Food is a state matter
Russian history just as world history shows strong connection between big politics and everyday life. And food service industry is one of the most important parts of the latter.
Russian Empire subjects expected the regime to feed them or to show mercy outginving food. Tradition of offering bread and salt meant not only hospitality but also respect and loyalty towards regime. And on the other hand, plentiful supply of food in the country showed that the ruler had a right to be Vicar of God on earth. Coronation of tzars in Moscow Kremlin was accompanied by grand banquets for elite and free food for ordinary people. For the last time it happened during coronation of Nicholas II in 1896.
Under conditions of World War I Russia faced the aggravation of food supply situation. Troubles with bread supply accelerated mass protests in Petrograd in February 1917, which grew into a revolution. Social and economic collapse in autumn 1917 in many respects facilitated a take-over the government by the Bolshevik party.
“Who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat!” – new regime declared. Soviet government conducted policy of “war communism” which comprised requisitioning of grain and other agricultural produce (prodrazverstka) from peasants by so called prodotryads (special food groups). That was a class principle of product distribution. The population could only survive thanks to black markets, speculators and profiteers. But Bolsheviks used special ration coupons to attract needed specialists.
During Civil War special “Kremlin” rations were introduced for those in power. “Substantial” and “remedial” nutritional standards were developed later for party elite, who were attached to special canteens and distributors.
In 1921 NEP (New Economic Policy) replaced prodrazverstka with prodnalog (agricultural tax in kind). Free enterprise in food production, trade and cookery considerably improved the food supply situation. Ration coupons were called off; meat, oil, and milk consumption by working families increased; however, considerable part of urban population had worse nourishment then in pre-war years.
Immediately after October 1917 the course to “emancipate women from kitchen slavery” was proclaimed. Home cooking was declared a hotbed of bourgeois food rituals, and public canteens were declared “an anvil, where new mode of life and soviet society would be forged”. Food service industry appeared to its theorists as a chain of communal kitchens, canteens and public catering services, able to feed huge masses of working people.
At the turn of 1920 - 1930-s “emergency” grain storage and forced collectivisation caused a collapse of agriculture and famine of 1932-1933. Under conditions of mass mortality of peasants Stalin’s regime continued to export grain from the USSR. Worker’s nutrition changed for the worse because of increasing food shortages and poor commodity management. Rationing system and food ration standards, depending on social group, were introduced again. Under this circumstances, regime openly baited those who could help with political or social-economic problems.
During first “five-year plans” a rapid food industry modernization along with development of heavy industry evolved under command of Anastas Mikoyan. New bread-baking complexes and meat packing plants, milk, canning and sugar factories were built.
Through this and relative stabilization of agriculture in 1935 – 1936 ration coupons were called off. It was shaped by the regime as “advent of abundance”. But, despite all visible success, the level of consumption stayed low. People gradually returned to home cooking, though using the products of industrialization.
After World War II majority of soviet citizens were on the edge of life and death. The after effect of war and drought of 1946 aggravated a situation with food supply. After derationing in December 1947 the government regularly reduced prices for propaganda purposes. However it didn’t compensate for their growth in previous years.
Perhaps during all soviet period, regime had never been so defiantly in a role of a bread winner as in Khrushchev time. That was a time of Virgin Lands Campaign, the cultivation of corn and an attempt to “Catch up and overtake America!” in the sphere of meat and milk production. Failure of Khrushchev’s agricultural experiments had a vital effect on soviet citizen’s diet.
In 1970 – 1980-s a paradoxic situation came about food supply sphere: food consumption was constantly increasing, but there was a constant food shortage in the country. People had to stay in lines for hours to get items in a short supply, buy “under the counter”, the products were to “get” not to “buy”. The Food program of the USSR of 1982 was supposed to solve the food shortage problem once and for all. One of its curators, Mikhail Gorbachev, when becoming a General Secretary of Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union tried to solve this issue but unseccessfully.
Serious miscounts in economic policy and rise of disintegration of Soviet Union which led to the rupture of traditional economic ties - all determined intensification of food supply and economic crisis in the country at the turn of 1980 - 1990s.
During economic reforms in 1990-s, there was a sharp transition from soviet distributed food supply system to the market economy. It turned to be shocking for the majority of citizens and led to deep stratification of society and ambiguous changes in nutrition praxis.
Food shortages of the passing of the soviet era were replaced with rapid saturation of the market with imported food products for significantly increased prices.
In the current context, despite agricultural growth, the problem of “food supply security” of Russia and providing population with prime quality home goods remains relevant to this day.