The Crisis in Russia
Public Domain Books
The Shortage of Things
Nothing can be more futile than to describe conditions in Russia as a sort of divine punishment for revolution, or indeed to describe them at all without emphasizing the fact that the crisis in Russia is part of the crisis in Europe, and has been in the main brought about like the revolution itself, by the same forces that have caused, for example, the crisis in Germany or the crisis in Austria.
No country in Europe is capable of complete economic independence. In spite of her huge variety of natural resources, the Russian organism seemed in 1914 to have been built up on the generous assumption that with Europe at least the country was to be permanently at peace, or at the lost to engage in military squabbles which could be reckoned in months, and would keep up the prestige of the autocracy without seriously hampering imports and exports. Almost every country in Europe, with the exception of England, was better fitted to stand alone, was less completely specialized in a single branch of production. England, fortunately for herself, was not isolated during the war, and will not become isolated unless the development of the crisis abroad deprives her of her markets. England produces practically no food, but great quantities of coal, steel and manufactured goods. Isolate her absolutely, and she will not only starve, but will stop producing manufactured goods, steel and coal, because those who usually produce these things will be getting nothing for their labor except money which they will be unable to use to buy dinners, because there will be no dinners to buy. That supposititious case is a precise parallel to what has happened in Russia. Russia produced practically no manufactured goods (70 per cent. of her machinery she received from abroad), but great quantities of food. The blockade isolated her. By the blockade I do not mean merely the childish stupidity committed by ourselves, but the blockade, steadily increasing in strictness, which began in August, 1914, and has been unnecessarily prolonged by our stupidity. The war, even while for Russia it was not nominally a blockade, was so actually. The use of tonnage was perforce restricted to the transport of the necessaries of war, and these were narrowly defined as shells, guns and so on, things which do not tend to improve a country economically, but rather the reverse. The imports from Sweden through Finland were no sort of make-weight for the loss of Poland and Germany.
The war meant that Russia’s ordinary imports practically ceased. It meant a strain on Russia, comparable to that which would have been put on England if the German submarine campaign had succeeded in putting an end to our imports of food from the Americas. From the moment of the Declaration of War, Russia was in the position of one “holding out,” of a city standing a siege without a water supply, for her imports were so necessary to her economy that they may justly be considered as essential irrigation. There could be no question for her of improvement, of strengthening. She was faced with the fact until the war should end she had to do with what she had, and that the things she had formerly counted on importing would be replaced by guns and shells, to be used, as it turned out, in battering Russian property that happened to be in enemy hands. She even learned that she had to develop gun-making and shell-making at home, at the expense of those other industries which to some small extent might have helped her to keep going. And, just as in England such a state of affairs would lead to a cessation of the output of iron and coal in which England is rich, so in Russia, in spite of her corn lands, it led to a shortage of food.
The Russian peasant formerly produced food, for which he was paid in money. With that money, formerly, he was able to clothe himself, to buy the tools of his labor, and further, though no doubt he never observed the fact, to pay for the engines and wagons that took his food to market. A huge percentage of the clothes and the tools and the engines and the wagons and the rails came from abroad, and even those factories in Russia which were capable of producing such things were, in many essentials, themselves dependent upon imports. Russian towns began to be hungry in 1915. In October of that year the Empress reported to the Emperor that the shrewd Rasputin had seen in a vision that it was necessary to bring wagons with flour, butter and sugar from Siberia, and proposed that for three days nothing else should be done. Then there would be no strikes. “He blesses you for the arrangement of these trains.” In 1916 the peasants were burying their bread instead of bringing it to market. In the autumn of 1916 I remember telling certain most incredulous members of the English Government that there would be a most serious food shortage in Russia in the near future. In 1917 came the upheaval of the revolution, in
1918 peace, but for Russia, civil war and the continuance of the blockade. By July, 1919, the rarity of manufactured goods was such that it was possible two hundred miles south of Moscow to obtain ten eggs for a box of matches, and the rarity of goods requiring distant transport became such that in November, 1919, in Western Russia, the peasants would sell me nothing for money, whereas my neighbor in the train bought all he wanted in exchange for small quantities of salt.
It was not even as if, in vital matters, Russia started the war in a satisfactory condition. The most vital of all questions in a country of huge distances must necessarily be that of transport. It is no exaggerationto say that only by fantastic efforts was Russian transport able to save its face and cover its worst deficiencies even before the war began. The extra strain put upon it by the transport of troops and the maintenance of the armies exposed its weakness, and with each succeeding week of war, although in 19l6 and 1917 Russia did receive 775 locomotives from abroad, Russian transport went from bad to worse, making inevitable a creeping paralysis of Russian economic life, during the latter already acute stages of which the revolutionaries succeeded to the disease that had crippled their precursors.
In 1914 Russia had in all 20,057 locomotives, of which 15,047 burnt coal, 4,072 burnt oil and 938 wood. But that figure of twenty thousand was more impressive for a Government official, who had his own reasons for desiring to be impressed, than for a practical railway engineer, since of that number over five thousand engines were more than twenty years old, over two thousand were more than thirty years old, fifteen hundred were more than forty years old, and 147 patriarchs had passed their fiftieth birthday. Of the whole twenty thousand only 7,108 were under ten years of age. That was six years ago. In the meantime Russia has been able to make in quantities decreasing during the last five years by 40 and 50 per cent. annually, 2,990 new locomotives. In 1914 of the locomotives then in Russia about 17,000 were in working condition. In 1915 there were, in spite of 800 new ones, only 16,500. In 1916 the number of healthy locomotives was slightly higher, owing partly to the manufacture of 903 at home in the preceding year and partly to the arrival of 400 from abroad. In 1917 in
spite of the arrival of a further small contingent the number sank to between 15,000 and 16,000. Early in 1918 the Germans in the Ukraine and elsewhere captured 3,000. Others were lost in the early stages of the civil war. The number of locomotives fell from 14,519 in January to 8,457 in April, after which the artificially instigated revolt of the Czecho-Slovaks made possible the fostering of civil war on a large scale, and the number fell swiftly to 4,679 in December. In 1919 the numbers varied less markedly, but the decline continued, and in December last year 4,141 engines were in working order. In January this year the number was 3,969, rising slightly in February, when the number was 4,019. A calculation was made before the war that in the best possible conditions the maximum Russian output of engines could be not more than1,800 annually. At this rate in ten years the Russians could restore their collection of engines to something like adequate numbers. Today, thirty years would be an inadequate estimate, for some factories, like the Votkinsky, have been purposely ruined by the Whites, in others the lathes and other machinery for building and repairing locomotives are worn out, many of the skilled engineers were killed in the war with Germany, many others in defending the revolution, and it will be long before it will be possible to restore to the workmen or to the factories the favorable material conditions of 1912-13. Thus the main fact in the present crisis is that Russia possesses one-fifth of the number of locomotives which in 1914 was just sufficient to maintain her railway system in a state of efficiency which to English observers at that time was a joke. For six years she has been unable to import the necessary machinery for making engines or repairing them. Further, coal and oil have been, until recently, cut off by the civil war. The coal mines are left, after the civil war, in such a condition that no considerable output may be expected from them in the near future. Thus, even those engines which exist have had their efficiency lessened by being adapted in a rough and ready manner for burning wood fuel instead of that for which they were designed.
Let us now examine the combined effect of ruined transport and the six years’ blockade on Russian life in town and country. First of all was cut off the import of manufactured
goods from abroad. That has had a cumulative effect completed, as it were, and rounded off by the breakdown of transport. By making it impossible to bring food, fuel and raw material to the factories, the wreck of transport makes it impossible for Russian industry to produce even that modicum which it contributed to the general supply of manufactured goods which the Russian peasant was accustomed to receive in exchange for his production of food. On the whole the peasant himself eats rather more than he did before the war. But he has no matches, no salt, no clothes, no boots, no tools. The Communists are trying to put an end to illiteracy in Russia, and in the villages the most frequent excuse for keeping children from school is a request to come and see them, when they will be found, as I have seen them myself, playing naked about the stove, without boots or anything but a shirt, if that, in which to go and learn to read and write. Clothes and such things as matches are, however, of less vital importance than tools, the lack of which is steadily reducing Russia’s actual power of food production. Before the war Russia needed from abroad huge quantities of agricultural implements, not only machines, but simple things like axes, sickles, scythes. In 1915 her own production of these things had fallen to 15.1 per cent. of her already inadequate peacetime output. In 1917 it had fallen to 2.1 per cent. The Soviet Government is making efforts to raise it, and is planning new factories exclusively for the making of these things. But, with transport in such a condition, a new factory means merely a new demand for material and fuel which there are neither engines nor wagons to bring. Meanwhile, all over Russia, spades are worn out, men are plowing with burnt staves instead of with plowshares, scratching the surface of the ground, and instead of harrowing with a steel-spiked harrow of some weight, are brushing the ground with light constructions of wooden spikes bound together with wattles.
The actual agricultural productive powers of Russia are consequently sinking. But things are no better if we turn from the rye and corn lands to the forests. Saws are worn out. Axes are worn out. Even apart from that, the shortage of transport affects the production of wood fuel, lack of which reacts on transport and on the factories and so on in a circle from which nothing but a large import of engines and wagons will provide an outlet. Timber can be floated down
the rivers. Yes, but it must be brought to the rivers. Surely horses can do that. Yes, but, horses must be fed, and oats do not grow in the forests. For example, this spring (1920) the best organized timber production was in Perm Government. There sixteen thousand horses have been mobilized for the work, but further development is impossible for lack of forage. A telegram bitterly reports, “Two trains of oats from Ekaterinburg are expected day by day. If the oats arrive in time a considerable success will be possible.” And if the oats do not arrive in time? Besides, not horses alone require to be fed. The men who cut the wood cannot do it on empty stomachs. And again rises a cry for trains, that do not arrive, for food that exists somewhere, but not in the forest where men work. The general effect of the wreck of transport on food is stated as follows: Less than 12 per cent. of the oats required, less than 5 per cent. of the bread and salt required for really efficient working, were brought to the forests. Nonetheless three times as much wood has been prepared as the available transport has removed.
The towns suffer from lack of transport, and from the combined effect on the country of their productive weakness and of the loss of their old position as centres through which the country received its imports from abroad. Townsfolk and factory workers lack food, fuel, raw materials and much else that in a civilized State is considered a necessary of life. Thus, ten million poods of fish were caught last year, but there were no means of bringing them from the fisheries to the great industrial centres where they were most needed. Townsfolk are starving, and in winter, cold. People living in rooms in a flat, complete strangers to each other, by general agreement bring all their beds into the kitchen. In the kitchen soup is made once a day. There is a little warmth there beside the natural warmth of several human beings in a small room. There it is possible to sleep. During the whole of last winter, in the case I have in mind, there were no means of heating the other rooms, where the temperature was almost always far below freezing point. It is difficult to make the conditions real except by individual examples. The lack of medicines, due directly to the blockade, seems to have small effect on the imagination when simply stated as such. Perhaps people will realize what it means when instead of talking of the wounded undergoing operations
without anesthetics I record the case of an acquaintance, a Bolshevik, working in a Government office, who suffered last summer from a slight derangement of the stomach due to improper and inadequate feeding. His doctor prescribed a medicine, and nearly a dozen different apothecaries were unable to make up the prescription for lack of one or several of the simple ingredients required. Soap has become an article so rare (in Russia as in Germany during the blockade and the war there is a terrible absence of fats) that for the present it is to be treated as a means of safeguarding labor, to be given to the workmen for washing after and during their work, and in preference to miners, chemical, medical and sanitary workers, for whose efficiency and health it is essential. The proper washing of underclothes is impossible. To induce the population of Moscow to go to the baths during the typhus epidemic, it was sufficient bribe to promise to each person beside the free bath a free scrap of soap. Houses are falling into disrepair for want of plaster, paint and tools. Nor is it possible to substitute one thing for another, for Russia’s industries all suffer alike from their dependence on the West, as well as from the inadequacy of the transport to bring to factories the material they need. People remind each other that during the war the Germans, when similarly hard put to it for clothes, made paper dresses, table-cloths, etc. In Russia the nets used in paper-making are worn out. At last, in April, 1920 (so Lenin told me), there seemed to be a hope of getting new ones from abroad. But the condition of the paper industry is typical of all, in a country which, it should not be forgotten, could be in a position to supply wood-pulp for other countries besides itself. The factories are able to produce only sixty per cent. of demands that have previously, by the strictest scrutiny, been reduced to a minimum before they are made. The reasons, apart from the lack of nets and cloths, are summed up in absence of food, forage and finally labor. Even when wood is brought by river the trouble is not yet overcome. The horses are dead and eaten or starved and weak. Factories have to cease working so that the workmen, themselves underfed, can drag the wood from the barges to the mills. It may well be imagined what the effect of hunger, cold, and the disheartenment consequent on such conditions of work and the seeming hopelessness of the position have on the productivity of labor, the fall in which reacts on all the industries, on transport, on the general situation and so again on itself.
Mr. J. M. Keynes, writing with Central Europe in his mind (he is, I think, as ignorant of Russia as I am of Germany), says: “What then is our picture of Europe? A country population able to support life on the fruits of its own agricultural production, but without the accustomed surplus for the towns, and also (as a result of the lack of imported materials, and so of variety and amount in the salable manufactures of the towns) without the usual incentives to market food in exchange for other wares; an industrial population unable to keep its strength for lack of food, unable to earn a livelihood for lack of materials, and so unable to make good by imports from abroad the failure of productivity at home .”
Russia is an emphasized engraving, in which every line of that picture is bitten in with repeated washes of acid. Several new lines, however, are added to the drawing, for in Russia the processes at work elsewhere have gone further than in the rest of Europe, and it is possible to see dimly, in faint outline, the new stage of decay which is threatened. The struggle to arrest decay is the real crisis of the revolution, of Russia, and, not impossibly, of Europe. For each country that develops to the end in this direction is a country lost to the economic comity of Europe. And, as one country follows another over the brink, so will the remaining countries be faced by conditions of increasingly narrow self-dependence, in fact by the very conditions which in Russia, so far, have received their clearest, most forcible illustration.