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Answers [London EC4] March 3rd, 1934 - A RECORD WHEAT CROP – BUT SHORT RATIONS.        Page 3 & 4.

Why Russia is Hungry!

By Whiting Williams. 

In last week’s “Answers” Mr Whiting Williams, an expert investigator, who recently travelled across Russian Ukraine, gave a vivid word picture of the famine which has killed off millions of people. In a further article below, he answers the conundrum: “Why is Russia Hungry?” and explains the causes which lie behind the tragedy of the breadless Ukraine – EDITOR.  

Why is it that Russia, formerly one of the granaries of the world, is now in the grip of famine? 

As I passed through the country, making appalling discoveries which I described in my first article, I asked myself this question and discussed with many of the people whom I met. 

One thing struck me forcibly. Whereas in the old days, Russian fatalism would certainly ascribed this catastrophe to “the will of God,” no-one seemed to be giving that answer to-day. 

Not because the Communists have succeeded in their avowed aim of stamping out religion- there was ample evidence that they haven’t- but because it was obvious to everyone that the scarcity was due not so much to any failure in the crop as to the way it was being dealt with. 

Last autumn’s wheat crop was indeed, was, indeed, described to me as the biggest for fifty years, yet I found that this fact did not decrease in the slightest, Russia’s fears of another winter of starvation. 

This was due to two facts- failure to harvest the whole of the crop. And doubt as to the destination of what grain was actually gathered. 

Grain left to Rot 

Failure to harvest the crop? It seems incredible in a country where millions have been dying for want of bread. But I saw with my own eyes, in the fertile farmlands of Soviet Ukraine, field after field covered with ungarnered grain, that had been allowed to rot where it had been grown and ripened and been cut. 

There were districts where it was possible to travel for a whole day between these fields of blackening wheat, seeing only here and there a tiny oasis where the harvest had been got safely in. 

“It’s because so many farmers starved or ere shipped away last spring,” was one answer which I got repeatedly, when I inquired about this mysterious waste. 

Yet to replace who were no longer available, millions of city workers were transferred from desk and factory to work in the fields.  And work they did-every man and woman of them-for fourteen hours a day until they cracked under the strain. 

I was told of one case, where out of a hundred city workers who were drafted to a certain farm for the harvest, only seventy returned alive.  And there were countless instances in which members of the harvest brigades were in bed for weeks, seriously ill, as a result of their labours in the fields. 

It was not altogether unaccustomed work which was responsible for this.  If they had been properly fed most of them could have stood up to it. But they were expected to perform this arduous toil on a diet which consisted of mainly cabbage soup. Bread was as scarce in the midst of that abundant crop as it was everywhere else in Russia. 

Again it seems inconceivable. But the same rule applied to those “volunteers” - technically, at least, they were volunteers - from the cities as had been enforced with the peasants. Not one cupful of grain had to be kept back or used by the harvesters under pain of death.  All must be delivered to the Government granaries, situated, perhaps, ten or twenty miles away. 

Eating the Farm Horses. 

And not one ounce of it could be returned to the farms until all the harvest was in, and the central authorities in Moscow had decided what percentage of it was to be retained and what portion of it might be allowed to go back. 

It must be remembered that many at least of the volunteers and peasants were already weak as a result of prolonged privation, and the city were unskilled and clumsy. When the starvation regime continued over the harvest, it was no wonder that none of them was capable of doing a good day’s work. 

Even when, despite all this, the grain was cut and piled into shocks in the fields, it was often impossible to transport it to the government centres. Many of the peasant’s horses had been killed when their owners were forced into collective farms; the others were eaten later on, when the food shortage became more acute. The few which remained were gaunt and emaciated as the villagers themselves, and quite unfit for heavy work. 

At first it was thought that this would not matter. There would be motor transport from the cities. When it arrived it was found in the great majority of cases to be quite inadequate. So the cut grain blackened and rotted in the shocks. 

Yet so good was the crop, it may be that, in spite of appalling waste the actual deliveries to the granaries were better than those of the previous year. Even those who mentioned this possibility, however, were doubtful if that would mean any real improvement in this years bread supply. 

There is an ironic reason for this. Under the Second Five-Year Plan, which is to make Russia a land flowing with milk and honey - and manufactured goods - new machinery is required and must be bought from abroad. But to buy machinery – money - or credit - is necessary, so exports must be maintained.  And prices remain low, which keeps down the value of the goods which soviets send overseas. 

Wanted for the War Chest. 

So many Russians, I found, were asking the question: Would the authorities be able to sell a sufficient quantity of commodities for their purpose, or would they be forced to send abroad part of the precious grain so urgently required at home? 

“Bur surely, “I said to one of my informants, “surely they wouldn’t try to export wheat when lives are in the balance?” 

He shrugged his shoulders. 

“Machines are more important than men.” he said. “Even if we don’t export any of it, I expect that there will be some of it wanted for the War Chest.” 

He went on to explain that the situation in the Far East was so grave that the Government had no choice but to build up reserves of food and essential stores for use in the event of emergency. 

“Work or Starve!” 

“Soldiers must be fed,” he said, “and the peasants are sullen It would be no use appealing to them to grow more food. Instead, they’d probably be more difficult to deal with. At present it’s only the Red Army that keeps them at work and gets in the crops for the State granaries. Every soldier at the Front would be one less to keep them at it.” 

I gathered from other remarks this man made that he believed that a considerable portion of the wheat crop of 1932 was put aside in this way, and that this was the real Cause of last year’s famine. He was an intelligent, educated person and he discussed the whole business in a curious, detached way, as if nothing really mattered. 

From other sources I heard whispers of a still stranger and more dreadful possibility—that some of the leaders of Russian Communism to-day might regard (the continuance of the famine over this winter as being quite useful, because it would drive home the grim but essential lesson: "Work or starve!”

Personally, I find it difficult to believe this—it is too inhuman!—but I know that one British agricultural expert, who has travelled widely in Russia, and knows the psychology of its rulers, has suggested quite seriously that the famine may be starvation “according to plan.” 

No Time for Politics. 

Russia, he says, has been on short commons for years; but if a certain proportion of the hungry population were allowed to die off, there would probably be no difficulty in growing sufficient food for the rest. And he seems to think it quite possible that the central economic planning of the Soviet is now being applied to the ghastly task of equalising by this dreadful means the demand for food with the supply.

It is only right to add that other competent observers, to whom I have repeated this theory, are quite convinced that it is wrong. 

“At the same time,” remarked one of them, “there is much to be said, from the Soviet authorities” point of view, for keeping the population on short commons. 

“If food is scarce, everybody is devoting all his energy to getting it. No trouble is too great, no period of waiting too long, if only there is food at the end of it. The result is that no one has any time or energy left for politics. 

“And that, of course, is very convenient for the Communists. They are only a small minority of the population and, as they themselves must know quite well even Terrorism wouldn't keep them in power if once a mass movement against them got going.

“But, there is no chance of such a mass movement—people are too busy trying to get enough food to keep on living from day to day. So, however much they may dislike the Government they, don’t combine against it!” 

Perhaps the plausible of all the explanations I received however came from a foreign engineer with whom I talked “The Russians are doubtless building up reserves in readiness for a possible war,” said this expert. “But (the real trouble is that their planning has started at the wrong end. They've sacrificed agriculture to manufactures, and been so busy putting up the world's biggest factories that they’ve let the world's biggest wheatfields go to rack and ruin.” 

There is a good deal of truth in that. And the application of Communist theories to agriculture has certainly been disastrous. All over Russia the Soviets have tried to stamp out the kulaks, or rich peasants. 

Collective Farms a Failure. 

They weren’t really very rich, these kulaks, but they were the best farmers in the villages—and usually the hardest workers. When they were dispossessed and driven into exile, the standard of farming, never particularly high, fell alarmingly. And the much-advertised collective farms have done nothing to raise it. 

I have told in these articles what I bare seen and heard in Russia I have given you the explanations that have been given to me. What is not explained what I believe time civilised world will say cannot be explained—is why no effort has been made to relieve the famine-stricken millions; why the Soviet Government has kept all news of their plight from a world whose willingness to help no one can doubt. 


Helping to build an aluminium plant in Dnieprostroy, where great works of various kinds are under construction. Electric power for them to use has been ready years in advance.

Even those who are still at work in Russia, and who, therefore, are entitled to a ration of bread, have to wait—sometimes for hours—in long queues before they can get it. 

“Volunteer” harvesters on one of the farms. Many of the peasants are dead or in exile, and large numbers of those who remain are too weak and ill to do any real work.

Bibliographic Note on Whiting Williams

Biographical material below  is quoted from the "Guide to the Architectural Records in the Oberlin College Archives," edited by Roland M. Baumann (Oberlin, 1996), p. 25., :

(Charles) Whiting Williams (1878-1975, A.B. 1899, M.A. 1909) was born in Shelby, Ohio. He continued his studies at the University of Berlin (1899-1900) and the University of Chicago (1900-1901), serving as Chicago’s director of the Bureau of University Travel from 1901 to 1904. Williams returned to Oberlin to serve as the first assistant to the president from 1904 to 1912 under Henry Churchill King. Among his primary tasks was the raising of money for building and scholarships.

In 1912, Williams left Oberlin. Over the next three decades he was successful in reform and philanthropy movements, serving as the first executive secretary of the Federation of Charity and Philanthropy (now known as the Welfare Federation of Cleveland). Upon entering the private sector in 1917, he legally changed his name to Whiting Williams. After 1919, Williams pursued a career as a consultant in labor-management relations, and spent the greater part of his remaining life researching, speaking and writing on these subjects.

Permission for above source material granted by Oberlin College, with thanks...


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