Hunger and War: Food Provisioning in the Soviet Union during World War II

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Drawing on recently released Soviet archival materials, Hunger and War investigates state food supply policy and its impact on Soviet society during World War II. It explores the role of the state in provisioning the urban population, particularly workers, with food; feeding the Red army; the medicalization of hunger; hunger in blockaded Leningrad; and civilian mortality from hunger and malnutrition in other home front industrial regions. New research reported here challenges and complicates many of the narratives and counter-narratives about the war. The authors engage such difficult subjects as starvation mortality, bitterness over privation and inequalities in provisioning, and conflicts among state organizations. At the same time, they recognize the considerable role played by the Soviet state in organizing supplies of food to adequately support the military effort and defense production and in developing policies that promoted social stability amid upheaval. The book makes a significant contribution to scholarship on the Soviet population's experience of World War II as well as to studies of war and famine.

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Introduction: The Politics of Food and War

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Donald Filtzer and Wendy Z. Goldman

EVERY YEAR, VICTORY DAY, OR DEN′ POBEDY, THE ANNIVERSARY of Nazi Germany’s surrender on May 9, 1945, is celebrated in Russia. In the Soviet period, the day was marked by great festive demonstrations. Elderly men, their medals pinned to worn suit jackets, marched proudly holding the hands of their young grandchildren, and families thronged the streets. The parks were filled with veterans, who met to sing, dance, and remember the war. Today, the ranks of the veterans have thinned, but both state-sponsored events and popular traditions continue. In cities throughout the country, monuments to the war dead are ritual sites of commemoration for wedding parties. In the spring, smiling young girls in bridal dress and their grooms can be seen laying bouquets of flowers at the base of these monuments. The gesture has become a nationwide tradition linking the living and the dead. The wedding party’s homage captures a deep, unspoken understanding that future children are in some way consecrated to those young people who did not survive to raise children of their own. Even now, four generations later, the missing are still felt, their memory kept alive, through state-sponsored efforts and family remembrances, from one generation to the next.

 

1 Not by Bread Alone: Food, Workers, and the State

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Wendy Z. Goldman

In the factory canteen, as a rule, there is a system of replacements, in other words, they may tear off the coupon for grain from the workers’ ration cards but they give them cabbage or stewed turnips, or very, very rarely potatoes, and then most of those are frozen. The workers are dying from hunger and malnutrition. We have special zemlianki (earthen dugouts) of death where about five to seven sick people are dying each day. Often, we have seen cases where workers die in the shops and at the gates of the factory.

Handwritten letter of complaint from Ivan Aleksandrovich Bednov, worker in ammunition Factory No. 62, Cheliabinsk, March 16, 1943.1

WHEN GERMANY ATTACKED THE SOVIET UNION ON JUNE 22, 1941, the country mobilized for total war. Throughout the summer and fall, as one town after another fell to the Nazi blitzkrieg, the Soviet leadership ordered the evacuation of factories, workers, grain, and raw materials to safer areas in the east. The rail networks were strained to the utmost: boxcars sped west to the front with Red Army soldiers, and then east to the rear with machinery and evacuees. Workers frantically dismantled machinery under a hail of German bombs, loaded it on trains, and reassembled it weeks later in industrial towns hundreds of miles from the front. Often production resumed in bare fields under open skies. Millions of people, mobilized from all over the country, were transported east to work in the defense industry.

 

2 The State’s Pot and the Soldier’s Spoon: Rations (Paëk) in the Red Army

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Brandon Schechter

Without a spoon, just as without a rifle, it is impossible to wage war.

Aleksandr Lesin, diary entry, March 29, 1942 1

THE SOLDIER WHO WROTE THE LINES ABOVE CAME TO UNDERstand all too well how important being fed was to being able to fight. Aleksandr Lesin served on the benighted Kalinin Front. In the spring of 1942, he participated in an offensive that bogged down as starving and exhausted soldiers failed to take their objectives.2 The Kalinin Front eventually became a lightning rod for attracting Moscow’s attention to the needs of soldiers’ stomachs.

On May 31, 1943, Stalin signed an order underlining the failure of the rear area services of the Kalinin Front to properly feed its troops. Among a list of complaints, ranging from unequal distribution, improper storage, and failures to provide hot food or use qualified cadres to prepare and apportion rations, Stalin described the essence of the “criminally irresponsible, un-Soviet attitude towards soldier’s food”3 found among those responsible for feeding the army:

 

3 Queues, Canteens, and the Politics of Location in Diaries of the Leningrad Blockade, 1941–1942

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Alexis Peri

When two strangers meet and do not really talk, then they [talk about] the weather. It was always this way, everywhere, but now in Leningrad there is something else: “What kind of card do you have?” “What kind of ration are you on?” “Where do you eat?” “Got enough bread?”1

IT WAS JANUARY 1944 WHEN NINA KLISHEVICH, AN EIGHTEEN-year-old theater student, recorded this observation. At that time the severe famine that had gripped Leningrad was ending, but life in the blockaded city still revolved around food. Leningrad was surrounded by German and Finnish troops for 872 days between 1941 and 1944. During this, one of the longest and deadliest sieges of modern history, roughly 800,000 civilians perished, the vast majority of them from starvation and illnesses related to it. On August 29, 1941, the Wehrmacht severed the last railway line that connected Leningrad to the rest of the Soviet Union and thus to outside food supplies. Inside “the ring,” as the encircled city was called, Leningraders struggled to survive without electricity, running water, fuel for heat, motorized transport, or adequate food. During the worst months of the famine, between autumn 1941 and spring 1942, most of the city’s inhabitants received miniscule rations, which fell to as little as 125 grams of bread a day.2

 

4 Nutritional Dystrophy: The Science and Semantics of Starvation in World War II

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Rebecca Manley

During the war it was permitted to call hunger “hunger.”

Varlam Shalamov, “Perchatka” 1

IN THE TERRIBLE WINTER OF 1942, AS THE RESIDENTS OF Leningrad succumbed to famine, Vera Inber recorded scenes of starvation in her diary. Among the figures she described on the city’s streets was a man with an awkward gait, being led by two women, who looked as if he had been “gnawed by hunger.” Inber subsequently identified the man as a distrofik, adding in parentheses that “we only learned this word here.”2 Distrofik was in fact a new term, not simply introduced to Leningrad during the blockade but invented there. It was derived from another new term, a term that figures not only in Inber’s diary, but in her poems: “nutritional dystrophy” (alimentarnaia distrofiia). In “Pulkovo Meridian,” the 1943 poem that would earn her a Stalin Prize after the war, Inber described the illness that afflicted so many of the city’s residents as “that which in scientific language doctors refer to as ‘nutritional dystrophy’ but which those who are not latinists or philologists identify with the Russian word ‘hunger.’ ”3 Inber was well-positioned to understand both the “scientific language” of doctors and the specific term “nutritional dystrophy.” Married to Il′ia Davidovich Strashun, head of Leningrad’s First Medical Institute, she was intimately connected with the medical world: she attended lectures on the medical effects of starvation, the details of which she duly recorded in her diary, and she also spent time in the morgue.4 Even as Inber composed the poem, moreover, her husband was helping organize conferences devoted to “nutritional dystrophy,” conferences that would result, only a couple of years later, in an important publication on the topic.5 And yet such specialized knowledge and intimate connections to the world of medicine were hardly needed in 1942 to make sense of “nutritional dystrophy.” By the time Inber completed her poem, the term had become ubiquitous in Leningrad, an integral part of the wartime lexicon not only of “latinists and philologists,” but of the population at large.

 

5 Starvation Mortality in Soviet Home-Front Industrial Regions during World War II

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Donald Filtzer

The high intensity of work at the factory and the inadequacy of the food make it a matter of urgency that [workers receive their rightful days off], as witnessed by the frequency with which workers are dropping dead from emaciation right on the job. On some days you see several corpses in the shops. During the two months December 1942 and January 1943, they observed 16 bodies just in the factory shops. Those dying from emaciation are mainly workers doing manual labor.

Shliaev, Chief Prosecutor of Cheliabinsk province, to Bochkov, Prosecutor General of the USSR, March 29, 1943, concerning the refusal of the management at the giant Kirov works in Cheliabinsk to grant its workers the two days off a month stipulated in wartime labor regulations.1

OF THE THREE PRINCIPAL BELLIGERENT COUNTRIES WHOSE domestic populations endured critical threats to their food supply, only the Soviet Union witnessed mass civilian deaths from starvation.2 Here first and foremost we think of the millions who died in the siege of Leningrad or who died of starvation in the territories under Nazi occupation. This chapter analyzes a less well-known phenomenon: the widespread morbidity and mortality from starvation in Soviet home-front cities and towns. During 1943 and 1944, starvation and tuberculosis—a disease that was endemic to the USSR and is highly sensitive to acute malnutrition—were between them the largest single cause of death among the non-child civilian population.

 

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