Every winter everybody is scared of famine!
Los Angeles Times October 20, 1998
Hunger in Russia’s Heartland Devastating summer drought caused worst grain
harvest since 1953.
Despite official reassurances, many in impoverished regions fear winter will
By John-Thor Dahlburg
PALLASOVKA, Russia–In July the wheat crop failed, roasted alive in the dust
as the sun baked the hard earth of Russia’s southern steppe to 160 degrees.
Soviet-era collective farms around here lie in ruins, the livestock killed
and butchered, barns and dwellings pillaged by scavengers. The local
administration of this isolated, semidesert area has run out of cash, and
in the largest town, half of the adult population is jobless.
On the threshold of winter, when temperatures on the wind-scoured plains
near the Kazakhstan frontier can drop to nearly 40 below, many families have
no money and virtually nothing to eat. Some have resorted to making gruel
from cattle fodder, or expect to perish from hunger or lack of fuel. In a
macabre coincidence, the movie theater in Pallasovka is featuring a Stephen
King horror film, “Thinner.”
“Maybe we’ll all die in the winter,” said Svetlana Karakusheva, a 44-year-old
mother raising five children in a rural settlement. Her kitchen garden has
become an infertile dust bowl. Hunger and cold, ancient Russian fears that
were supposed to be banished by capitalist abundance, are back to haunt many.
This year’s harvest of wheat, rye, barley and other grains, withered by prolonged
and fierce drought, was 49.7 million tons, the State Statistics Committee
reported Monday. That was the smallest harvest nationwide since 1953, the
last year of dictator Josef Stalin’s reign. The committee also reported that
more than 44 million Russians–30% of the population–last month were living
below the poverty line of a meager $37 a month in income. Government officials
have been reassuring a population already jittery because of economic turmoil
that the situation is under control and that there is plenty of wheat and
other food in storage to feed the nation.
That may well be the macro picture. But the harsh facts of life in the Pallasovka
region, 600 miles southeast of Moscow, show that the stomachs of some Russians
are far from full and that many fear they will have little or nothing with
which to nourish themselves and their families in the months to come. “If
you have money, you won’t starve; if you don’t, you will have problems, even
in Moscow,” predicted Andrei Y. Sizov, who runs a think tank in the capital
that tracks the country’s agricultural output. “To escape social shocks–hunger
marches, hunger riots–we’ve got to take care of matters now.”
Late last month, the Russian Red Cross and its international affiliate launched
an appeal for $15 million in emergency aid. Millions across Russia–especially
the elderly, the disabled, single-parent families, families with many children
and rural dwellers–face the most trying winter in a generation, the Red
Cross said. To avert “human catastrophe,” the Red Cross targeted 1.4 million
people in a dozen regions, from the republic of Buryatia in central Siberia
to Kaliningrad on the Baltic coast, as urgent recipients of food parcels,
soup kitchen meals, warm clothes and shoes.
‘You Can’t Exclude Mass Starvation’
“With the indicators we have seen now, the crop failure and the financial
crisis, you can’t exclude mass starvation,” said Borje Sjokvist, head of
the Moscow delegation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red
Crescent Societies. Those predictions are much more dire than most, and forecasts
of cataclysm in Russia have been made before without coming true. But few
doubt that nearly seven years after the world’s largest country abandoned
communism for what was supposed to be the general prosperity of the free
market, many people will have to suffer grimly through winter–an ordeal
that may well further sap support for post-Soviet changes.
Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov said Wednesday that the government had
allocated the sum of $600 million for the purchase of emergency food
supplies–enough to feed a third of the population. Earlier this month, he
had said he was counting on the private vegetable plots doled out to workers
in Soviet times to help feed the populace through the long winter. The Defense
Ministry has suggested that military units forage for berries and mushrooms,
so soldiers who have not been paid for months don’t go hungry.
How miserable life is for some is instantly visible here on the now- defunct
Khutor Yesino farm, where 10,000 sheep once grazed. “There is no coal, no
firewood, no work, no money,” said Aiman Zukieva, a 41-year-old shepherd’s
widow frantically trying to raise her two children and a nephew.
The petite Chechen-born woman heats her small brick house by burning sheep
dung, and a sympathetic neighbor regularly donates a pail of watery whey–sour
milk strained through a sieve–to nourish the youngsters. But it is not enough.
Zukieva keeps 15 chickens and trades eggs for other food. However, she has
no feed to tide her fowl through the winter. Her children receive a single
slice of bread each for breakfast, and one other scant meal a day. They suffer
spells of dizziness.
“I don’t like this life,” said spindly Rakhmat, Zukieva’s 10-year-old daughter,
who nonetheless can manage a dazzling smile. “Mother says all the time we’ll
die in the winter. I don’t want to die.”
Anatoly I. Galichkin, head of government administration in Pallasovka, a
rude border town whose 20,000 inhabitants have to fetch drinking water in
buckets from tanker trucks, said he would not be surprised if mobs from the
countryside arrive to loot shops and drag him from his office. “Crowds of
200, 250 people come to me, and I try to feed all of them with a single loaf
of bread, like Jesus Christ,” he said gloomily.
More than a month ago, Galichkin and his counterparts in five other regions
east of the Volga River, where drought singed an area the size of Belgium,
sent an open appeal to President Boris N. Yeltsin, warning that the situation
was now “a state of emergency.” To date, officials here say, they have received
no reply from Moscow.
Authorities in Volgograd, about 120 miles to the southwest, have sent 200
tons of flour–a sixth of what Galichkin said he needs for the winter. Meanwhile,
the government official said, people are dying because they are not eating
enough and cannot buy medicines. “If there is absolutely no help from the
government, then there is really just one option left for us–most people
will simply starve,” Galichkin said.
food situation in Russia is a complicated good-news, bad-news story. According
to Sizov and his SovEkon think tank, crop losses reached 68% in the important
wheat-growing Orenburg region south of the Urals in what has been described
as the worst drought in half a century. Outside Pallasovka, one kolkhoz,
or collective farm, sowed 1,400 tons of seed and reaped a wheat crop of only
But this tableau is not as bleak as it appears, because roughly half of Russia’s
cattle, sheep, goats and chickens have been killed over the last five years.
They were butchered for meat because increases in the prices of fuel and
fodder, and the end of government subsidies for animal husbandry, have
significantly raised the cost of meat and dairy farming.
So with fewer livestock, Russia now needs less grain. The country, which
enjoyed an 88.5-million-ton harvest in 1997, also claims reserves of 20 million
tons. The official in charge of coping with disasters, natural and human-made,
has given his assurance that Russians will have plenty to eat for the winter.
“I am totally sure that there will be no sort of famine at all, since there
are sufficient reserves in the country,” Maj. Gen. Sergei K. Shoigu, minister
of emergency situations, said this month.
That may be true, one Western agriculture attache in Moscow said. On the
other hand, “no one has seen these grain stocks they talk about,” said the
attache, who estimated that the reserves total no more than 10 million tons.
Already strapped for hard cash, Russia will be forced to buy millions of
tons of wheat abroad, the Western diplomat said.
Unpaid Salaries Worsen the Suffering Whatever the reserves, Tamara Redin,
38, knows her five children are hungry and too thin. Her 36-year-old husband,
a diesel locomotive engineer’s assistant in Pallasovka, has not been paid
for four months. For want of anything else, Redin has had to give her children,
ages 7 to 16, a porridge made from low-quality grain intended for use as
animal fodder. They each get half an egg a day, along with a glass of milk
mixed with water.
Day after day, the family, which lives along a dirt road near the town’s
grain elevator, has eaten an unsavory soup made from unripe tomatoes and
boiled potatoes. It’s been a month and a half since they’ve had meat. Redin
digs her hand into a half-empty sack to show what’s left in her larder–potatoes
the size of big marbles.
The Redins are hardly an exception. Galina M. Milyokhina, head of family
services for Pallasovka district, estimates that 70% of families in town
are in similar straits. Local officials say a good share of the suffering
could be alleviated if payment resumes of salaries, retirement pensions and
child support, frozen for months because the Russian government has been
unable to collect taxes. Although this is one of Prime Minister Primakov’s
avowed priorities, people in Pallasovka have seen few results. The top local
government official has not been paid since April.
Some specialists contend that the new Russian government also has been recklessly
slow to purchase the grain needed to feed armed forces members, Interior
Ministry troops, prison inmates and patients in state hospitals. “The state
needs to buy 4 million tons. It’s only bought 1.3 million so far,” Sizov
of the think tank said. “Patients in hospitals can’t feed themselves.” When
the Russian market was opened to consumer goods from outside, imported food
products–from French yogurt to Danish salami–flooded in. Annual sales reached
an estimated $11 billion. For most Russians, frozen U.S.-produced chicken
legs became the cheapest meat. Foreign suppliers were meeting 70% of the
meat and dairy needs of the 10 million inhabitants of the Moscow region.
Now, deliveries of U.S. chicken, which had been running at a yearly clip
of $800 million, have ground to a virtual halt. Along with other imports,
they stopped in mid-August after Russia effectively defaulted on treasury
bills, and the banks used for most commercial transactions shut their doors.
A simultaneous tumble in the value of the ruble means that, even if imports
resume, U.S. chicken legs will be twice as expensive for anyone paying in
Russian currency. “We can do without animal products, but we can’t do without
bread,” Dmitri F. Vermel, a senior member of the All-Russian Research Institute
of Rural Economy in Moscow, said bravely. “We are not Americans, who cannot
survive if they don’t get their 300 grams [about 10 1/2 ounces] of meat a
To ensure basic sustenance for their people, at least 28 of Russia’s 89 regions
and republics have slapped embargoes on the shipment of grain and other
foodstuffs. In the Volgograd region, which encompasses Pallasovka, officials
have effectively banned outside sales of sunflower oil, wheat and 12 other
commodities grown by their farmers.
In other parts of Russia, that could make it even harder this winter for
people shopping for food. And, with the drop in availability of other foodstuffs,
bread should be in even greater demand. “The grain harvest should be enough
to meet food demands,” Sizov summed up. “It’s another matter how we distribute
it. Winter will be difficult for Russia–very difficult.”
Meanwhile, people already suffering from privations are struggling to get
by, sometimes in circumstances that have more in common with Third World
countries than the superpower that Russia once was.
Once-Thriving Farm Now a Shambles
Twenty miles outside Pallasovka, 38 extended families, totaling 200 people,
are hunkering down amid the shambles of what was once a farm that had 500
cows. When state financial support for raising livestock stopped, the animals
of Khutor Novy were slaughtered or stolen. Farm managers, residents and vandals
ransacked the place for anything they could use or resell.
As a cold wind blew from the east, Safkulu Guseinov, 61, wheeled a rickety
wheelbarrow containing pumpkins, red beets and carrots down a road to his
house. The small load, the grizzled man said, was all he was able to harvest
from his drought-stricken garden. Winter is shaping up as a time of hunger
for the Khutor Novy man and the 10 members of his household. “They all come
to me and say, ‘Give me bread,’ or ‘Give me milk,’ but how can I?” Guseinov
asked. “I have no money.”
During the drought, a woman from a nearby village hanged herself and her
3-year-old daughter with clothesline after being jilted by her husband and
then by a live-in lover. “I can’t live like this anymore,” Olga Korobova,
22, said in a suicide note written with a mascara pencil. “I’ve got no way
State prosecutor Yuri A. Vlasov said that the single mother’s troubles were
personal but that the backdrop to her act of despair was depressingly common:
no food, no income, no job, suspension of benefits for her daughter, Nina,
because no government funds were arriving from Moscow.
“I’m frankly amazed that people are putting up with all of this,” the prosecutor
said. “We should have had an uprising a long time ago.”
These are the regions and republics in Russia for which the Russian Red Cross
and its international affiliate have requested $15 million in emergency aid
to help them get through winter.
The Independent November 29, 1998
Russian red tape halts US aid to hungry Arctic
From Phil Reeves in Moscow
Farcial and outdated Russian laws are thwarting efforts to provide desperately
needed aid to stranded inhabitants of the Arctic north, who risk starvation
as winter tightens its grip.
Information gathered by Red Cross officials in Alaska, which has strong ethnic
connections with the inhabitants of Russia’s far north-east, has produced
an exasperating picture of frustration and red tape. Concerned about the
fate of their indigenous counterparts in Russia, Alaskans have been eager
to send humanitarian aid across the Bering Strait, the sea which divides
the prosperous far north-west of the United States from Russia’s crisis-hit,
perilously poor Chukotka region.
Finding out about the scale of the crisis in the most threatened parts of
Arctic Russia is difficult, because of their extreme remoteness, but alarming
information has been reaching international aid organisations about villages
dotted along the Chukotka’s coastline, some less than 100 miles from Alaska’s
shores. The most remote and harsh parts of the country are worst affected
by Russia’s economic maelstrom, which has severed fragile Soviet-era supply
lines from Moscow.
The Independent on Sunday has learnt that reports gleaned by the US Red Cross
include the following complaints:
Medical supplies offered to Chukotka by US hospitals have repeatedly been
turned back by the authorities on the grounds that they were “outdated” –
a clause that even applied to bandages and plaster.
Although some of the most beleaguered Arctic villages in Russia have received
no new clothes supplies for three years, and are without heating, Russian
officials insist that aid packages of clothing come with a certificate showing
that they have been dry-cleaned. This is said to be a measure to prevent
the spread of vermin, although the Alaskans say there is no risk of this.
They also point out that Nome – the nearest sizeable Alaskan town to the
Russian coastline – has no dry-cleaners.
Humanitarian food supplies over the value of $10,000 cannot be cleared locally
but must be referred to officials in Moscow, more than 5,000 miles away.
Yet, as shipping the aid from the US West Coast to Russia’s far north- east
is expensive, consignments worth less than $10,000 are not cost- effective.
The Red Cross has been told there is an “imminent risk” of starvation among
a “large proportion” of the inhabitants of some villages in Chukotka, whose
population of about 65,000 faces nine-month winters in which temperatures
can fall below minus 50C.
Conditions have been worsened by a poor hunting and fishing season, the
cancellation of one of three shipping lines between Alaska and the Russian
far north-east, and the non-arrival of ships carrying supplies. Last week
a Finnish-owned tanker carrying 13,400 tons of fuel finally made it to Chukotka’s
port of Pevek – on the peninsula’s north coast – but only after spending
a fortnight struggling through thick ice in the Arctic Sea.
Electricity in Provideniya, a regional centre on the coast, is off for 20
hours a day because of a coal shortage, a problem which is likely to be worse
in the more remote areas. Among the villages known to be struggling for survival
as the Arctic winter deepens are Lorino, Uelen, Inchoun, and Yanrakynnot.
Most at risk are the elderly – who have not received pensions for up to a
year – and the young.
Last week the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
in Moscow warned that Chukotka was facing “unprecedented hardship”, which
“could threaten the very survival of some indigenous minorities”. Some officials
say that life expectancy in the region has fallen as low as 40; others say
it could be as little as 34. Cardiovascular problems, tuberculosis and other
respiratory diseases are rife, but there is a dire shortage of medicines.
The Red Cross has dispatched a five-member team to Russia’s east and north
on an assessment mission for a relief effort.
Komsomolskaya Pravda 12 November 1998
“Shall We Eat, Then?”
Feature comprising report by Yevgeniy Umerenkov, entitled “Agent 007 Counts
All Our Potatoes…,” and commentary by economic observer Yevgeniy Anisimov,
“…But We Have Worked Out Where the Roots of This Fable Lie”; followed by
[Umerenkov report] A real Russian without his spuds is a goner. Staple No.
2, in other words. So British intelligence zeroed in when Her Majesty’s
Government received information through secret channels: In a cold winter
Russia will not have enough of either staple No. 1 (grain) or staple No.
2.Obviously the government could not keep that secret for long. So an alarmed
Robin Cook, British foreign secretary, informed the West that the trouble
Russia has had with the grain and potato harvest is spine-chilling.
It is all a question of time: We have enough grain and potatoes to last either
for several weeks or until spring. The only conclusion is Moscow must get
urgent assistance or mobs of hungry Russians will first cause disturbances
at home and then flood prosperous West European countries in search of grub,
thus threatening their security.
This warning came when the Primakov government’s negotiations with the European
Union on food and humanitarian aid were in full swing: Concerning what we
need and what we can do without and in what amounts, at what prices, and
on what terms food imports will be supplied. And against the background of
statements by Russian officials to the effect that we do not face the threat
of famine, except for the odd interruption in the supply of “Bush’s chicken
legs.” But, apparently, by spring there will be nothing to bake jacket potatoes
The reference to British and U.S. intelligence data is a serious matter.
We asked our “competent organs’ to explain. They confirm that specialists
actually can estimate pretty accurately on the basis of photographs taken
from space what kind of grain harvest Russia has grown. But it is a bit harder
calculating how many tubers have ripened in the soil beneath the tops. And
in fact how you can view from space all our plots, private, vegetable gardens,
and dacha grounds where around 80 percent of Russia’s potatoes are grown
is a mystery. And we cannot see how they managed to count the sacks of potatoes
stored in cellars in the countryside and apartments in the city.
In this case Western intelligence services have clearly stolen a march on
their Russian counterparts.
The West’s desire not to leave us in the lurch is a noble one, of course,
and deserves gratitude. But there is certainly another motive behind their
anxiety. Because of our crisis the Western countries could lose the Russian
food market they have conquered. The question of continuing supplies to Russia
is just as important to them as the problem of survival this winter is to
us. And if you sound the alarm by predicting food riots in Siberia, you put
a little pressure on Moscow to make it more amenable at the negotiations
on the terms for providing it with aid. So a piece of bread and a potato
become politicians’ small change.
So do we have enough food or not? Who will answer this question? Why does
our government say nothing? So if the Western intelligence assessment is
true, perhaps we should also ask their James Bonds to calculate whether we
have enough pickled cucumbers and sauerkraut to last until spring?
[Anisimov commentary] We were writing about the threat of famine in September.
In October we had stopped. Perhaps British intelligence, which gets most
of its information from open sources, based its calculations on pieces published
We may face the threat of famine if Russia refuses to pay its state debt.
Then all food imports would be sure to collapse. But the signs are that we
will manage to avoid defaulting on the state foreign debt this year and will
draw on Central Bank and Finance Ministry reserves to pay the $3 billion
we are required to pay. It will be worse next year, when we have to repay
$17-19 billion, but that will be in a year’s time….
What has happen to the food market this year? People have stopped buying
expensive imported food, producers of Russian sausage and other food have
taken heart, have started producing as much as they can, have raised prices,
and have been dashing all over the country in search of Russian raw materials.
Prices of meat, milk, and grain have started to rise, which has pleased the
peasants no end — they were hoping for further price rises so that they
themselves would not be operating at a loss. If this situation persists for
a while longer, the countryside will be able to stand on its own two feet
and provide the country with home-produced food. Not 100-percent provision
perhaps, but provision nonetheless. Will Western agricultural producers then
have to do without the Russian market? Where would they send their food,
which, I would point out, they have already been paid for by their own
governments, through subsidies?
The recovery of the Russian countryside is bad for the West both economically
and politically: Not only does it lose a means of pressurizing Russia, but
its own farmers, deprived of markets, will also start to rebel. So U.S. and
European states benefit (!) from even giving us free food! It is a way of
beating down prices on the Russian domestic market and not allowing Russian
agricultural producers to find their feet.
Then, when the situation returns to normal, we will be offered food imports
again, but for money. And we will have no option but to buy it, because we
will have finished off our own peasants.
In conclusion, a few figures. In a year we consume 20-21 million tonnes of
grain; next year we will consume a little more, because the food consumption
structure will change and we will eat more cheap bread and less expansive
meat. So we need 22-23 million tonnes of food grain. The harvest of this
grain was not particularly good in 1998 — 19-20 million tonnes. But there
are stocks of around 10 million tonnes left over from past good years. In
addition, past years have shown that peasants hide one-tenth of the harvest
from officials’ prying eyes for various kinds of barter transactions. So
there is plenty of grain, for sure.
Personal plots provide 80-90 percent of people’s potatoes. It is impossible
to estimate the stocks, but there are no grounds for panic in this case either
— it was a good harvest, on average. OK, so if we have bread and potatoes,
we are not going to starve to death.
[postscript] “Rumors of a probable famine in Russia are obviously exaggerated
and they benefit only the food importers, who put them about in order to
make money,” Viktor Semenov, Russian Federation minister of agriculture and
food, said yesterday.