previous chapter
3 The Crisis of 1917: Bread
next chapter

3
The Crisis of 1917: Bread

This morning I went with Lotte and Beaumont to the Duma, which is open to everyone. The Palace looks like an immense guardroom. Soldiers are everywhere, all unbuttoned and eating at dirty wooden tables or sprawling on the floor round a samovar. Others, still carrying arms, are asleep on top of piled-up sacks of flour, brought there as food supplies for the town, and which cover everything with white dust.
Louis de Robien, March 1917


In the fall of 1917 large rail shipments of grain on the way to Petrograd failed to arrive. This breakdown in the transport network was caused by a failure of political authority: not only were the authorities unable to prevent the pillaging of the shipments by peasants in the northeast provinces, but they sometimes even cooperated with the peasants to prevent further damage to the rail system. Yet the breakdown of authority in turn was caused by the food-supply crisis since the peasants in these deficit provinces did not see any way to acquire grain legally.[1]

The food-supply crisis of 1917 was thus part of a chain whose other links consisted of the failure of basic societywide coordinating institutions: the transport network, the market, and political authority. The failure at each link intensified the failure at all the others. If it is true to say that the breakdown in transport was a central cause of the food-supply crisis, it is just as true to say that the food-supply crisis was a central cause of the breakdown in transport.

It is difficult to find an adequate form for the presentation of this chain of social crises. The best would be some equivalent of a split-screen effect, where we could view harried food-supply officials, indignant peasants, and desperate consumers all at the same time as the different story lines moved toward a common climax. To get the sense of a time of troubles, we would also need to use animation to portray a world where the usual laws of behavior do not seem to apply: nothing can be trusted, but at the same time everything seems possible. The soul of this animated world would be for the most part malevolent so that just getting by would often require heroic efforts. Lacking these means, we must view sequentially the different


58

groups of Russian society as they struggle to impose order on a world spinning out of control—and sometimes, even as they do so, help to push the chain reaction of social disintegration closer to an explosion.

The Wager on the Monopoly

In the few months between the revolution in February and the end of the summer, policy-makers had to revise more than once their perception of the strategic bottleneck that had to be overcome to avert the disaster of starvation. At the beginning of the year officials were worried about the size of the harvest and focused their attention on making sure that all possible land was sown. It soon became clear that this worry was overly optimistic: there was no chance that the food-supply apparatus would be able to obtain enough grain to reach that particular ceiling. Officials realized that they first had to concentrate on getting the peasant producers to deliver their grain. But owing to the breakdown in the economy and the political system, the Provisional Government was hard pressed to provide either material or coercive incentives for grain delivery, and it was forced to make heavy use of appeals to loyalty and other ideal incentives, which became progressively less effective as the year went on.

Even when the peasants did deliver their grain, it was no simple matter to transport it to the northern consumer centers. Previously the phrase breakdown in transport had referred primarily to the railroads, but disorganization continued to spread, and there were now more links in the chain of transportation to be disrupted. During the course of the previous year reserves at transportation points and flour mills had been used up, and almost all available grain was in the hands of the actual producers. But the short distance covered by cart to the rail point had always been vastly more expensive than the long distance traveled by rail. The new dependence on cartage meant greater vulnerability to the rainy season, greater need for new collection points, greater difficulties in price setting, and greater chances for bottlenecks to develop in the provision of such mundane items as sacks.[2]

The collapse of the rail system had led to greater interest in the efficient use of river navigation. Not much had been done about improving efficiency in 1916 because of the tardiness in the final decision on fixed prices, but food-supply officials were determined to do better in 1917. The problems were great. It was harder to impose regulation on river traffic than on


59

the railroads because of the smaller units and the greater role played by private owners. Consequently when the navigation season opened, first priority was taken by shipments of all kinds that had been piling up over the winter rather than by newly delivered grain. The geographic distribution of the 1917 harvest made matters worse since the provinces on the Volga itself had a poor harvest. In the name of the efficient use of river transport the authorities called on the Volga provinces to deprive themselves temporarily in return for grain from the northern Caucusus, but this sacrifice required more confidence in the Provisional Government than was forthcoming. As with cartage, there were also more things that could go wrong, from labor trouble with the Tsaritsyn stevedores to river piracy. "Failure to exploit the 1917 fall navigation season will inevitably lead to starvation in the northern regions": food-supply officials unfortunately had a chance to test the accuracy of this prediction made in May.[3]

To overcome these obstacles, the government needed three things: an apparatus of officials to collect and transport the grain, information about the location of the grain, and incentives for peasant producers to make deliveries. Government hopes were outlined in legislation passed in March 1917 setting up the grain monopoly. It stated that all grain in the country, including the upcoming 1917 harvest, now belonged to the state; the actual producer was no more than a temporary holder of the grain. The producer was allowed to retain a stated amount of grain; everything above this norm would be delivered to the state at a price fixed by the state.

The apparatus needed to enforce the monopoly was to be created by a thoroughgoing democratization of the previous system of commissioners. Local organs were given greater autonomy from the center, and organs at all levels were expanded to include wide representation of public organizations. The result was not a system of agents sent out from the center but a system of locally elected food-supply committees (prodkomy ). The apparatus was told to get the necessary information by putting all the grain in the country on register (uchet ) to ensure that the surplus above the consumption norm was actually turned over to the state. As an incentive for cooperation, the state undertook to put equitable fixed prices on industrial items and guarantee their availability. The apparatus would expedite their distribution to grain producers as well as provide assistance in increasing grain production.[4]


60

Since the government was never able to make its control effective, a full grain monopoly remained only an ideal. The actual policy is better described as a state monopoly of the grain trade since the state's control over transportation meant that it could make a serious attempt to outlaw private grain transactions. This was in fact close to what tsarist policy would have been if the rules of 10 October had gone into effect and social forces had been enlisted into local food-supply committees. Opposition activists had protested when Rittikh made the delivery of grain a state obligation, but only because the government refused to expand the state food-supply apparatus to include public forces. Now that the apparatus was more thoroughly democratized than was possible under the tsarist government, these objections fell away.

The grain monopoly was a gamble, and perhaps the greatest risk was the creation of an apparatus by means of enlisting the peasants into the district-level food-supply committees. "The law gave precisely to these organs a whole series of functions on whose proper fulfillment depends in essence the fate of the grain monopoly"—putting the available grain on register as well as handling the technical operations of receiving and shipping grain deliveries to the center.[5] In lectures given in April 1917 to the "workers in cultural and enlightenment activities" who were to help set up the new system, Aleksandr Chaianov, one of Russia's foremost experts on the peasant economy, used the following allegory to explain the role assigned to the new committees. Imagine a large field covered with scattered grains of wheat. If a man tried to pick them all up, he would get nothing but a few handfuls and a strained back. But if he had an army of ants, they could gather the grains into small piles, and then the man could gather up these small piles.

The sheer number of ants was staggering. Chaianov calculated that there would be seventy provincial food-supply committees and seven hundred county ones. Since there were about fifteen districts in each county, there would be eight to ten thousand committees. Assuming about ten people on each of the district committees, Chaianov arrived at an estimate of an apparatus of seventy thousand people—just at the lower levels. He told his audience that "reading through the provisions of the law, you will see the colossal antlike work that the committees must carry out.


61

And this work must squeeze out of the village all the surplus grain—the village must put the entire surplus on the altar of the fatherland."[6]

Food-supply officials were conscious of the risks they were taking. As N. S. Dolinsky put it, "In the organized will of the peasantry—an elemental state force [stikhiinno-gosudarstvennaia sila ]—we hope to find a way out of our difficulties."[7] In the Russian political vocabulary of the time the combination of "elemental" and "state" has the air of a deliberate paradox. Elemental usually conjured up images of an undisciplined, uncontrollable, parochial, and anarchistic Russian people. According to Chaianov, the very hugeness of the task required this wager on the enlistment of the peasantry. The necessary food-supply apparatus could not be "built and put into motion from the center, by appointing bureaucrats and agents—the state alone could not build such an apparatus. . . . Only the people [narod ]—taking into its hands its food supply [and] its own fate—is capable of doing it."[8] The old regime never understood that the man—the state—had to rely on the ants—the peasant committees—"to penetrate to the very depths of peasant life."

The need to rely on the peasant committees was so evident that Chaianov was compelled to overlook the possibility that the ants might not find it in their interest to collect grain for the convenience of the man. The wager on peasant enlistment failed, for the district remained a "nest of peasant suspicion and separatism."[9] The food-supply committees as well as the other new local committees suffered almost immediately from a "poor parody of universal suffrage," which resulted in the exclusion of the rural intelligentsia, even those with useful skills such as consumer cooperative administrators. Food-supply officials traded stories about village meetings demanding that the local agronomists be replaced with less educated ones.[10] The district committees could not have done their job even if they had been able and willing. "The population . . . vigilantly follows the activities of these organs elected by it, and at any attempt of these organs to work in accordance with the law or the directives of the central authority,


62

the population removes them and disperses them, often to the extent of beating and even murder."[11]

The committee structure above the district level also bore little relation to what Chaianov had proudly described as a "colossal working system, subtly elaborated and provided with everything necessary for its work." Instead, it was an amalgam of committees that had existed previously, those that spontaneously grew up in the month after the revolution, those that were set up only in response to telegrams sent out by the center, and even those that tried to conform to the grain monopoly legislation. These committees never cohered into a working system, colossal or otherwise. Each level thought the committees above them or the ministry itself unresponsive or addicted to routine; each level thought the committees below them irresponsible and sloppy.

A provincial food-supply conference in Kostroma in late May revealed some of the tensions. Representatives of the county committees attacked the provincial food-supply committee for the way it distributed rights to obtain grain (nariady ). It soon became clear that the provincial food-supply committee had no real data on which to base its decisions, so that the distribution depended on how insistent the county committees could be and how convincing their hard-luck stories were. The conference passed a resolution condemning the selfishness that painted too bleak a picture of local needs to the detriment of their brother counties. But the executive board of the province committee also came under heavy attack for its "chancellery" attitude and general lack of leadership. In reply it insisted that it was being blamed for failures that were beyond its control and due to general political and economic causes.[12]

Just as important as the vertical tensions within the committee hierarchy were the tensions between surplus and deficit provinces. The surplus provinces were hostile toward the agents sent out by the deficit provinces since they made the work of the local food-supply committees more difficult by bidding up prices and disrupting the local organizational framework. The deficit regions replied that to rely solely on the energy and competence of the surplus-region food-supply committees meant risking starvation. The officials of the center tended to agree: they wanted to make the food-supply apparatus more efficient by harnessing the energy and insistence of the consumers.

An unofficial meeting of provincial food-supply committee chairmen took place during September in Moscow. The chairman from the deficit


63

province of Kaluga attended the meeting and reported back home that other provincial representatives had been stirred by the desperate plight of Kaluga and had promised to help. But a closer look reveals that in each case the promised help was conditional. Poltava would help if the ministry gave it an order for Kaluga; Ekaterinoslav would help if enough paper money were sent to pay the local grain producers; Ufa would help if the ministry gave Kaluga priority over other deficit provinces; Voronezh would help if Kaluga did something about the disruptive flood of individual Kaluga residents trying to get grain for themselves.[13]

The sense of dependence could quickly lead to irritation and hostility. An article in the official publication of the Tver food-supply committee asked the question "On whom does the food supply of Tver province depend?" It answered as follows: "The fate of Tver province is in the hands of the agriculturists of the black-earth, southern region of Russia." The writer went on to stress that the problem was not a shortage of grain but a "shortage of conscious civil duty in the well-fed population of the grain-growing provinces." He noted that before the war Tver received 10 million poods of grain from the southern provinces; it was now asking for only 7.5 million but to date had only received 1.5 million.[14]

The consumer-producer split was thus a split within the peasantry itself. In Riazan the southern counties had enough food whereas the northern counties were starving. The northern peasants were getting angry at their brothers in the south, who had taken over the estates but were now refusing to divide the spoils. The northern peasants felt they had two choices: starve, or go south to smother the peasants there.[15]

The food-supply apparatus was further weakened by its inability to enlist the technical skills of the grain-trade specialists, as millers and merchants were now called. The designers of the grain monopoly had hoped to enlist the trade apparatus, but this policy ran into the usual conflict between the localities and the center. A telegram sent to local food-supply committees on 27 July noted that both the population and the committees were reluctant to use private firms. The central authorities tried to overcome this reluctance by arguing that the firms would be put under strict monitoring, thus ensuring that state purposes would be observed. Furthermore, the firms worked for commission, not profit; they did not enter into contractual relations with anyone but merely fulfilled technical functions.


64

The reasoning of the center was clear. In the words of one food-supply official, the private apparatus had looted the population both before and after the revolution, but at least before the revolution it had also delivered the goods. The state should now force it to do so again since unfortunately the democracy lacked competent people.[16] But local officials adamantly refused to allow the participation of private merchants, declaring that the merchants had so discredited themselves with previous profiteering that it was impossible to use them.

The grain-trade specialists originally accepted the grain monopoly; their growing opposition came from the realization that they would not be allowed to participate under any conditions.[17] They soon felt that they were being used as a scapegoat, to the point of "systematic instigation of the other classes of the population against [the business class]." One grain dealer frankly stated that the business classes should not get involved since all they would earn would be the "hatred of the starving population." His colleagues rebuked him, saying that it was their patriotic duty to help even at the risk of incurring popular wrath.[18]

Thus the apparatus was torn apart by the centrifugal forces it was intended to overcome. The food-supply officials also lost the gamble on registration of grain supplies as a source of information. The partisans of the monopoly had come to see registration as a moral imperative: "Remember, citizen peasants, that the enemy of freedom is he who resists these measures, who throws a spoke in the wheel, who resists the registration of grain, who hides the harvest surplus from the food-supply committee, who refuses to sell grain at the fixed price, who is concerned only with himself and not with the salvation of his tortured and writhing homeland."[19] Yet registration was bound to fail, not only for technical reasons but also because conflict with the population was inevitable. In the words of I. Sigov:

How much work must there be simply in conducting registration of each muzhik in each hamlet, in each village, in each settlement—how much will it cost—how much time will it


65

take—what an army of clerks and census takers will be required, and where will that army come from? Finally, even in normal times how many misunderstandings, mistakes, and therefore protests, revisions, disputes, offense, and indignation will there be? And when will the [actual] procurement of grain take place?[20]

The material incentives that were an inherent part of the monopoly strategy were also not forthcoming. The continual promise of industrial items, combined with the utter lack of results, must be accounted a centrifugal force rather than a force for reconstitution since it irritated peasant producers and gave them an excuse for noncooperation.[21]

The gamble on the monopoly strategy had failed, and the results were not slow in showing themselves. In 1917 the country began to wait anxiously for the results of each month's grain procurement. March and particularly April were bad months because of transportation difficulties caused by spring floods and because the peasants were preoccupied with the spring sowing. May was a successful month for grain procurements, and for a brief moment it looked as if a corner had been turned. But May turned out to be the only month when deliveries exceeded consumption. In Moscow, where the situation was much better than in provincial towns, the population was consuming more than it received: an average of twenty-five train cars a day had arrived over the summer, yet forty-two train cars a day had been distributed in May and thirty-seven a day in August. Reserves were almost depleted, and the daily ration had to be lowered at the beginning of September from three-fourths of a funt of bread to one-fourth of a runt.[22] The scene was set for the explosion of the fall.

When surveying the wreckage of their strategy, many food-supply officials fell back to blaming the darkness of the people. The attitude of these officials is portrayed in an account by the American journalist Ernest Poole:

In true Russian fashion, [the food-supply officials] had built up a system so elaborate and complete that when you saw it on paper you felt all Russia's troubles were solved. If red tape could feed people, then the Russians were to be gorged. The plan included a network of committees large and small, in


66

cities, towns and villages, in every section of the land. But then, also in true Russian fashion, some of the planners began to despair. One, with whom my interpreter talked in the Ministry of [Food Supply], was a tall thin man with a hollow chest and rather long dishevelled hair. . . .

"The general position is this," he said, in a tone which implied it was hopeless. . . . "My department of this ministry controls all the agricultural tools, domestic or imported. Another has charge of the wheat and rye, and another of the oats and hay. The plan is later to control all the cotton goods as well, and leather, fuel and sugar. The scheme is so enormous that to direct the work from here would take a perfect army. So we are leaving things to be done by committees out in the provinces.

"I hope it will go better," he continued patiently, "when the entire mechanism of our plan is understood. But to tell you the truth, we are getting but little co-operation yet; for the country is quite unprepared for a socialistic plan of this kind. I myself am a socialist, but in the last few months I have found this is not a socialist country. Our people are not made like that. Each one is greedy for his own and thinks very little of the State. We discovered this almost at the start; but in the exaltation prevailing in those wonderful days, no one cared to point out the fact. We had clothed the people with ideals, and now we found them naked. . . .

"The revolution has shown to us that the layer of civilization here is about one thousandth of an inch. Some of us are even afraid that our beautiful revolution, like a soap-bubble, will suddenly burst."[23]

We seem to have come full circle: in his disillusionment the socialist official now echoed the despised Rittikh. When Rittikh had been asked for an explanation of popular unrest about food supplies on the eve of the February revolution, he had replied, "Gentlemen, [if you ask] what is the reason for this panic—it's difficult to explain exactly, it's something elemental."[24]

Popular Self-Protection

Frustrated officials, whatever their political persuasion, painted a picture of popular irrationality and selfishness, but the picture begins to fade when we consider the options actually available to the "dark people," as they


67

were called by the educated classes. The story of the choices made by ordinary people in 1917 begins with the situation that baffled Rittikh: sudden panic among consumers in the days just before the outbreak of the February revolution. Official statements by Rittikh and by S.S. Khabalov, the top military authority in Petrograd, stressed that reserves of flour existed in the city, that deliveries were arriving by rail, and that no change had been made in the amount of flour issued to Petrograd bakeries.[25]

Although these statements were accurate as far as they went, they left much unsaid. Khabalov did not mention that the flour given to the bakeries was a lowered norm that had gone into effect at the beginning of February, when city authorities had been told that there would be no rail shipments for a while—Petrograd and Moscow would have to subsist for the duration on their reserves. Shipments had started up again, but only recently.[26] Rittikh had been more forthcoming and had described the exceptional weather conditions that had interfered with rail traffic; he admitted that no one had expected the halt in deliveries to last as long as it did. But Rittikh could not be completely candid in his Duma statements, as material from closed government meetings reveals. The halt in grain deliveries was due not only to weather conditions but also to a fuel crisis so that even passenger traffic was interrupted. The situation was serious enough that reserves for the front were allowed to run down to a dangerous level.[27]

Even though the daily norm had just been set at a very low level, there was no rationing system in Petrograd. At the same time as the government informed the city about the interruption of flour shipments, it recommended introducing rationing. But conflicting attempts to implement this sensible suggestion led to squabbles between the city administration and the Petrograd food-supply commissioner appointed by Rittikh. (This official had the unfortunately German name of Weiss and like most other top city officials had only been on the job for a month or two.) This conflict resonated with the wider conflict between Protopopov and the city administration over control of food-supply matters and especially over the role of worker's representatives. Officials only made matters worse by a sudden refusal to give flour, which they hoped to conserve, to the workers' cooperative system. All these actions were reported in a confused way in the press.[28]


68

Meanwhile the population of Petrograd had to deal not only with a low daily norm and the insecurity attendant on the absence of rationing but also with a lack of supervision of the bread shops, which led to well-founded suspicions of abuse by the bakers.[29] Price movements increased the sense of insecurity; for much of the Petrograd working class, the winter of 1916 brought the first drop in the level of real wages.[30] The population thus observed an extremely long interruption of rail traffic, a fuel crisis that threw many places in Russia literally into the dark, and an administration filled with new and far-from-reassuring faces that could not even carry out the simplest measures of expedient distribution. It was not, as Rittikh suggested, an unexplained panic that led to a run on the bread shops and genuine deprivation for those who came too late, but an unfortunately rational strategy of self-preservation.

The February days began with a walkout by women workers, triggered by the breakdown in bread distribution, on the occasion of International Women's Day. This event reveals the three strands of the popular movement: workers and their established methods of struggle, consumers and their less organized methods of pressure, and activists with their traditions of militancy and their political focus. All observers watched anxiously to see how these strands would interact and which would become dominant. The activists urged the demonstrators not to vent their wrath on small tradespeople, who were themselves victims, but to keep their attention focused on the criminal government.[31] But both the attackers and the defenders of the government felt that the movement would collapse if only the government succeeded in scraping together some bread to give to the Petrograd population. This proposition was never tested, however, since all the government could come up with was promises of reorganization. There was a steady shift in the slogans of the popular movement from an immediate demand for bread to a call for an end to the political causes of economic chaos. The result was pointed out by General Khabalov: "When they say, 'Give us bread,' you give them bread and it's done with. But when 'Down with the autocracy' is written on their banners, how is bread going to calm them?"[32]


69

In February insecurity about the food supply had found expression in a political program, and the result was the end of the autocracy. But after the prompt promulgation of the grain monopoly by the Provisional Government the struggle for bread reverted to a more personal level, and the issues of peace and land dominated the political struggle. Only at the end of the summer did the bread issue again become incorporated in a widely accepted political program.

Yet individual choices still had vast consequences. The response made by each person and each social unit to the challenge of Hobbes's choice created a balance of forces that contributed either to centrifugal self-protection or to reconstitution of the authority of society. Many activists felt that the outcome of the choice was dependent on a person's consciousness, whether defined in terms of class or citizenship: the greater the consciousness, the more unhesitating the choice for reconstitution. But the choice was even more dependent on the concrete possibilities open to each person and the available forms of cooperation with others in similar plight.

One familiar form of cooperation was the peasant mir , or commune, the institutional framework for concerted action at the village level. In 1917, after a decade of subversion by the Stolypin legislation, the commune experienced a resurgence.[33] This made sense: the commune had originally been developed partly for the self-protection of the village in a hostile or, at best, indifferent environment, both natural and social. The collapse of political authority in 1917 thus not only allowed but almost compelled the resurgence of the commune. Lancelot Owen wrote that in 1917 "the Mir was living and active though the State was in suspension"; perhaps because should be substituted for though .[34] Other elements in the countryside were less able to thrive in a time of troubles: landowner estates and farms of peasant separators lost economic viability because of the failure of the societywide market and lost political viability because of the failure of societywide law and order.

The commune (or, more broadly, the village meeting) proved to be an effective instrument in transforming the countryside in its own image. The methods used in the struggle against the landlords were adapted from methods traditionally used within the commune to keep recalcitrants in line. These methods started with social pressure, moved to withdrawal of


70

protection, then harassment and sniping, and if necessary went on to out-and-out terrorism. In 1917 they were used not only against landowners but also against peasants reluctant to join in the commune-mandated struggle.[35] Peasants who had left the commune got the same treatment. The struggle within the peasantry is sometimes called the second social war, but it was not a class struggle directed against the rich peasant; it was a struggle of the commune directed against the separator. There is little reason to equate the separator with the rich peasant and still less to label the separator a kulak. Once reabsorbed within the commune, the erstwhile separator was often able to exert influence in communal deliberations. The aim of the commune was less to expropriate a class enemy than (in the words of one peasant) "to correct the sins and the psychology of the commune members who left to become separators under the Stolypin law."[36]

The resurgence of the commune as an organ of self-protection weakened forces working toward reconstitution since it operated on the principle of suspicion of nonpeasants or, more precisely, of anyone who could not easily be submitted to communal discipline. Bolshevik propaganda was at its most successful not when it used the framework of class but when it appealed to this suspicion of outsiders. A set of instructions for Bolshevik agitators reads:

It should be resolved by the village gathering that elected [representatives] of the poorest peasantry should keep a close eye on everything in the village: on the priest, so that he doesn't use hell to frighten those who don't want a tsar; on the teacher, so that he doesn't corrupt children [into believing] that it was better under the tsar and the landowners; on the clerk, so that he doesn't drink the people's blood with the kulak; on the doctor, so that he treats peasants and not just the rich.[37]

This principle of suspicion placed food-supply officials in a bind since the peasant's suspicion was awakened not only by the burdens imposed by the new government but also by its promises and urgent appeals. Nizhegorod


71

journalist V. Martovskii analyzed the logic of the peasant outlook. For the peasant, the state was never the representative of the whole but something external and mainly hostile—a worker-master relation. The state had only one function that the peasants understood and approved of—protection from enemies, both internal (criminals) and external: "The state is an armed force that like it or not has to be paid for." Everything else, Martovskii argued, was thought up by the gentlemen (gospoda ) to trick the peasantry into supporting them. The peasantry made no distinction among the nonpeasant classes: they were all gospoda who lived at the expense of the muzhik and only played at work. Obviously the state treasury had much more money than it needed if it could pay a young girl to sit in an office and plunk at a typewriter or to stand in a classroom and teach little girls. Therefore it was perfectly acceptable, he concluded, to cheat the treasury or take advantage of its handouts even if they were meant only for the needy. After the February revolution the village was inundated with appeals saying that the government now represented the sovereignty of the people—but all the peasants saw was the same old gospoda . There was, however, an important change: evidently the gentlemen no longer had force at their disposal, so they had to rely on trickery to get the muzhik to feed them. Appeals to support the grain monopoly because of national need fell into this category, and the more passionate these arguments became, the more convinced were the peasants of their interpretation.[38]

The village commune was not solely a force of local self-protection and did not automatically reject all the demands made on it for grain and other necessities. But in line with the view of the state as essentially a protector, the peasant producers made a sharp distinction between grain deliveries for the army and deliveries for the town. The peasants understood the necessity of supplying the army by giving up his grain without compensation, but they saw no such necessity to supply the town. What the town wanted, it had to pay for.

This attitude exasperated food-supply officials, who obviously felt the peasants were too backward to grasp that supplying the cities was a civic duty on a par with supplying the army. When peasants in Tver, for example, said they would sell hay at fixed prices only to the army, they were rebuked sharply by a food-supply official: "It is necessary to explain . . . that the fixed price is dictated by state necessity, that the peas-


72

ants will give the hay not to the army nor to the towns, nor to the factories, but to the state. It is not our business to whom the state then gives the hay: it will give it to whoever needs it. If explanation and persuasion do not work, the state is able to take what it needs by force."[39]

One reason for the peasants' lack of indulgence for the towns was exasperation with the workers, who demanded an eight-hour day, got enormous wage increases while the peasant had to sell his grain at a low fixed price, and went to political rallies instead of making the items needed by the village. In Kostroma in May 1917 the provincial food-supply committee debated whether to equalize the grain consumption norm in town and village. (Kostroma was a deficit province, so the peasants also received a ration from the committees.) The representatives of the workers argued that the availability of eggs, carrots, and other foodstuffs in the country meant that the peasant diet did not depend exclusively on bread; equal rations just meant that the peasants would sell back some of the grain they received to the town. Food-supply officials felt that the whole idea of distributing available grain in equal portions to everybody was wasteful since there was barely enough for the needy. The peasants rejected these arguments and asserted that they worked harder than the workers and had suffered more in the war; they also warned the committee that the slightest inequality would lead to peasant indignation that could cause all deliveries to stop.[40]

A similar debate broke out in Tver province over sugar rations after the city of Tver unilaterally increased the urban sugar rations. The debate covered the same charges and countercharges as in Kostroma: who had the harder life—the peasant, who had to work around the clock at harvest time, or the worker, who had to work day after day cooped up with "those damned machines"? The peasants were infuriated by what they regarded as urban privilege and stated, "The workers are the children of the peasants—but children who introduce for themselves the eight-hour working day [and thereby show] they are not thinking of helping their fathers. For this reason, among others, they do not deserve an increased handout of sugar." As an example of the kind of tactless argument that must have increased peasant hostility, I will cite the assertion of a town representative that before the war 85 percent of the sugar was consumed in the towns. Presumably this percentage reflected a natural law that it would be presumptuous for the peasant to transgress.[41]


73

If the peasant producers had organizational forms ready to hand with which to protect themselves, urban workers had to spend much time and energy creating new forms and coming to some consensus about their mutual relations. Factory committees, trade unions, local and central soviets, political parties—all these institutions had to create or recreate themselves in 1917 while at the same time struggling not only with the government and the employers but also among themselves. Recent investigations have shown that in this institutional shakedown a crucial role was played by Hobbes's choice, that is, the tension between centrifugal self-protection and centralizing reconstitution.[42] Workers had a direct stake in reconstitution of the economic unity of society in their status both as individual consumers of food and as collective consumers of the raw materials needed to keep the factories going. In both capacities they faced the choice of securing their own supplies to the detriment of general coordinating institutions or of supporting efforts to strengthen general coordinating institutions—often, unfortunately, to the detriment of securing their own supplies.

The outcome of this choice directly affected the balance of influence between the new institutions. The factory committees showed more vitality than the trade unions in 1917 because they put problems such as food supply at the center of their attention. Trade unions had an impact on workers' access to food only indirectly through wage contracts, yet these contracts seemed increasingly meaningless as the market collapsed and inflation wiped out nominal gains.[43]

In a longer perspective the factory committees of 1917 can be seen as one of a series of institutions created to protect food supply at the factory or other local levels. In 1916 workers' cooperatives had taken on the job of securing supplies and monitoring food shops, and in late 1918 trade unions took charge of sending worker detachments to obtain grain for both the state and the individual factory.[44] Whether these factory-level organizations worked on their own or in conjunction with a centralized food-supply apparatus depended on the institutional and political environment. In 1917 the factory committees were often a disruptive force since the unreliability of official food-supply channels forced them to strike out on their own.


74

Food-supply officials felt they needed to discipline the factory committees and other localist institutions such as district soviets, but they also wanted to harness the energy of these enterprising consumer organizations to strengthen the food-supply apparatus in the surplus provinces.[45]

Other urban residents also turned to a familiar organizational form: the consumer cooperative. The time of troubles had its usual contradictory effects on the cooperative movement. On the one hand, the number of consumer cooperatives doubled and then tripled in the three years since the outbreak of the war. Urban residents saw the cooperatives as a weapon against high prices and a hedge against the government's failure to secure the food supply. On the other hand, this prodigious growth distanced the new cooperatives from the prewar ideals of the movement. The new members were called flour and sugar cooperators—their goal was food, not creative forms of social self-organization.

Two new types of consumer cooperatives also revealed the contrasting pull of centrifugal and centralizing forces. One was the closed (zamknutye ) forms that served a single profession or even institution: journalists, artists, doctors, students, civil servants. The other new type moved in the opposite direction by including all classes and economic conditions, contrary to cooperative tradition. The worker cooperatives, which stood between these two types since they were open to all members of one class, also took on much greater prominence during the war years.[46]

Many urban residents had no familiar organizational forms to fall back on. Aleksei Peshekhonov concluded from his experiences in neighborhood government early in the year that other urban residents, deprived of this natural focal point, were truly "human dust" whom it was impossible to organize even with the best will in the world. The expression human dust was not one of contempt but rather a challenge to those who sought to reconstitute a new authority: how can people with no stable connections to one another be brought into a new centralized framework?[47]


75

Often the only institution uniting these other urban dwellers was the dismal one of the queue. A food-supply official wrote that "one cannot calmly devote oneself to work, observing every day these endless queues; one cannot look without pain in one's heart at people who stand humbly and patiently throughout the night so that in the morning they can receive a slice of bread."[48] Martovskii has left us an account of how the queues served as a forum for popular deliberation on the source of Russia's troubles. He described how a craftsman swore up and down against the foodsupply board, the "comrades," and the soldiers or how an old woman and a young worker debated the impact of the February revolution. The old woman repeated again and again, "Ivan Ivanych would always say, In a month they will cry: give us the old tsar and bread." "Hey," retorted the young worker, "did the tsar feed you or what, you old fool?" "There were no queues with the tsar." "Why don't you go give him a big kiss then?" At which the atmosphere lightened up a little, but not for long. According to Martovskii, the food-supply committees did occasionally find defenders, but victory in these deliberations usually went to the most persistent shouter.[49]

Some efforts were made to organize food distribution in a less destructive manner. In Moscow, building committees (domovye komitety ) were created in the fall and given responsibility for bread distribution; these committees were the forerunners of the compulsory consumer societies of the civil-war years.[50] A more defensive measure undertaken by local soviets was to head off unorganized pogroms by carrying out organized searches of food stores and private homes.[51]

Despite these efforts, the queues remained politically a centrifugal force, fueling any and all resentment toward the authorities. As Martovskii observed, "Anyone who has had to stand for hours in a queue or run around town in a fruitless search for bread can tell you to what a state of free-floating annoyance and spite it can lead and what a fertile ground it is for pogrom agitation." Many observers concurred with John Reed that "dark forces" used the queues for counterrevolutionary agitation: "Mysterious individuals circulated around the shivering women who waited in queue long cold hours for bread and milk, whispering that the Jews had


76

cornered the food supply—and that while the people starved, the Soviet members lived luxuriously."[52] Lenin also tried his hand at mobilizing this resentment: "'Everybody' suffers from the queues, but . . . the rich people send their servants to stand in line and even hire special servants for it! There's democracy for you!"[53] But he did not find it any easier when he was in power to get rid of the queues or the bitterness they engendered. An eyewitness described the queues in Petrograd a year later:

Queues, mostly of working women, were waiting outside small stores with notices printed on canvas over the lintel "First Communal Booth," "Second Communal Booth," and so on. . . . There was rarely enough to go round, so people came and stood early, shivering in the biting wind. . . . One caught snatches of conversation from these queues. "Why don't the 'comrades' have to stand in queues?" a woman would exclaim indignantly. "Where are all the Jews? Does Trotsky stand in a queue?" and so on.[54]

The worst damage that an urban crowd could inflict was a local pogrom. The damage done by peasant consumers, forced to secure their food outside institutional channels, was nationwide. This new centrifugal force gave rise to a new word in the Russian language: meshochnichestvo , or "sackmanism." The sackmen (meshochniki ) were men and women who went to the peasant villages of the surplus regions to obtain grain, which they carried back home on their person in a sack (meshok ). Other terms for the same phenomenon were "pilgrims" (palomniki ), "walking delegates" (khodoki ), and "slicemen" (kusochniki ). These names denote the long distances traveled and the small amounts of grain obtained.

The phenomenon of the sackmen is usually associated with the civil war, but it had already attained mass proportions by late 1917. This fact has been overlooked by most historians, partly because there is a tendency to equate peasant with grain producer and to see peasant mass action in 1917 mainly in terms of the expropriation of gentry land. But sackmanism was the revolt of the peasant consumer.

The sackmen were the bootleggers of the prohibition of private grain trade. Just as in the case of the prohibition of vodka, prohibition of the trade in grain led to the replacement of specialized and efficient experts with a democratized and hugely inefficient influx of amateurs. It is difficult to


77

categorize neatly the flood of buyers inundating the surplus provinces since the types blended into one another. At one end of the spectrum were agents of various organizations in the deficit provinces, sent south to act as expediters (tolkachi ). These agents might accept the discipline of the local food-supply authorities, or (more usually) they might feel obliged to hustle on their own, thus earning the hostility of the local authorities. This type merged into the sackmen—although really obtaining grain for themselves, they had usually extorted certification as agents from district foodsupply committees—then blended into the speculators, who were buying grain with the intention of reselling it. Often the only difference between a sackman and a food-supply agent was a scribbled signature on a crumpled piece of paper. Given this situation, it was impossible to tell where the black market began and where it ended.

In September a representative of the Ministry of Food Supply, N. Sheremetev, wrote a description of the situation in Kaluga province in the hope of getting central officials to reexamine their basic premises. Sheremetev marked three stages in the rise of sackmanism. In the beginning the food-supply committees sent out instructors to urge people to cooperate with the monopoly. At first these instructors were believed, but when the committees failed to make good on their assurances, the instructors became so unpopular that they had to assume the "name, far from popular in the village, of statistician."

In the next stage the food-supply committees were told not to hand out the purchasing certificates that gave a semilegal cover to individual purchases. These directives had little effect. The district committees caved in to the sackmen quickly; the county committees held out a little longer, but after an incident in late August they changed their attitude. A crowd seized the members of a county food-supply board and paraded them down the street, their hands tied behind their backs, with the intention of tossing them in the river. After this incident the county committees offered no resistance. The sackman movement began to grow to enormous size and involve tens of thousands of peasants.

In the third stage a food-supply militia was formed. It had some effect but usually only against the weakest of the sackmen—widows or soldiers' wives. At journey's end, after incredible exertions, these people saw their bread confiscated by the militia. Hence their reproach to food-supply officials: "Now tell us, Mr. Chairman, what are we to do: go out looting, or murder our own children?" And how could the chairman answer? commented Sheremetev bitterly. Could he say, "Do neither the one nor the other, but bravely and tranquilly die a death by starvation, for the good of the country?" No, that would require an excessive belief in the monopoly.


78

To demonstrate how hated the monopol'ka was, Sheremetev related that once a telegram from the center was misinterpreted as announcing its repeal: "The news was greeted with such joy by the population that you would have thought it was the emancipation from serfdom." There was an immediate mass attack on the trains, and it took three weeks to get things back to normal, or what passed for normal. Sheremetev sided with the sackmen, who refused to starve quietly. Why should they be sacrificed to the "stubborn doctrinairism" behind the monopoly? What purpose was served by turning people, to their own surprise, into criminals and smugglers?[55]

The same story repeated itself in most other deficit provinces. Martovskii described one Nizhegorod district, where things were quiet until a prominent citizen said in public, "All is helpless—every man for himself." This declaration created a panic, and no one was left in the area except the rural intelligentsia. The district committees put up no resistance to the peasants' illegal demand for certificates; if anyone criticized their actions, the committees could easily turn the hostile attention of the crowd toward the critic. The committees even gave a certificate to the kulak (Martovskii's word) who sauntered in and announced, "I've got enough rye, but I need wheat for pirozhki." Martovskii did not blame the committee members, who were average semiliterate peasants capable perhaps of going to town to get food to distribute but not of carrying out the complicated organizational work required by the monopoly. In any event, not only organized food-supply work but all civilized values as well were being trampled by the crowd, whose attitude was, "Who cares about honor if there is nothing to eat? [Chto za chest', koli nechego est'? ]."[56]

The wave of sackmen had a devastating impact on the surplus provinces. The sackmen bid up the prices and made it impossible for the local foodsupply committee to obtain grain. A ministry official noted that Cheliabinsk had given fifty thousand poods a day in October 1917 but only three or four thousand a day in November, the reason being "whole crowds of peasants and people in soldiers' greatcoats" who undermined the fixed prices.[57] Indeed, many places began to fear they would not be able to provide for their own needs. In Eletsk county in Siberia, inundated with peasants from Kaluga and Smolensk, the use of force against the sackmen


79

had been endorsed by all the local organs of the democracy. In this case, however, the soldiers of the garrison still refused to confiscate the grain.[58]

The sackmen, who had used violence to extort certificates from their local committees, did not hesitate to use violence in the surplus provinces. A representative from Tver, returning from a trip to Voronezh, described an incident in which a band of sackmen got thirty-five thousand poods of grain in one village, hijacked a train, and were stopped only after a pitched battle with garrison soldiers up the line, in which three sackmen were killed.[59] Moreover, the hordes of sackmen presented a health hazard. The chairman of the Ekaterinoslav committee spoke of huge crowds, with women and children, living around railroad stations under the open sky "in horrifyingly unsanitary conditions that threaten every sort of epidemic."[60] No wonder a hostile attitude grew up in the surplus provinces, not only against the sackmen but also against the deficit provinces that could not restrain their population.

In response to the violence of the sackmen the food-supply committees increasingly demanded a get-tough policy. A conference at the Ministry of Food Supply on 18 October on the problem of sackmanism suggested the following measures: (1) to put blockade detachments on railroad lines; (2) to reduce formalities on searches (osmotr ) of train passengers; (3) to restrain the lower committees from handing out certificates; (4) to crack down on open trade in the large cities; (5) to give wide publicity to the requisitioning of products from sackmen; (6) to increase penalties for speculation; and (7) to improve procurement in the surplus regions.[61]

Many local committees urged similar measures. One telegram that came into the center is of special interest because it came from Aleksandr Tsiurupa, then a food-supply official in Ufa but later the Bolshevik commissar of food supply. Tsiurupa said the following measures must be vigorously applied, by force if necessary: categorical refusal to allow sackmen to leave the deficit provinces, armed search of trains to eject sackmen, and legal penalties for any official who gave out certificates.[62] These proposals, which are redolent of the civil war, hardly stand out from other proposals by food-supply officials in the fall of 1917.


80

The sackmen phenomenon reached a height of destructiveness when it was intensified by the disintegration of the army. The February revolution had led to an abandonment of the previous dualism that gave exclusive priority to the army since the new food-supply system was meant to take care of the needs of the country as a whole, with the army seen as only one component.[63] At first it seemed that the prestige of the army would help strengthen the new food-supply apparatus since soldier delegates were among the most successful in persuading peasant producers to comply with the demands of the grain monopoly.[64] But the new system could not give the army what it needed, and individual military units began to strike out on their own. The desperate food-supply situation was one reason commander in chief Lavr Kornilov began to turn his attention to civilian questions and demand militarization of defense industries.[65] By October it was clear to military authorities that food-supply difficulties mandated a de facto demobilization even in the unlikely event that the Ministry of Food Supply managed to deliver what it promised. Unfortunately the spontaneous demobilization often took the form of sackmanism, as all over the country appeared "masses of soldiers, furnished with certificates from their military units, . . . who demand the release of food-supply products and fodder without regard to any official distribution orders."[66] Deserters often became full-time sackmen, earning their living by defying the monopoly. Soldier sackmen were the most destructive kind of all, wrecking the rail system and spreading violence and chaos. Dualism before the revolution had been a centrifugal force, but its abandonment, unsupported by central institutions capable of supplying the economy as a whole, led not to reconstitution but to a frightening disintegration of the army, the final guarantee of a unified political authority.

Sackmanism showed the dilemma of Hobbes's choice at its sharpest. Food-supply officials saw the sackmen's attempt to solve the food-supply question by themselves as the main obstacle to the proper functioning of the apparatus. Officials in the deficit areas felt that this was the equivalent of saying, "First stop being hungry, and after that we'll give you some bread."[67] Only desperate need could drive people to take time off at the


81

height of the harvest season, run the gamut of food-supply committees like beggars, steal away in the dead of night, bully their way onto a train, and at the end have their grain confiscated by the food-supply militia of the surplus provinces. It was often only the strong and comparatively well-off who could risk this adventure, whereas the poor peasant or the widow had perforce to rely on the meager official rations.[68] This differential impact of economic breakdown caused perhaps more bitterness within the village in 1917 and 1918 than long-standing class hostilities.

In 1917 all the groups we have observed—peasant producers, workers and other urban consumers, peasant and soldier sackmen—made choices that on balance strengthened centrifugal forces. The result was unsatisfactory to all, and great potential support existed for new institutions that could reconstitute the shattered unity of the economy and the political system. Yet reconstitution required not only popular cooperation but also a working consensus among leadership groups on a strategy for creating the new institutions.


82

previous chapter
3 The Crisis of 1917: Bread
next chapter