W. Z. Goldman u.a. (Hrsg.): Hunger and War

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

Goldman, Wendy Z.; Filtzer, Donald
Anzahl Seiten
XVIII, 371 S.
€ 59,99
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Masha Cerovic, Centre d'Études des Mondes Russe, Caucasien et Centre Européen / École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales

This collective volume is a welcome and impressive contribution to the history of the Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union. Five excellent contributions by Wendy Goldman, Brandon Schechter, Alexis Peri, Rebecca Manley and Donald Filtzer draw on a wide range of sources and complement each other to offer a multifaceted picture of the multiple political, institutional, social, medical, personal issues surrounding food.

The authors document how food – or, as Wendy Goldman puts it, the lack thereof – was distributed, consumed or imagined and which consequences derived from systematic malnutrition: mobilization and conflict, resentment and bonding, physical and psychological toll both of eating and starving. Their contributions underscore that throughout the war, the food supply in the non-occupied territories of the Soviet Union was simply insufficient to feed the army and the civilian population, turning hunger into a universally shared experience and leading to mass starvation among the civilian population, even beyond the well-known episode of Leningrad.

The Soviet regime carefully concealed this fact during and after the war, contributing to the resentment of both contemporaries and latter Russian historians, who always suspected that corruption, theft, incompetence, unfairness, were the main culprits for the experienced hunger; more than the “zero-sum game” of universal shortages induced by the loss of the western regions of the Soviet Union. The authors convincingly demonstrate that the Soviet authorities did strive to supply the nutritional needs of all its citizens and meet the basic “bargain based on who earned what” that defined the social contract between the state and the people. In spite of massive problems and widespread hunger and starvation, the state succeeded in doing so, through a mix of centralized policies, all-out institutional mobilization from the trade organization to the unions and the medical establishment, decentralization, diversification and maximal use of local food sources, and the participation of all – from workers to soldiers – in food production. These measures were taken to cope with the magnitude of the food crisis that the German invasion caused in 1942, when caloric intake of the urban population dropped below three-quarters of the recommended value (Goldman, p. 23, 63). This extreme crisis was to be seen everywhere, not only in the mass starving in besieged Leningrad (Peri, Manley), but also in “astronomically high infant mortality” of 345 deaths for 1,000 live births in the RSFSR (Filtzer, p. 269), mass starvation among Gulag inmates and the forced workers of the “Labour Army”.

Food shortages resulted in severe protein deficiencies as nutrition increasingly meant bread and watered-down potato soup, soldiers were even reduced to eat unidentifiable ‘kombizhir’ and horsemeat. Insufficient food supplies were not the only source of shortages: lack of fuel, storage capacities, and transport affected the ability of the state to feed civilians and soldiers alike. Meanwhile, the needs of workers and soldiers were ever greater due to the intensity of the physical exertions required by the war effort and the numbers of people living far from home. In 1942, the state responded to the crisis by extending rationing and by supplementing the centralized food distribution system with subsidiary farming, decentralized purchasing, gardens, and collective farm markets (Goldman, p. 53) – an increased reliance on local food sources that was mirrored in the army (Schechter, p. 104). Throughout the war, all Soviet citizens had to rely on supplementary food sources, as the rations were never sufficient to meet their needs, but that does not in any way negate the increasing, not decreasing, importance of state institutions in the provision of food. Throughout the war, state organizations provided between 83% and 73% of the food consumed by the civilian population, feeding between 62 and 80.5 million civilians, on top of about 11 million soldiers.

The two pillars of the food distribution system for the urban civilian population were the trade organizations and trade unions, both on the local and the factory level, where they oversaw procuring and distributing the food, and on the national level, where they tried to advocate for their claimants. Increasingly, the system was structured by fabrics and their canteens, complex social spaces carefully analyzed by Alexis Peri that became “survival centers” as they were tasked with feeding not only their workers, but their dependents and evacuees.

The organizational efforts implemented in 1942, combined with the sharp increase of food supplied through the Lend Lease in the summer of 1943, led to an overall increase of the caloric intake in 1943. Soldiers, at least, were comparatively well fed over the last years of the war. On the home front however, this caloric increase did not suffice to meet the population’s needs. The cumulative effect of lasting mal- and undernourishment led to a spike in starvation-related deaths among the adult male urban population in 1943. The “starvation-tuberculosis complex” remained the leading cause of death, especially in the Urals, until mid-1944, when the state finally had enough food to re-feed all its citizens. The Lend-Lease started to provide resources more than the army needed, and the medical knowledge on the treatment of “dystrophia”, acquired in the hardest of ways by the Leningrad doctors, reached provincial and Gulag doctors alike.

Overall, the authors draw a rich, well written, complex picture of the interaction of the “state”, through its many and often competing institutions, and the “people”, in all their diversity. It is an important addition to our understanding of the Soviet experience in the 1940’s, even if some of the topics like the situation in the Gulag or outside the RSFSR are only alluded to, and would benefit from more research.

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