Russian famine of 1891–92

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Cossack patrol preventing peasants from leaving their village, 1892

The Russian famine of 1891-2 began along the Volga River, then spread as far as the Urals and Black Sea. The reawakening of Russian Marxism and populism is often traced to the public's anger at the Tsarist government's handling of the disaster.


In 1891 a particularly dry autumn had delayed the planting of the fields. That winter temperatures fell to -31 degrees Celsius, but very little snow fell therefore the seedlings were totally unprotected from the frost. When the Volga river flooded the lack of snow caused the water to freeze, killing more seedlings as well as the fodder used to feed the horses. Those seedlings that weren't killed by frost were blown away along with the topsoil in an uncommonly windy spring. The summer started as early as April and proved to be a long dry one. The city of Orenburg for example had no rain for over 100 days. Forests, horses, crops and peasants all began to die, and by the end of 1892 about half a million people were dead, mostly from cholera epidemics triggered by the famine.

Other causes[edit]

Weather alone cannot be blamed as there was enough grain in Russia to feed the starving areas.[citation needed] The peasants used medieval technology like wooden ploughs and sickles. They rarely had modern fertilizers or machinery (the Petrovsky academy in Moscow was Russia's only agricultural school). Russia's primitive railways were not up to redistributing grain. The affected area was a stronghold of communal land distribution so that households had no incentive to improve the land or mechanize, but every incentive to produce as many children as possible (Russia had Europe's highest birth rate[citation needed]). The main blame was laid at the government, which was discredited by the famine. It refused to use that word: golod, they called it a poor harvest, neurozhai, and stopped the papers reporting on it.[1] The main reason the blame fell on the government was that grain exports were not banned till mid-August and merchants had a month's warning so they could quickly export their reserves. Minister of Finance Ivan Vyshnegradsky even opposed this late ban.[2] He was seen as the main cause of the disaster as it was his policy to raise consumer taxes to force peasants to sell more grain.[3] Even Russia's capitalists realized the industrialization drive had been too hard on the peasants.[citation needed] The government also contributed to the famine indirectly by conscripting peasant sons, sending taxmen to seize livestock when grain ran out, and implementing a system of redemption payments as compensation to landlords who had lost their serfs.

Relief efforts[edit]

On November 17, 1891 the government asked the people to form voluntary anti-famine organizations.[4] Leo Tolstoy, the most famous volunteer,[5] blamed the Tsar and the Orthodox Church for the famine. The Orthodox Church actually banned peasants from accepting his charity as they had excommunicated him. The future Tsar Nicholas II headed the relief committee and was a member of the finance committee three months later, while the Tsar and Tsarina raised 5 and 12 million rubles respectively. Alexander III's sister Grand Duchess Elizabeth also raised money by selling peasant crafts in bazaars. Nicholas II said, "A great honor, but little satisfaction ...I must admit I never even suspected its [finance committee's] existence".[6] The zemstvos got 150 million roubles from the government to buy food, but were only allowed to lend to peasants who could repay them and were therefore the least needy. Starving peasants had to eat raw donated flour and "famine bread", a mixture of moss, goosefoot, bark and husks. In February 1892, the government bought 30,000 Kyrgyz horses so the fields could be plowed.

Economic consequences[edit]

Year Exports of cereals (poods) Balance of trade (Roubles) Budget revenue (Roubles) Budget expenditure (Roubles) Budget balance (Roubles)
1890 418,503,000 +285,590,000 1,047,373,000 1,056,512,000 -9,139,000
1891 391,411,000 +335,804,000 928,795,000 1,115,647,000 -186,852,000
1892 196,422,000 +76,036,000 1,168,844,000 1,125,365,000 +43,488,000
1893 404,039,000 +149,601,000


  1. ^ Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy, page 158
  2. ^ Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy, page 158
  3. ^ Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy, page 158
  4. ^ People's Tragedy, page 159
  5. ^ John F. Hutchison, Late Imperial Russia 1890-1917 page 14
  6. ^ Andrew Verner, The crisis of russian autocracy page 28

External links[edit]