aristocracy and essentially created a disaffected, landless or labnd-poor rural proletariat. Russian under the Tsars exported vast quatiies of grain. Russian agricultural was inefficent, but the vast black soil area of the south was highly fertile and produced boutiful harvests. Grain exports were an important part of the Russian economy.

Agricultural Production

The Soviet agricultural sector was devestated by collectivization and the attacks on the kulacks, especially in the Ukraine. Some clame collectivization enabled the Soviets to more effectively resist the the NAZIs. I am not sure about this. Soviet agricultural production was impaired by the man power needs of the army. This was only partially resolved by mobilizing other labor sources such as school children. The war effort also shifted production away from the agricultural sector. The production of farm vehicles was vurtually terminated as was the production of fertilizer. An even greater prblem was the NAZI seizure of huge areas of some of the most roductive farm land in the Soviet Union. The NAZIs seized much of the Ukraine in 1941 and the rest in 1942. Even when these lands were liberated during 1943-44, farms were damaged by the Soviet scoarched earth effort (1941-42) and the NAZIs destroyed buildings and equipment, especially as they retreated (1943-44). We are unsure how Russia survived without the Ukranian bread basket. America provided substantial food supplies, but this was primarily used for the military. Nor do we have details on how the NAZIs used and exploited the agricuktural lands that they seized and exploited (1941-42).

Soviet Agriculture

Food was a difficult problem in the Soviet Union before World War II. After the Revolution grain exports declined as peasants refused to produce grain for which the new Soviet state refused to pay a reasonable price. The New Economic Policy (NEP) provided only a temprary respite. The Soviet agricultural sector was weakened before the War by Stalin's agricultural reforms, essentially murdering most of the country's best farmers (the so called kulaks) along with their families and introducing a highly inefficent collectivist system. Stalin for both ideological and political reasons decided to collectivize agriculture once he was in full command of the Soviet state. He hoped collectivization because it also meant mechanization would increase harvests. It was one part of the First Year Five Year Plan to rapidly industrialize, The idea was to extract more grain from the peasantry to feed industrial workers in the expanding cities. When the Ukranian peasantry resisted, he orcestrated the Ukranian Famine. Millions perished, including the Kulaks--the most prosperous peasants. They were the most prosperous of course because they were the best farmers. And as a result, instead of increasing harvests, food production plumeted. This gave Stalin control of Soviet agriculture, but at a cost of significantly reduceing havests. Soviet agriculture never fully recovered. It was further hampered by another of Stalin's ideological initiatives--supporting Trotim Lysenko. Lysenkoism put back Soviet genetics, including developing hardy grain strains a generation. As a result, food shortages existed in the Soviet Union before the German invasion.

Food Supplies in the Unoccupied Soviet Union

After the invasion, the food situation in the Soviet Union got much worse. Food was one of the most difficult problens faced by the Soviet Union during World War II. When Hitler launched Barbarossa (June 1941), the Germans quickly seized control of much of the most fertile Soviet agricultural lands, the incredibly productive black soil areas of the south as well as Belarus (the western part had been Polish before the War. The Soviets could move factories east beyond the reach of the Germans, but not farms. This created a huge problem for the Soviet war economy. Adequate food was not available for the Red Army and Soviet civilian population. Soviet food policy was to gice priority to the Red Arnmy and the industrial workers producng arms. Children below 13-years of age were also a priority. Above 12-years of age, unless you were in the mikitary ot an indusrial worker, you coukd starve unless you could somehow gain access to supplementary food above the offucial ration. The tragic situation in Lenningrad cut off from the rest of the country for 900 days is well known. Less well know is the terrible food shortages in the rest of the counttry. The German occupation did not feed the Reich as Hitler had expected, but it did serve one strategic goal, it denied food to the embattled Soviets, creating one of the Soviet regime's major war problems. With the best agricultural lands in German hands, the Soviets no longer had access to large grain harvests. The Ukraine in particular had been the Soviet bread basket and that grain was nom longer available to feed the Red Army and civilan population. American Lend Lease provided badly needed food supplies, without which the Soviet war effort would have been critically weakned. Much of this food went to the Red Army, SPAM became a mainstay of the Red Army diet. The population as a whole benefitted indirectly as othewise more food would have had to be diverted to the military.

Food Supplies in the German Occupied Soviet Union

Even worse off were the civilans trapped in German occupied areas. The phenomenal early successes of Barbarossa left the Germans in control of most of the best agricultural land of the Soviet Union--the highly productive black soil lands of the Ukraine and adjacent areas of Russia and Bylorussia. This had been one of the major attractions that had drawn Hitler to the East. Hitler believed that the vast tracts of productive land would feed the Reich during the War. It did not. It did meet the needs of the Whermacht, but very little food from the East reached German civilians. The Whermacht only fed the Soviets working for them. All other Soviet civilanss had to fend for themselves. Large numbers of civilians fled the major cities, seeking food in the country side or even living rough in the woods. Food and shelter in the winter were their major problem. They had to forage for food, finding roots, nettlwa=s, wild berriesm,, even pine needles and spruce branches. Many red Army soldiers were doing the same. [Collingham, p. 323.] Some were targeted by Geman anti-partisan campaigns. We do not have information on survival rates for these people. Perhaps readers will know more. Large numbers of these civilans must have petished. This is just what the Germans planned. Unless they worked for the Germans, there was no access to food which was a calculated policy as part of the German's horific Hunger Plan. This is one reason the population of major Soviets cities dwindled as people fled into the countryside seeking food. Major Soviert cities were depopulated. This essntually was what was planned by the NAZI Hunger Plan.

Rationing

The Soviet Union had a multi-teered rarioning system. The Party elite and imkprtabt odduicials were largely unaffected. They ontinued to hace access to well-stocked special stores. American Lend Lease supplies foind there way into these stores. The highest rations were assigned to frontline troops. The ration was2,954v calllories, increased to 3,450 for combat duty. This was well short of what was needed, especially during the winter. (British cold weather tations were 5,300 calories.) For the first year or year and a half after the German invasion, Red Army soldiers rarely got there full rations. Red Army field kitches were primitive, but few front-line troops for some times received hot mrals from these kitchens. Meat in particular was in short supply. And supply deliveries varied over time created condituions of both oversupply and at times famine. Soldiers learbed to forage. Civilians were worse off than the soldiers. Ration cards werte issued, but the stated quantities were aspirations not a guarantee. The only guaranteed food was bread. It was black bread made from carious grains. Most Soviets got much of theor caloric in take from the brrad ration. The quantity varied deopending on one's catehory. The highest ration went to industrail workers. Workers in heavy indusyry got a bread ration four to five times higher than those in the lowest-priority categiory. Young children received extra rations. One they reached 12 years of age, however, they were reclassified as 'dependents', the lowest catregory. Teenagwers thus sought jobs in factories to qualify for larger rations and the factory canteen. [Collingham, p. 328-29.]

Soviet Deaths

No one really knows how many Soviet citizens died during the War. One author describes it as collosal, the greatest death toll of all the World War II combatant countries. Estimate generall range in the 25-30 million range. Some estimates are even higher. There were about 9 million military deaths. That number is fairly well accepted. Less clear is the mumber of civilian deaths. One of the leading causes of civilian deaths was starvation. The Germans starved civikians in the occupied areas and the Soviets Union simply did not have enough food to feed its population after the Germans occupied the Ukraine and other food producing regions in the western part of the country. We know that some 1 million Lenningraders starved durung the 900 day occupation. . The numbers who starved outside Leningrad in iccupied and unoccupied regiions will never be known with any precissiion. Another 1-2 million surely starved. [Collingham, p. 317.] The actual total is probably higher, especially if you include causes that were brought on by starvation. While much of this occurred in the occupied area there are many reports of starvation in the unoccupied areas, bodies on thecstreets or peoopler collapsing as rthey worked in ae plabts. [Moskoff, p. 37.] One author contends that of war-related causes such as conditiins brought on or worsened by chromic malnutrition are considered, the death toll would be well over 30 million. [Miller, p. 284.]

Lend Lease

Lend Lease was conceived by Presiden Roosevelt before America entered the War. After the fall of France (June 1940), American public opinion began to shift. More Americans saw the need to aid Britain, but still did want to enter the War. Britain was going bankrupt and coukd not continue the War without American support. Lend Lease was the Presiden't answer. He conveived of it (December 1940). Congress passed the bill (March 1941O). The name was an absurity. One does not leaser military equiopment. Who wants a tank after it has been shot up. And much of the shipments were expendables (amunition and food). But as the President calculated, the Amerrivam public still wary of involvement liked the sound of it. A few months later, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union (June 1941) and the United States quickly offered Lend Lease aid to the embattled Soviet Union. The task pf gettomg aid to the Soviets was daunting. Shipments to Britain were a short trop accrodd the Noth Atlantic. The routes to the Soviets were much longer. The Arctic route was especially daunting. The fitst shipments arrived (November 1941), but it was not until after Stalingrad (Nobember 1942-January 1943) that supplies began arricinfg in large quantity. Food was a very important part of the shipments. Britain was the major recipinent of Lend Lease aid, but by 1943 food and other supplies were reaching the Soviets in great quantitor. Lend Lease food shipments increased the availability of sugar and vegitables by more than half. Meaths increased by 20 percent. SPAM became virtually synommous with America. The availability of fats doubled. Food was less than 15 percent of total shipments, but they were highly concentated foos, meat, butter and dehydrated food stuffs. It is difficult to know just how important Lend Lease food stuffs were, in part because Stalin down-played the American contribution after the War. But we know that in conferencves with the Americans duruing the War, Stalin pushed the hardest for raw material and food. [Erickson, p. 84.] Most of the food went to the Red Army, but civilians bebefitted as Soviet food that would have gone to military could be diverted to the Civilian population. Lend Lease shipments must have saved millions of Soviet citizens from starvation.

Liberated Areas

The Germans held these important agricultural areas of the Soviet Union for 2-3 years. Ukraine into 1943 and Belarus and the Baltics (annexed by the Soviets) untill 1944. But even after liberation, the infrastructure had been so damaged that resuming production was a great challenge.

Sources

Moskoff, William. The Bread of Affluence: The Food Supply in the Soviet Union during World War II (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990).

Collingham, Lizzie. The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food (Penguin Books: New York, 1962), 634p.

Erickson, John. The Road to Berlin: Stalin's War with Germany Vol. II (Widenfield & Nichols: London, 1983).

Miller, James R. "Conclusion: Impact and aftermath of World War II," in Susan Linz, ed. The Impact of World War II on the Soviet Union (Rowman & Allanheld: Totowa, N.J., 1985), pp. 283-91.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. The Gulag Archipelago (Harper & Row), 660 p.






CIH--WW II







Navigate the CIH World War II Section:
[Return to Main Soviet World War II economy page]
[Return to Main Soviet World War II home front page]
[Return to Main Soviet World War II work force page]
[Return to Main world War II country food policies]
[Return to Main Great Patriotic War page]
[Return to Main World War II country page]
[Biographies] [Campaigns] [Children] [Countries] [Deciding factors] [Diplomacy] [Geo-political crisis] [Economics] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[POWs] [Resistance] [Race] [Refugees] [Technology]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Return to Main war essay page]





Created: 4:24 AM 8/30/2013
Last updated: 12:28 AM 12/20/2013