Russian famine of 1891–92
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The Russian famine of 1891–92 began along the Volga River, then spread as far as the Urals and Black Sea. The famine caused 375,000 to 500,000 deaths. The reawakening of Russian Marxism and populism is often traced to the public's anger at the Tsarist government's poor 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 (−24 degrees Fahrenheit), 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 were not 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.
Weather alone cannot be blamed as there was enough grain in Russia to feed the starving areas. 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). 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. The main reason the blame fell on the government was that grain exports were not banned until 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. 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. Even Russia's capitalists realized the industrialization drive had been too hard on the peasants. 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.
On November 17, 1891 the government asked the people to form voluntary anti-famine organizations. Leo Tolstoy, the most famous volunteer, blamed the Tsar and the Orthodox Church for the famine. As a result of this, the Orthodox Church excommunicated Tolstoy and forbade citizens from accepting help from his relief organization. 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-in-law 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". 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.
The United States formed "Russian Famine Relief Committee of the United States" [Комитет США по оказанию помощи российским голодающим]. This organization was mostly self-funded by donations. First ship, named "Indiana", part of the so-called "Famine Fleet" ["Флот Голода"], carrying 1,900 tons of food, arrived on the March 16, 1892 at the port of Liepāja, Russian port on the Baltic sea. The second ship, "Missouri", delivered 2,500 tons of grain and corn flower to Liepaja on April 4, 1892. In May 1892, another ship carrying humanitarian aid arrived in Riga. Additional ships came in the following June and July. The total cost of the humanitarian aid provided by the United States in 1891–92 was estimated to be around US$1 million (equivalent to $30 million in 2018).
Based on some American sources,[who?] the Government of the United States (through Interior Ministry)[specify] has provided financial assistance to certain Russian regions [guberniyas], mainly in the form of loans, in the amount of US$75 million (equivalent to $1.9 billion in 2018).
These events were pictured in 1892 by the famous Russian painter Ivan Aivazovsky [Иван Айвазовский] who painted two pictures, "The Ship of Help" ["Корабль помощи"] and "Food Distribution" ["Раздача продовольствия"]. These paintings were recently sold by Sotheby's Auctions.
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