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