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Soviet Union

Chapter 13. Agriculture

IN THE 1980s, AGRICULTURE continued to frustrate the leaders of the Soviet Union. Despite immense land resources, extensive machinery and chemical support industries, a large rural work force, and two decades of massive investment in the agricultural sector, the Soviet Union continued to rely on large-scale grain and meat imports to feed its population. Persistent shortages of staples, the general unavailability of fresh meats, fruits, and vegetables in state stores, and a bland, carbohydrate-rich diet remained a fact of life for Soviet citizens and a perennial embarrassment to their government.

Although in terms of total value of output the Soviet Union was the world's second leading agricultural power and ranked first in the production of numerous commodities, agriculture was a net drain on the economy. The financial resources directed to this sector soared throughout the 1970s and by the mid-1980s accounted for nearly one-third of total investment. The ideologically motivated policy of maintaining low prices for staples created an enormous disparity between production costs and retail food prices. By 1983 the per capita food subsidy amounted to nearly 200 rubles, which the consumer had to pay in higher prices for nonfood products.

Although gross agricultural production rose by more than 50 percent between the 1950s and 1980s, outstripping population growth by 25 percent, the consumer did not see a proportionate improvement in the availability of foodstuffs (see table 34, Appendix A). This paradox indicated that the Soviet Union's inability to meet demand for agricultural commodities was only partly the result of production shortfalls and that much of the blame was attributable to other factors. Chief among these were the processing, transportation, storage, and marketing elements of the food economy, the neglect of which over the years resulted in an average wastage of about one-fourth of agricultural output. Soviet experts estimated that if waste in storage and processing were eliminated, up to 25 percent more grain, 40 percent more fruits and vegetables, and 15 percent more meat and dairy products could be brought to market.

The heavily centralized and bureaucratized system of administration, which has characterized Soviet agriculture ever since Joseph V. Stalin's campaign of forced collectivization (see Glossary), was the dominant cause of the sector's overall poor performance. Inflexible production directives from central planning organs that failed to take local growing conditions into account and bureaucratic interference in the day-to-day management of individual farms fostered resentment and undermined morale in the countryside. The result was low labor productivity, the system's most intractable problem. Despite its systemic flaws, however, Soviet agriculture enjoyed certain successes. The standard of living of farm workers improved, illiteracy was reduced, incomes grew, better housing and health care were provided, and electricity was brought to virtually all villages. Farming practices were modernized, and agriculture received more machinery and became less labor intensive (see table 35, Appendix A). Ambitious irrigation and drainage projects brought millions of additional hectares under cultivation. Large livestock inventories were built up, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s. And the increased prominence accorded agriculture, coupled with wiser policies exploiting the profit motive, appeared to be paying dividends, as bumper grain harvests were reported in Mikhail S. Gorbachev's first two years in power.

Data as of May 1989