Review: Bread and Authority in Russia, 1914-1921, by Lars Lih

Shane Tomashot
Lih Book Review
In his book Bread and Authority in Russia, 1914-1921, Lars Lih focuses on the disintegration of Russian society and the disorder of Russian bureaucracy that contributed to the “Time of Troubles,” as he labels it, from 1914 to the mid 1920’s.  Not to be confused with Russia’s other “Time of Troubles” (the 1605-1613 succession crisis that brought the Romanovs to power); this era in Russian history marks the death of millions of Russian peasants who lost their battle with starvation due to inept bureaucratic leadership during a time of international war and internal struggle.  It is Lih’s contention that the coordinating institutions, wrapped in their own political and ideological wrangling, became disjointed and incapable of organizing grain distribution in Russia during the Great War and the Russian Civil War.  Authorities vacillated between two approaches, central control, taxation and distribution (gubernatorial) or a regional hierarchical “enlistment” approach.   As no single authority instituted a consistent form of either approach, Russia fell into the Hobbesian tragedy of leadership.  That is, sovereign rule disintegrated as citizens came to believe that anarchy (or no ruling authority) was more reliable than putting faith into a central sovereign authority responsible for food distribution.
            The expectation of a short war (WWI), Lih contends, caused Russian authorities to take a casual approach to grain distribution and transportation costs in 1914.  Hence, supply problems did not occur due to the necessity of supplying the army on Russia’s western front, but, rather from the methods used.  Government purchases of grain entered a convoluted distribution system, involving numerous middlemen.  Although the government needed middlemen for such a vast system, their mere existence increased prices and hindered the movement of goods.  This led government officials to appoint regional “specialists” to oversee the process.  The consequence of this action led to continual conflict between military leaders, regional leaders and middlemen over pricing, regional necessities, and distribution rights. 
            A blame game emerged in this intricate and incomprehensible system, in which various authorities in the line of distribution accused “unscrupulous landowners” of selling grain they did not have, middlemen of increasing prices, and peasants of hoarding grain.  Regional governors enacted embargoes to protect their own provinces, while, simultaneously, politicians feared the emergence of a “self-sufficient” peasantry.  Large segments of the population starved while fears of government requisition led many peasants and land-owners to hide large stockpiles.
            Lih contends that a dualism was created out of this chaos.  The rift created between the military leadership and the masses concerned the bickering over fixed versus market pricing of grain.  Politicians responded by creating a Special Commission, which was simply another bureaucratic layer.  In response, “powerful actors took actions to promote their own interests which disrupted the normal activities of everybody else” (p. 20). 
            Rittikh’s attempt to fix the food distribution problem through his razverstka (gubernatorial taxation solution) only intensified the political and economic turmoil.  A three-way struggle ignited between bureaucratic entities: The Ministry of Internal Affairs, The Union of Towns, and the Special Conference.  Solutions to the food distribution problem became entangled in political battles, while political groups, vying for power, attempted to implement their own system based on their own ideology, exacerbating the economic dualism and starving the general population.  Hence, Rittikh’s gubernatorial solution led to further political rifts.
            The War Minister’s plan to distribute food to selected factories (workers) met opposition as well.  The Special Conference argued that “the food-supply plan should be single and completely the same for all classes of the population” (p. 45).  Rittikh struggled with attempts to acquisition grain from the peasants out of fear of outright rebellion.  Land Captains gave up searches of peasant and landowner holdings out of fear for their own lives.  Although Lih finds Rittikh’s plans for alleviating the food-supply issue sincere, the plans ultimately revived dualism and exacerbated “political and economic disruption” (p. 56).         
            By late 1917, the entire food-supply crisis was a society-wide coordinating epidemic, as the transport network, the market, and political authority were in a state of sheer and utter failure.  Any hopes of relying upon peasant committees for equitable distribution was lost due to heavy peasant mistrust of the government.  The peasantry itself became divided, as the south had enough grain to survive while northern peasants starved.  Officials increasingly blamed the food supply issue on “the darkness of people,” accusing them of greed and hoarding supplies (p. 65).  In the face of the 1917 bread run, the government could only promise reorganization of the system.  The peasants reinstituted a commune system and resorted to violence against landowners.  Peasants, who were willing to deliver, would deliver grain for the army only, but not for the town, mostly out of animosity toward the working class.
            The doubling of fixed grain prices in late 1917 solidified increasing Bolshevik popularity and power vis-à-vis the Provisional Government.  More transportation issues arose with winter.  The overall situation destroyed the morale of food authority officials while playing into the hands of the Bolsheviks who had convinced the populous that the government was sabotaging food relief efforts.  The Provisional Government lacked real political authority (power) and was unable to distribute food due to lack of domestic military forces to protect shipments. 
Early 1918 witnessed Bolshevik food distribution problems within Bolshevik controlled regions as well.  “Goods often ended up in the hands of speculators masquerading as food-supply officials” (p. 135).  Bolshevik soviets fell to “the dilemma of Hobbes’s choice and the dictates of rational self-protection,” as the Bolshevik central command continued to blame “kulaks” and other entities for Russia’s food supply issues.  The attempted Bolshevik food-supply dictatorship also sputtered.  Of course, the Bolsheviks, through their rhetoric, would not admit that their plan had failed. 
            Peasant revolts of 1920-1921 led the Bolsheviks to finally seek a method of food distribution that would pacify the peasantry.  The Bolsheviks also found themselves in the odd position of having to support the kulak and middle peasant class, which they had rebuked for the previous five plus years.  Moreover, they increasingly turned to Rittikh’s gubernatorial/ razverstka system of food distribution.  Furthermore, the Bolsheviks worked to convince the peasants that the working class was not a privileged class.  The Bolsheviks struggled against the peasant black market as well, as peasants continued to operate in a barter economy.  Meanwhile, Lenin still called for “the exemplary punishment of a few rich peasants in each district” (p. 219). 
            Lih’s key points indicate that no matter which ruling government was “in charge,” neither could establish an ideological approach to the food-supply problem.  Each entity, Bolshevik, Provisional or Tsarist, was essentially forced into a centralist/razverstka (centrifugal) approach or an enlistment/self-help approach.  Each government entity found its enemy to blame as well as its segment upon which to launch its propaganda and rhetoric campaigns.  The middlemen and bureaucrats were, in a sense, the “unlikely heroes” of Lih’s analysis, seeing that they attempted to overcome the Time of Troubles, regardless of their private motives (p. 273). 
            Lih’s analysis is rich in detail.  His final chapter includes numerous statistical tables indicating grain distribution during the Time of Troubles.  It makes one wonder how much more information is now available concerning this time period, as Lih’s study was published in 1990.  It seems odd; however, that Lih ends his analysis at 1921, as Russia experienced numerous food crises throughout the latter 1920’s.  Regardless, Lih’s study is an excellent analysis of the Russian food supply issues of the Revolutionary era.      

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