“Let Them All Eat Cake”

At the beginning of World War I, Russian officials gravely misjudged their ability to provide food during wartime and things started to decline within a year.On March 25th, the Provisional Government, after inheriting the food shortage issues, established a grain monopoly meaning that all grain was state property to be rationed as it saw fit and set fixed grain prices. The Ministry of Food Supply was created shortly after, to control this monopoly. This state control of the food supply not only undermined the market for food, but also the commercial infrastructure of Russia. Business firms and an entire class was essentially moved aside due to the regime asserted state authority over the food supply. What the Russian people had hoped would be less assertive and controlling behavior by this new Provisional Government turned out to be way more socialist than liberalist (Freeze 279).

This photo is of an appeal to the peasants to send their bread to help the war effort. It is set forth as an appeal to people to give bread or else the soldiers won’t be able to fight and win the war, but by giving bread they are taking it away from themselves and the city populations because the diversion of resources and food supplies to the war effort is what causes the shortages.

In light of the food shortages,”Bagmen” started to appear as private agents or on behalf of organizations to go get bread from the peasant country and bring it to the cities to skirt restrictions. They basically created a black market for grain in order to bring it to the starving people in the cities. They were seen as “bad men” who were skirting the restrictions of the Provisional Government, but were they just trying to help themselves and those who were starving?

“but I do not understand why we are being called bad names … I never would have come two thousand versts if the land committees had given us what we need … We are hungry … You have no idea how we suffer. Famine is no respecter of paper laws … give us bread!”

This is a quote from a “bagman” who said a few words to Congress on why he does what he does. There were harsh measures being taken against the “bagmen,” which Congress did not necessarily agree with. Guards would rain bullets from a machine gun on the roofs of a train, then enter the train car only to throw out the filled sacks, leaving the “bagmen” weeping.

As you can imagine, this only added to the undermining of the Provisional Government, which is why harsh measures were taken again these “bagmen” and why their reputation was so poor. Ultimately the Provisional Government, was not able to curb this blackmarket or the food shortages in general. The inability of the Provisional Government to regulate the food shortages effectively added to their delegitimization and disapproval by the Russian public.

For those who don’t know the background on the title of this post, is was supposedly spoken during a shortage of bread during the French Revolution. It can be attributed to a misunderstanding of the Queen of France, Marie-Antoinette, over the problems and sufferings of the peasants during the Revolution. Cake was known to mean brioche bread, which is a rich bread made of eggs and butter with a cake-like texture and taste. There is controversy over whether she actually said this or not, but I felt it was fitting for this post.

 

Sources:

http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1917-2/food-supply/food-supply-images/#

http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1917-2/food-supply/

http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1917-2/food-supply/food-supply-texts/activities-of-the-bagmen/

https://www.britannica.com/demystified/did-marie-antoinette-really-say-let-them-eat-cake

Freeze Book: Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a history. Oxford: Oxford U Press, 1997. Print.

 

14 thoughts on ““Let Them All Eat Cake”

  1. Great post! At the time there was also military setbacks, popular unrest, that led to the abdication of the tsar and the demise of the Romanov dynasty. All of those factors, like you noted above, lead to the fall of the Provisional Government and allowed for a key opening for Lenin to shine through and rally the Bolsheviks.

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  2. I found your post to be very informative and it did a great job bringing in political, economic, and social aspects of the bread shortage to show how they all impacted Russia during the war. Something that occurred to me while I was reading this was the contrast between the Provisional Government’s actions during WW1 and the United States government during WW2. Whereas the Russian government socialized the grain industry and mismanaged it, the American government allowed natural market shifts to transition to wartime production and it resultantly resurrected the American economy following the depression of the 1930s.

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  3. Your analysis of the food shortage due to the socialist grain policies is insightful, and I particularly liked your part on “bagmen” and the black market that arose. This idea of a black market does not go away, and though the “bagmen” operated predominately because of hunger, we will see in the coming weeks that greed and capitalism naturally followed further economic policies. Also, great use of the Seventeen Moments resources!

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  4. I really like this post because it presents a different and underestimated part of the war that people may not have normally considered. I think you did a great job integrating this part of the war and explaining the social and political aspects of this food shortage and how it affected certain people during the war.

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  5. I really enjoyed your post! It is interesting to hear about the food shortages and the “total war” efforts that were used within Russia. I really thought it was intriguing that people attempting to help the hungry were considered to be undermining the authority of the Provisional Government. Although they may have been skirting provisions, it doesn’t seem to me that their efforts were anything but helpful and in no way were meant to be negatively directed at the government.

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  6. Leah raises a really interesting and important issue about how the black market compromises the authority of the PG. As Drew notes, the black market will be a key player going forward to the civil war as well. Some very good insight here, but do check back on Freeze for the first paragraph — not sure what you mean by socialist vs. liberalist (re: the PG). Also, check out Elizabeth’s post on the food supply – same issue but a much different angle. https://blogs.lt.vt.edu/elizabethcampbell/2017/02/05/the-peasants-got-hangry/ Nicely done.

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  7. I really like the image that you included with your post, it truly shows how the Provisional Government would make it seem as if it was their civic duty to give bread. Additionally, I really like how you make note of the “bagmen” that started to appear around these times. Reading about the bagmen that appeared during the Russian Revolution was something that I thought was really interesting because they believe themselves to be quite similar to the Robin Hood storyline; taking from others to give to those in need. However, when you start to read more about them, you find that they would do things like hijack trains and face off against armed men in order to get grains; a hefty price to pay for bread!

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  8. I love your title, it reminds of a skit done by Eddie Izzard where he talks imperialism, the powers of governments which commit mass murder, and then has the part about cake or death (here’s the link because it’s extremely entertaining https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMMHUzm22oE). But food is such a vital part of life and society, that it makes sense that it had such a profound impact on the revolution. I know if someone took away my carb supply I would be angry too! I liked that you included the bit about the bagmen, I talked a little bit about the peasant’s stealing bread from trains and selling them for economic necessity in my post. It’s a really interesting aspect of the revolution.

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  9. I really enjoyed reading your post about the food shortage during WWI! It’s crazy to think about how something happening in a different part of the world, can affect our every day lives. While hunger struck the population dramatically, it heavily hindered the economic aspect of the country. The government thought it would be a brilliant idea to enforce price controls, while forcing the agriculture community to raise prices on their produce. Of course, this was a result of strains imposed by blockades from naval forces in nearby ports. You did a great job of bringing in the idea of “Bagmen” and explained it in such an interesting way! I love how you threw a quote in there in order to show the effect they had on society. Good job!

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  10. I liked your inclusion of the “bagmen” and the negative light that they were viewed in, as well as the primary source quote. It shows the strange situation that the provisional government found itself in — in which it was adopting socialist ideas such as state control of the market, but that this still did not benefit the people.

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  11. I thought this was a really interesting post. The inclusion of the bagmen and black market is a really cool and I like how you addressed both sides of the argument and included direct quotes! This title is awesome too! Great job!

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  12. great post, it is interesting to see your thoughts on the food shortages compared to other posts about the shortage. I had not heard of the bag men and thought that to be a sort of Robin Hood figure. You did a great job examining how the governments control of grain became more socialist than liberal leading to an almost immediate distrust by the public.

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  13. I had never heard of the bagmen before, they are fascinating. I loved the quote:”Famine is no respecter of paper laws.” If the government isn’t managing the food supplies well, people will do whatever they can to get sustenance. It’s so obvious really, food is just a basic necessity; you really can’t go without it. It’s no surprise that so many revolutions feature some sort of mismanagement of food. Fantastic post!

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  14. I commented about this last week, but your post specifically touches on them so I’ll mention it again. There’s a short story by Isaac Babel, a Russian Jewish writer who lived through the pogroms and was eventually killed in Stalin’s purges, called “Salt,” which takes place during the Russian Civil War. It is about a woman and her baby taking the train with raping, bloodthirsty Red Cossacks to supposedly try to return to her husband. Her “baby” is wrapped up of course, and is eventually discovered to be a block of salt she was going to sell as a “baglady,” like your post mentions, and she is thrown from the train and shot to death as a traitor. Though, she was really just trying to survive as everything had been taken from her… anyway, great post. Captures the mood of desperation of that time.

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