Famine Strikes Russia

Czarist Russia’s failure to modernize its agricultural system and meet the basic survival needs of its population was obvious when the disruption produced by the Russo-Japanese War, coupled with adverse growing conditions, produced a devastating famine that killed approximately one million people.

Summary of Event

Even under normal conditions, the threat of starvation was ever present in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century. By 1900, only one in ten peasant households had enough surplus grain to make it through the winter. In those areas outside the Ukrainian breadbasket, hunger was a constant companion during winter months and early spring. Other factors also made life difficult for peasants. Taxes, often paid in grain, were due at fall harvest time, when grain prices were the lowest. (An avalanche of wheat on the world market from the United States and Canada tended to keep prices low.) Yet the world’s highest tariff kept grain imports out of Russia. Western nations were using fertilizers and modern agricultural machinery to boost productivity, but Russian agricultural techniques had remained the same for centuries. There was little surplus capital for agriculture and even less incentive. Most peasants owned land in common and were organized into mirs, village groups that shared large plots of divided land. Private landownership was not introduced as part of the 1861 emancipation of serfs, and so profit taking among the peasants was not the norm. Furthermore, poor soil and difficult growing conditions in many regions conspired to make poverty and hunger a constant threat. By 1900, 84 percent of the Russian population still depended on farming to make a living. Famines;Russia
[kw]Famine Strikes Russia (1907)
[kw]Russia, Famine Strikes (1907)
[g]Russia;1907: Famine Strikes Russia[01780]
[c]Agriculture;1907: Famine Strikes Russia[01780]
[c]Disasters;1907: Famine Strikes Russia[01780]
Stolypin, Pyotr Arkadyevich
Witte, Sergey Yulyevich
Nicholas II
[p]Nicholas II[Nicholas 02];Russian famine
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich
[p]Lenin, Vladimir Ilich;famine of 1907

Since the mid-1880’s, an industrializing Russia had exported an increasing proportion of its wheat crop to produce a favorable balance-of-trade deficit that would attract foreign investments. By 1891, Russia had actually achieved a budget surplus, but hard frosts, a bitter winter, and a drought-ridden, stifling summer produced the worst crop failure since 1848. Owing in large part to the lack of a well-developed railroad system and a road system capable of handling traffic during muddy spring thaws, approximately four hundred thousand peasants starved to death in spite of concerted (although belated) government efforts to distribute rye to famine-stricken regions. The region south of Moscow stretching southeast to the Volga basin was particularly hard hit. During the famine, Russia continued to export wheat.

The policy of increasing wheat export continued under Sergey Yulyevich Witte, the czar’s finance minister from 1892 to 1903. Under Witte’s leadership, Russian industry increased its output during the 1890’s by an average of more than 7 percent each year. Russia’s urbanization and industrial growth were among Europe’s highest. In 1897, Witte committed Russia to the gold standard, making its currency stable but limited in supply, which took a particularly hard toll on the lower classes. Still, the pace of agricultural development did not change, and the onset of another famine was inevitable. Climatic conditions, coupled with sociopolitical turmoil, would result in the famine of 1907 and the loss of an estimated one million lives.

The depression of 1900 slowed Russian economic development and caused a great deal of suffering, especially for the lower classes. Recovery was under way when, in December, 1904, Russia became involved in what it thought would be a short war against Japan. Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905)[Russojapanese War] Instead, Russian forces were decimated on both land and sea. A month after the outbreak of war, the shooting of a large crowd of peaceful demonstrators in the capital (an event still remembered as Bloody Sunday) Bloody Sunday catalyzed an empirewide revolution against the corrupt and incompetent regime of Czar Nicholas II. Strikes in the major cities were coupled with the seizure of land and the burning of about 15 percent of Russia’s manor houses. Both Russia’s industrial and agricultural output were seriously affected by the continued upheaval. Only after the issuance of the October Manifesto October Manifesto of 1905, which promised a parliament (Duma), and the Fundamental Laws in 1906 (which limited the representative nature of the Duma) was some degree of normality reestablished.

Unfortunately, weather conditions similar to those in 1891 prevented a complete return to normality. By the time the second Duma met in February, 1907, Russia was in the midst of another horrible famine. Sixteen million peasants faced the threat of starvation, and another forty-five million suffered from hunger bordering on starvation. In desperation, peasants took part in numerous scattered uprisings in the countryside, but the Duma’s debates on agrarian policy issues failed to reach agreement on any single policy. On June 3, 1907, during the time of ideal springtime planting conditions, the second Duma was dissolved. Nearly one million Russians had already died of malnutrition or disease, although relief grain shipments from Europe and the United States helped prevent even more deaths.

As the famine of 1907 approached, there was a concerted effort among peasant representatives to the Duma to nationalize the large landed estates of Russian nobles, which were often used for nonagricultural purposes, and to divide them among the land-hungry peasant communes. In fact, peasant demands were militant enough for the Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Ilich Lenin, to revise Marxist doctrine, asserting that peasants as well as the proletariat could act as a revolutionary force. The opposite conclusion was reached by the czar’s conservative minister Pyotr Arkadyevich Stolypin, who as minister of the interior instituted a ruthless policy of repression to rid Russia of radicalism. (The hangman’s noose was commonly referred to as “Stolypin’s necktie.”) Yet in his other role as prime minister, Stolypin advocated the transformation of peasant communes into privately owned farms. He hoped that the desire for individual capitalist profit would turn the inefficient peasant into a kulak, a productive and possibly wealthy farmer. Stolypin believed that Russian agricultural production would dramatically increase after privatization. Perhaps more significant, however, was his conviction that private landownership would turn peasants into a bulwark of conservative support for the institution of czarism.

Stolypin’s plan was initiated by emergency decree in November, 1906. The slow changeover to private ownership, a plan that had little support either in czarist inner circles or in the Duma, did little to lessen the impact of the famine of 1907. However, by 1916, 2.5 million households owned their own farms. The years 1909 to 1913 produced bumper crops, thanks to more favorable weather conditions, and the price of wheat rose on the world market. Also, industrial production advanced with impressive rapidity. When famine and anarchy next struck, brought on by World War I and a major civil war, it would be on a scale far more cataclysmic than that of the famine of 1907.


The famine of 1907 brought Russia’s lingering agricultural problem to the forefront and made it painfully obvious that Russia needed to modernize its agricultural sector to meet its food needs. The country’s evident inability to compensate for the frequently poor growing conditions, or to avoid systemic breakdown when faced with major war, should have led the czarist regime to enact major changes to ensure its own political survival. It did lead one official, Pyotr Stolypin, to put forth a comprehensive plan to turn Russian peasants, who were prone to uprisings, into entrepreneurial farmers with a vested interest in the stability of czarist rule. Stolypin’s reforms, however, received little support from the czar’s inner circle or from reformist elements in the Duma, and he was assassinated in 1911. The only other official with any sort of grasp of the need for economic modernization, Witte, had been sent into forced retirement five years earlier.

When war came to Russia in 1914, the inefficient and largely unreformed czarist regime became subject to food shortages and uprisings that dwarfed the negative effects of the Russo-Japanese War. Food shortages along with the inability to control peasant uprisings and huge urban strikes caused the czar’s fall in March of 1917. Continuation of the war effort by the new provisional government, which sought reform after the war, caused Lenin to put forth the simple slogan of “Peace, Land, and Bread.” The continuation of anarchy provided the opportunity for Lenin’s Bolsheviks to seize power in October, 1917. Famines;Russia

Further Reading

  • Figes, Orlando. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. New York: Penguin Books, 1998. A massive, narrative-style analysis of the individuals, events, and movements of the late czarist and early revolutionary period. Contains maps, illustrations, glossary, footnotes, bibliography, and index.
  • Harcave, Sidney. Count Sergei Witte and the Twilight of Imperial Russia: A Biography. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2004. A study of Witte’s life, works, and time by the author who translated Witte’s memoirs into English. Footnotes, bibliography, and index.
  • Lieven, Dominic. Nicholas II: Emperor of All the Russias. London: John Murray, 1993. A sympathetic and detailed biography of Nicholas II. Index, footnotes, and bibliography.
  • Lincoln, W. Bruce. In War’s Dark Shadow: The Russians Before the Great War. New York: Dial Press, 1983. A very readable history of the period from 1891 to 1918, filled with fascinating details. Copious footnotes, bibliography, and index.
  • Waldron, Peter. Between Two Revolutions: Stolypin and the Politics of Renewal in Russia. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1998. A scholarly analysis of Stolypin’s attempts to save czarism by making the peasants a bulwark of conservative support for the state. Index, footnotes, and bibliography.

Pogroms in Imperial Russia

Assassination of Pyotr Arkadyevich Stolypin

Completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad

Russian Communists Inaugurate the Red Terror

Lenin Leads the Russian Revolution

Russian Civil War

Famine in Russia Claims Millions of Lives

Great Famine Strikes the Soviet Union