This is a good example of backwardness in Russia during the end of the 19th Century

For decades Russia had been suffering from a permanent harvest problem that varied in degree, and hunger was part of reality in the countryside. In 1891, however, the country was struck by a disaster of as yet unknown proportions: some 15 provinces in European Russia, mainly in the Volga and black soil provinces, faced a 30% to 50% crop failure as a result of insufficient harvest in both the winter and the summer. These regions were considered Russia's granary, and in 1891 comprised an area one-third larger than Germany, and almost double the size of France. As a direct consequence of the crop failure, millions of peasants and their families had to endure a famine that lasted well into the summer of 1892, and which cost some 400,000 lives.


Causes of famine

Climate: Russia's long, cold winters and short, hot summers made transportation difficult and limited foreign trade as a majority of Russia’s ports were often iced over.
Poor soil: With the exception of the black earth belt, Russia has fairly poor soil, a short growing season, low precipitation, and large arid steppe regions unfit for agriculture except with extensive irrigation. These factors limited agricultural production and caused frequent of crop failures and famine.
Backwards farming techniques: The peasants used medieval technology like wooden ploughs and sickles. They rarely had modern fertilizers or machinery (the Petrovsky academy in Moscow was Russia's only agricultural school).
Russia's size: Its sheer size caused major difficulties as Russia's primitive railways were not up to redistributing grain
Lack of incentive: Russian farmers did not produce to make a profit - instead they produced enough for themselves and their families to eat which gave them no incentive to improve efficiency of their land of mechanize, but every incentive to produce as many children as possible
Censorship: the government discredited the famine and banned the word famine (golod) they called it a poor harvest (neurozhai) and stopped the papers reporting on it.
Grain exports: were not banned till mid-August and merchants had a month's warning so they could quickly export their reserves. Even the Minister of Finance Ivan Vyshnegradsky opposed not banning it earlier.
Minister of Finance: Ivan Vyshnegradsky was seen as the main cause of the disaster as it was his policy to raise consumer taxes to force peasants to sell more grain. Even Russia's capitalists realized the industrialization drive had been too hard on the peasants.
Conscription: This reduced farm labor as the peasant sons could no longer work the land.
Taxmen: they were sent to seize livestock when grain ran out c as well as seizing grain and live stock to pay off redemption payments, this caused the peasants to stop/reduce production or kill off/hide their livestock.

Relief efforts

On November 17, 1891 the government asked the people to form voluntary anti-famine organizations.

Leo Tolstoy blamed the Tsar and the Orthodoxy church for the famine. The Orthodox Church actually banned peasants from accepting his charity as they had excommunicated him. Nicholas II headed the relief commitee and was a member of the finance committee three months later, while the Tsar and Tsarina raised 5 and 12 million roubles respectively. Alexander III's sister Grand Duchess Elizabeth also raised money by selling peasant crafts in bazaars. Nicholas II said, "A great honor, but little satisfaction ...I must admit I never even suspected it's [finance committee's] existence". The zemstvas got 150 million roubles from the government to buy food, but were only allowed to loan to peasants who could repay them and were therefore the least needy. Starving peasants had to eat raw donated flour and "famine bread", a mixture of moss, goosefoot, bark and husks. In February of 1892, the government bought 30,000 Kirghiz horses so the fields could be plowed.

Government failure - why were they so slow to react?

The official end of the famine was declared on July 1st 1892. The state had succeeded in averting the real threat of mass starvation and had prevented total economic collapse in the stricken regions. Yet shortcomings at many levels, institutional, political, and infrastructural, had hampered the government in responding to the crisis quickly and efficiently. The core problem was insufficient coordination between the ministries due to the absence of a cabinet capable of formulating a policy and monitoring its execution. Other defects in the state machinery were also obvious. These included gathering information the command chain from the center to the countryside, the defiant attitude of both governors and zemstva, the lack of confidence in cooperation with local authorities, the absence of coordination of private efforts, and an inadequate transport network. Tragically, there had been sufficient supplies of grain within the borders of the Empire to feed the people, but these food reserves were located at considerable distance from the starving black soil areas. The government also did not remedy the absence of an institution at the most local level of the volost' and the village, which could have ensured proper distribution of food to the peasants' families.



Notes taken by Jorden Olton
and Imogen Walker



The climate also shaped its history as much of European Russia is continental, with long, cold winters and short, hot summers. In the northern areas, winter days are dark and long; in the summer, the days are long and the sun barely sets. This made transportation difficult and foreign trade was limited by a majority of Russia’s ports often being iced over. With the exception of the black earth belt, Russia has fairly poor soil, a short growing season, low precipitation, and large arid steppe regions unfit for agriculture except with extensive irrigation. These factors limited agricultural production and caused frequent of crop failures and famine.