Soviet Union: Facts and Fictions (Part 2: Homelessness, Famine and Food)
This series (1, 3, 4) is to discuss a popular greentext story that gets shared around numerous leftist circles, and to provide greater context behind many of the claims made.
It may seem trivial to discuss at length a 4chan greentext post, but importantly, a number of sources have now been provided for these claims alongside the meme. This allows for deeper discussion and interrogation of the claims made.
>have zero homelessness
The source list does not provide a source for this claim, and even acknowledges that there were indeed homeless people in the Soviet Union, but puts this down to predominately mental health issues. However, this is still a substantial whitewashing of the facts.
For this section I will mainly be drawing upon Svetalana Stephenson’s Crossing the Line: Vagrancy, Homelessness and Social Displacement in Russia (2006) to discuss how home ownership and homelessness worked in Soviet Russia.
Shortly after the revolution, Tsarist restictions on movement were lifted by the 1918 ‘Declaration of Rights of Working and Exploited People’, which also legalised vagrancy. However, over the next few years these rights were gradually eroded.
1926 — nomadic people, such as Russian Romani were forcibly settled. In 1933, 5,000 ‘gypsies’ were deported from Moscow to labour camps in Siberia.
1928 — military conscription formally introduced.
1930s — all scientific research into homelessness and vagrancy was ceased.
1932 — workers who abandoned their place of work were to be deprived of coupons for food and other goods, and deprived of their right to an enterprise-provided flat.
1932 — the propiska system was established — a registration stamp of your place of residence in your internal passport. A change of place of residence (even within a single settlement) required the submission of one’s passport for propiska within twenty-four hours. Employers also required proof of propiska. Violating the propiska resulted in a fine, and multiple violations in 6 months “corrective” labour.
1934 — the ‘Exemplary Charter of the Agricultural Cooperative’ forbade peasants from leaving their place of residence (yes, like literal serfdom).
1960 — the RSFSR Criminal Code article 209 established the criminal penalty for persistent vagrancy or begging as imprisonment for up to two years or corrective labour from six months to one year. Repeat offenders were punishable with imprisonment for up to four years. Article 198 introduced penalties for ‘violation of passport rules’. The militia had the power to evict any unregistered person from the locality twice, giving him or her twenty-four hours to leave on each occasion. If people came back a third time, they were liable to a one-year prison sentence.
1961 — the decree ‘On Intensifying the Struggle Against Persons Who Avoid Socially Useful Work and Lead an Antisocial, Parasitic Way of Life’ threatened those who derived “non-labour income from the use of land plots, automobiles or housing, or commit other anti-social acts that enable them to lead a parasitic way of life” to banishment from two to five years.
During the 1920s, people without fixed occupation and registered dwelling were targeted and expelled from cities, especially from Moscow and Leningrad. This was followed by other decrees such as the 1948 ‘On Deportation to the Distant Regions of Persons Persistently Evading Labour Duty and Leading Antisocial Parasitic Ways of Life’, and the 1951 ‘On Measures to Fight Antisocial Parasitic Elements’. The result was there were no ghettoes as such, instead cities had belts around them with concentrations of ex-prisoners, expelled vagrants and ‘idlers’ — colloquially known as “behind the 101st kilometre”.
The propiska is key to understanding homelessness in the Soviet Union. One could not simply move houses in the Soviet Union, you had to get propiska. Propiska is your dwelling registration. You could get registration at birth, or later in life by close relatives (though this was subject to veto). Marriage did not automatically entitle you to your partner’s propiska (however divorce could lead you to losing it!), and if you were returning from a period of absence (such as prison) you would not automatically be re-granted propiska. You could also lose your propiska if you were away for six months.
What happened if you did not have propiska? Millions of workers lived for years in work-provided hostels, mud huts and trailers. As late as 1989, 21 per cent of single people in urban areas lived in hostels, and 29 per cent of those who lived separately from their families. The housing rights of such workers could be extremely weak. When they settled in enterprise hostels, they would be offered (at least initially) only temporary registration, making them particularly vulnerable to eviction for bad behaviour or at the end of their contract. In Moscow, for example, limitchiki (migrant workers with temporary resident permits) lived in workers’ hostels on a renewable one-year propiska. Any misdemeanour (or, for women, pregnancy and the birth of a child) could mean the end of tenancy.
Yuri Lotman captured the cultural zeitgeist towards such living arrangements as “the centre of an abnormal world”, a “false home” and an “anti-home”. It doesn’t take much convincing to see that living in a hostel for years, at constant threat of eviction by your boss, would qualify you as homeless under some Western definitions.
This is simply a bizarre claim to triumph, considering the number of people that starved to death in the Soviet Union. Including millions in 1921–23, millions more in 1932–33, and a million more in 1946–7.
The fact that Holodomor, described by historians as “what must count as one of the greatest man-made horrors in a century particularly full of them”, occurred during this period makes this claim particularly insidious, bordering on genocide denial.
The causes of Holodomor are still hotly debated to this day. For example, historian Andrea Graziosi believes Holodomor was orchestrated as “a means for breaking Ukrainian peasants’ resistance to collectivization and independence aspirations”, while Professor Stanislav Kulchytsky places blame “squarely in the context of factors such as Marxist ideology, the elimination of private property (of the peasants), and the imposition of state control of agricultural production.” The end result being a “total confiscation not just of grain but all food, and physical blockades eliminating the possibility of peasants to search for food in Russia or cities in Ukraine.”
Just to drive home the deplorable nature of this claim, the logic it rests upon is that because the last famine was during Soviet control, it means the Soviets get credit for “ending famine”. Using this logic, it means that the British get credit for “ending” famine in Ireland because the last famine (killing 20–25% of the population) occurred under British rule!
It is also important not to overstate the occurrence of famines in pre-Soviet Russia. While there was a major famine in 1891, and food insecurity was common, the death toll seen under the Soviets was unique for hundreds of years prior. Starvation through famine was vastly less common under the Romanov’s than the Soviets.
The comment also states that there were “no famines after the collectivisation of agriculture in the early 1930s (except for in the Siege of Leningrad).” This ignores the 1946–7 famine, which has been widely studied.
>have higher calorie consumption than USA
The source for this claim is a graph from this blog post specifically about adding nuance to this claim, and debunking the graph in question. This is spurred by the huge discrepancies the author, Artir, finds in data around calorie intake.
Artir notes that
The problem with this is that sources who are trying to do the same (USDA and FAO) get different results. FAO’s series looks like USDA unadjusted series. But FAO’s series also look like Allen’s, and Allen’s are supposed to take losses into account. So someone is making a mistake somewhere. We could perhaps believe the *official* Soviet data rather than FAO’s. But according to FAO, the Goskomstat surveys have two problems: one is that it oversamples lower income households, and that the coefficients used to convert food kg into calories are 15–20% lower than FAO’s. They conclude that “with such large differences, it is difficult to say much about the level of caloric consumption with any confidence”. And even if we took the official consumption data, that supposedly would be accounting for losses, it is still far from the similar figure for US intake from USDA, so differences in methodology must be present.
After an excellent and exhaustive literature review on this topic Artir concludes:
Was Soviet caloric intake higher than the US’?
No. In saying this, I’m saying the FAO is wrong, and that Robert Allen, who based his calculations in FAO data (and used their multipliers), didn’t notice. To say this, I had to go through a full literature review, and I come to this opinion. Before reading my post, you were totally justified in believing that caloric intake was higher. Not anymore. Unless some FAO official tells us why did they used their coefficients, that seem to go against the Sovietological literature…
How are you sure the FAO is wrong?
Their figure for calories comes from using wrong coefficients. Analysts referenced above pointed this out. FAO is aware of this, but they keep their coefficients without exactly saying why the official Soviet coefficients are wrong. Anyway, they themselves doubt you can get reliable estimates for Soviet data,
“However, with such large differences, it is difficult to say much about the level of caloric consumption with any confidence.”
Also referenced is Personal Consumption in the USSR and the USA by Igor Birman, who finds that caloric consumption in the Soviet Union is a little less than in the US, even though it should be higher due to a younger population that performs more strenuous work in a colder environment. Birman gives a figure of 3330 for 1976 (vs 3380 in the US).
To further stress what Birman noted — that calorie intake should be different based on certain circumstances, it is interesting to compare the original graph to recommended calorie intakes. The total recommended daily amount of calories for a Soviet person ranged from 2,800 to 3,600 for men and from 2,400 to 3,100 for women, depending on their occupation. In the United States, estimates range from 1,600 to 2,400 calories per day for adult women and 2,000 to 3,000 calories per day for adult men. This shows drastic over consumption among Americans, while the average Soviet man — even with the flawed, inflated FAO figures, did not ever meet their maximum recommended intake.
Artir. The Soviet Union: The Food consumption puzzle. Nintl <https://nintil.com/2016/05/11/the-soviet-union-food/> accessed 29/09/2018.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. 4922.0 — Information Paper — A Statistical Definition of Homelessness, 2012.
Birman, Igor. Personal Consumption in the USSR and the USA. London: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “Food Security in the Russian Federation”. FAO.org <http://www.fao.org/docrep/007/y5069e/y5069e05.htm> accessed 29/09/2018.
Health.gov. Dietary Guidelines: Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level.
Lotman, Yuri. Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture. New York: I.B. Taurus, 2001.
Lunze, Karsten et al. “Food security and nutrition in the Russian Federation — a health policy analysis”. Global Health Action 8:1. 2015.
Sysyn, Frank. Thirty Years of Research on Holodomor: A Balance Sheet. East/West Journal of Ukraine Studies 2:1 (2015) 3–17.
Wheatcroft, Stephen. “The Soviet Famine of 1946–1947, the Weather and Human Agency in Historical Perspective”. Europe-Asia Studies 64:6 2012. 987–1005.
Wolowyna, Oleh. “Contextualizing the Holodomor: The Impact of Thirty Years of Ukrainian Famine Studies ed. by Andrij Makuch and Frank Sysyn (review)”. Ab Imperio 2:1 2017. 335–341.