Fighting the Famine-Stricken

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What astonishing solicitude for the famine-stricken our government is displaying! What an amazingly long circular (of August 17) the Minister of the Interior has issued to the governors of the affected gubernias! A veritable literary work, more than sixteen pages long, written by Mr. Sipyagin to explain the government’s food policy in its entirety. The document was apparently published to impress the “public”, as if to say: See how solicitous we are, how prompt we are with relief measures, how providential we are in organising in advance food-kitchens and all forms and phases of their activity! It must be admitted that the circular issued by the Ministry of the Interior certainly does create an impression, both by its bulk and (if one has the patience to read it through) by its contents. A frank exposition of the government’s policy is always the best means for agitation against the tsarist government and, while expressing our profound gratitude to Mr. Sipyagin, we make bold to suggest that the other ministers speak more frequently of their programme in circulars published for general information.

If one has the patience to read through Mr. Sipyagin’s circular to the end, we said. A great deal of patience will be required, for three-fourths, nay, nine-tenths of the circular consists of the usual official banalities. It is a rehash of things known for years and repeated a hundred times even in the “Code of Laws”.[1] It is a mass of circumlocution, a detailed description of the ceremonial in the relations between Chinese mandarins; it is in the grand style of the chancelleries, with periods thirty-six lines long, in a “jargon” that makes the heart bleed for our native Russian language. As you read deeply into this effusion, you feel as though you were in a Russian police-station with its musty walls and its all-pervading specific stench, in which the officials personify in their appearance and bearing the most case-hardened bureaucracy, while in the courtyard, visible through the window, gloomy buildings loom reminiscent of the torture chamber.

Three main points in the government’s new programme attract particular attention: first, greater power is vested in the individual officials and care is taken that the bureaucratic spirit and service discipline should be strengthened and protected from any breath of fresh air; secondly, a scale of relief is fixed for the famine-stricken, viz., regulations on the rationing of bread to be given to a “needy” family; and, thirdly, despairing horror is expressed at the fact that “disloyal” persons, capable of arousing the people against the government, are rushing in to help the famine-stricken, and timely measures against such “agitation” are provided for. We shall deal with each of these points in detail.

Only a year has elapsed since the government deprived the Zemstvos of the right to manage food affairs and transferred that administration to the rural superintendents and uyezd congresses (law of June 12, 1900). Now before the law has come into force, it has been repealed by a mere circular. The reports of a number of provincial governors sufficed to convince the government that the law had become unsuitable! This makes plainly evident the worthlessness of laws that are turned out like pancakes by the St. Petersburg government departments without prior discussion on a serious level by people really informed and capable of expressing an independent opinion, and without serious intention to create a more satisfactory state of affairs, laws that are dictated by the ambition of some cunning minister eager to further his career and display his loyalty. The Zemstvo is not loyal—take the food administration out of its hands! But before this could be done it was discovered that the rural superintendents and even the uyezd congresses, consisting exclusively of government officials, were inclined to discuss matters too much. Apparently there were rural superintendents stupid enough to call famine famine and simple enough to think it necessary to fight against the famine, and not against those who really want to help the famine-stricken; and in all probability there were officials in the uyezd congresses who were not subordinated to the Ministry of the Interior and who also failed to understand the real tasks of “home politics”. And so, by the mere circular of a minister a new “Central Uyezd”—no, this is not a printer’s error—a “Central Uyezd Food Board” is set up, the whole purpose of which is to prevent the infiltration of disloyal persons and disloyal ideas and the commission of imprudent acts in the administration of food distribution. Thus, the Minister considers as imprudent and prohibits the “premature” compilation (i.e., not immediately before the bread distribution) of lists of the needy. It arouses, he says, “exaggerated hopes” among the people! The Central Uyezd Food Board is concentrated in the hands of a single person, and the Ministry recommends the uyezd marshal of the nobility for the post. Indeed, that official is so closely connected with the governor and performs so many police functions that he will doubtless be able to understand the true spirit of the food policy. More over, he is a big local landed proprietor, respected and trusted by all the landlords. A man of that type will certainly understand, as no one else will, the Minister’s profound idea on the “demoralising” effects of relief given to persons “able to dispense with it”. As for the gubernatorial powers, the Minister refers to this subject at the very beginning of the circular and repeats over and over again that the governor is responsible for everything, that all must obey the governor, that the governor must be able to take “special” measures, etc. To this day the governor in a Russian province has always been a real satrap upon whose pleasure the existence of any and every institution, and even of every individual, in the province “in his charge” depends; but now a real “state of war” has been established. Severity increased to an inordinate degree—in connection with famine relief! This is so truly Russian!

But greater stringency, intensified surveillance—all this demands increased expenditure on the bureaucratic machine, a fact of which the Minister has not lost sight; the uyezd marshals of the nobility, or other persons directing the Central Uyezd Food Board, will be granted “a special sum to cover their expenses,” “concerning the approximate amount whereof Your Excellency will tender the appropriate application to me”, adds the circular in its “special” jargon. In addition, further sums will be granted as follows: 1,000 rubles in a lump sum for uyezd council “office expenses”; from 1,000 to 1,500 rubles for expenses of the gubernia governor s offices. It is the offices that will have to carry on most of the activity, since famine relief will consist almost entirely of office work—how can the offices be left without the necessary funds? The offices come first, and what is left can go to the famine-stricken.

Mr. Sipyagin displays remarkable persistence and resourcefulness in devising measures for reducing famine relief. In the first place, he calls upon all governors to discuss which uyezds “have been affected by the harvest failure” (the final determination on this matter rests with the Ministry itself, since even governors cannot be trusted to avoid “exaggeration”!). Then follow the instructions indicating when uyezds are not to be regarded as affected areas: (1) if not more than one-third of its volosts [See footnote to p. 36.—Tr] are affected; (2) if a grain shortage is usual in the uyezd and additional grain is purchased annually with subsidiary earnings; (3) if local resources are insufficient to grant relief. Here we have an example in miniature of the bureaucratic solution of the food problem— one measuring rod for all! What is the size of the population of one-third of the volosts? how seriously are they affected? have not the usual “earnings” been reduced this year by the serious industrial crisis?— all these are idle questions after the categorical “directions” of the Ministry. But the worst is still to come. The point at issue is—who is to be regarded as needy and how much relief is to be granted? Mr. Sipyagin recommends the following “approximate” computation which “has rarely been found to be greatly exaggerated”. (What we fear most of all is exaggeration; we fear exaggerated hopes, we fear exaggerated loans! Famine, unemployment—all these are merely “exaggerations”. Such is the idea that clearly emerges from all the ministerial reasoning.) In the first place, a test threshing is to be made to determine the “average yield per dessiatine in each village”, after which the area sown by each farmer is to be estimated. Why not also determine the size of the crop harvested by farmers of different means? The harvest of a poor peasant is smaller, and the term “average” is disadvantageous precisely to those in distress. Secondly, those who gather not less than forty-eight poods of grain per family per annum (counting twelve poods for three adults and six poods for two children) are not regarded as being in distress. This is the sort of calculation a tight-fisted kulak could be expected to make. In an ordinary year even the poorest peasant family of five or six persons consumes eighty, not forty-eight, poods of grain, whereas the middle (average) peasant family of five consumes 110 poods, as is known from surveys of peasant farming. Consequently, the tsarist government is cutting down by one half the amount of grain actually needed for food. Thirdly, says the circular, “this quantity [viz., forty-eight poods per family] is to be reduced by one half, in view of the fact that the worker element represents about fifty per cent of the population”. The government stubbornly insists upon its standing rule that the working population must not be given relief because, as it argues, they can earn money. But the Minister has already ordered that the uyezds in which the population is normally engaged in auxiliary occupations shall not come under the heading of affected areas. Why, then, should he deprive the working population of relief for a second time? Everyone knows that, not only are there no opportunities for earning extra money this year, but that even the usual subsidiary earnings have declined owing to the crisis. The government itself has banished many thousands of unemployed workers from the cities to the rural areas. The experience of previous famines has shown that exclusion of the adult working population from relief leads only to the division of the existing inadequate relief between children and adults. No, the saying that “you can not skin one ox twice” would be far too flattering for a Ministry of the Interior that in a twofold way excludes from the relief lists all who are able to work. Fourthly, this relief, totally inadequate and reduced by one half, is still further cut down by one-third, one-fifth, or one-tenth, “in proportion to the approximate number of well-to-do farmers having stocks left over from last year, or any other material resources”! This is the third hide flayed from the same ox. What kind of “stock” can a peasant have if he has harvested not more than forty-eight poods of grain for his whole family? All other earnings have been taken into account twice; moreover, even the Russian peasant, with all the poverty to which government policy and exploitation by capitalists and landlords have reduced him, cannot live by bread alone. In addition to bread, he must spend money on fuel, clothes, and other food, as well as on repairs to his house. In ordinary years, as scientific inquiries into peasant farming inform us, even the poorest peasant spends more than half his income on requirements other than bread. If all these things are taken into account, it will be found that the Minister calculates the relief to be granted at one- fourth or one-fifth of what is actually needed. This is not fighting famine, it is fighting those who really want to help the famine-stricken.

The circular concludes with a regular crusade against private philanthropists. It has not infrequently been revealed, thunders Mr. Sipyagin, that certain philanthropists strive to arouse among the population “discontent with the present system and encourage the people to make totally unjustified demands on the government”, that they conduct “anti-government agitation”, etc. These accusations are absolutely false. It is well known that in 1891 leaflets were distributed by “peasant well-wishers”[2] in which the people were rightly told who their real enemy was; probably other attempts at agitation were made in connection with the famine. But there was not a single case of revolutionaries carrying on propaganda under cover of philanthropy. The vast majority of the philanthropists—this is an undoubted fact—were just philanthropists and nothing more. When, therefore, Mr. Sipyagin states that many of them were “persons whose political past is not irreproachable”, we ask him, who among us now has an “irreproachable past”? Even “highly-placed persons” often paid tribute to the general democratic movement in their youth. Of course, we do not wish to say that to carry on agitation against the government in connection with the famine is impermissible or even undesirable. On the contrary, such agitation is always necessary, particularly in times of famine. We merely wish to point out that Mr. Sipyagin is straying into the realm of fiction in trying to make it appear that his fears and anxieties are based on past experience. We wish to say that Mr. Sipyagin’s statement is further proof of an old truism: the police government is afraid of even the slightest contact between the people and intellectuals that are in the least independent and honest, it fears every true and bold utterance addressed directly to the people, it suspects— and rightly so—that mere solicitude for the genuine (not imaginary) satisfaction of the people’s needs is tantamount to agitation against the government; for the people see that private philanthropists sincerely desire to help them, while the tsarist government officials hamper and reduce relief, minimise the extent of the distress, impede the opening of food-kitchens, etc. Now the new circular demands that all contributions and appeals for contributions, as well as the opening of food-kitchens, “be under the control of the authorities”; it demands that all relief workers arriving in the affected areas “present themselves” to the governor, that they may choose assistants only with his consent, and that they submit to him a report of their activities! Those who desire to help the famine-stricken must submit to police officials and to the police system of curtailing relief and shamefully reducing relief rates. Whoever refuses to submit to this despicable procedure must not be allowed to carry on relief work—such is the essence of government policy. Mr. Sipyagin howls that “politically unreliable persons are eagerly taking advantage of the famine to pursue their criminal aims on the pretence of helping their neighbours”, and this cry is taken up by the entire reactionary press (e.g., Moskovskiye Vedomosti). How horrible! To exploit the sufferings of the people for political purposes! In point of fact, what is horrible is precisely the fact that in Russia every kind of activity, even philanthropic work most remote from politics, inevitably brings people capable of independent thought into conflict with police tyranny and with measures of “suppression”, “prohibition”, “restriction”, etc., etc. It is horrible that the government, under the cloak of high political considerations, pursues its Judas policy[3] of taking bread from the starving, cutting down relief to one-fifth, prohibiting everyone except police officials from approaching the starving! We repeat the call issued in Iskra: Organise a campaign of exposure against the police government’s food policy; expose in the uncensored free press the outrages committed by local satraps, the whole avaricious tactic of curtailing relief, the miserliness and inadequacy of the relief, the despicable attempt to minimise the extent of the famine, and the shameful struggle against those who desire to help the famine-stricken! We advise all who have a grain of sincere sympathy for the people in their dire distress to take measures to bring to their knowledge the true sense and significance of the ministerial circular. It is only because of the unbounded ignorance of the people that such circulars do not immediately call forth an outburst of general indignation. Let the class-conscious workers who stand closest to the peasantry and to the less enlightened urban masses take the initiative in this work of exposing the government!

  1. ↑ Code of Laws of the Russian Empire—a collected edition of the laws operative in the Russian Empire, published in fifteen volumes in 1833 and effective from 1835; a sixteenth volume was published in 1892.
  2. ↑ The reference is to the proclamation entitled “A First Letter to the Famine-Stricken Peasants”, which appeared in 1892 over the sig nature “Peasant Well-Wishers”. About 1,800 copies of the procla mation were printed at the illegal Lakhta Press belonging to the Narodnaya Volya Group in St. Petersburg.
  3. ↑ Lenin refers to Judas Golovlyov—a sanctimonious, hypocritical landlord serf-owner described in M. Saltykov-Shchedrin’s The Golovlyov Family.