The Last Years of the Soviet Empire: Snapshots from 1985-1991

By Vladimir Shlapentokh; Neil F. O'Donnell | Go to book overview

BUMPER CROP: AN UNWELCOME GIFT IN RUSSIA SEPTEMBER 1990

This snapshot clarifies the cycle from which the Soviet Union has struggled
to escape since the inception of perestroika. The cycle begins with a de-
moralized, strife-ridden population and a weakened central authority unable
to prevent disastrous events such as the 1990 harvest. These events lead to
increased demoralization (including, in this case, worries about starvation),
as well as to heightened ethnic, regional, republican, and national tensions.
As we have seen, these tensions have led to a further weakening of the
central authority and further lowering of morale, and the cycle continues.

The bread lines that appeared in Moscow earlier this month sent chills through the country. In part, this was because, in the past, bread shortages had often preceded momentous events, such as the 1917 overthrow of the thousand-year monarchy and the 1964 ouster of Khrushchev. The current bread lines are particularly ominous, however, because they come on the heels of what should have been a record grain harvest.

According to official estimates, the Soviet Union produced about 300 million tons of grain this year. Even conservative estimates of 250-260 million tons represent a substantial gain over harvests in previous years (about 200 million tons per year in 1986-1988). Prospects for potatoes (a second staple for the Soviet people) and for vegetables were also quite good.

Still, years of experience and folklore have taught the Soviets that, in the USSR, people do not merely "pick" the harvest when it is ready. Rather, they "struggle for the harvest." This rallying cry is as true in 1990 as it was when Stalin introduced it in the late 1920s.

In July, when the first estimates of the upcoming harvest were published, the Soviet people asked themselves several crucial questions: Would Soviet society, in its current state of turmoil, be able to grasp this fantastic opportunity and reap enough grain to feed its people? Could the country avoid yet another humiliating and costly purchase of grain from the West? Would the country's leaders be able to use this bounty to reduce the political tension in the country and ease the strain of economic reform?

The Soviet people were not alone in their interest in the harvest. Observers of the Soviet scene realized that the events surrounding the harvest would provide a natural setting in which to assess the strength of the central power and observe all the major elements of the Soviet social fabric. The harvest would also provide perhaps the last opportunity to observe the Stalinist model in action--possibly providing a few more clues as to how it had been so effective in achieving goals that demanded a concerted social effort.

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