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The New International, March 1935

 

Erich Wollenberg

The Abolition of the Bread Cards in the Soviet Union

From New International, Vol.2 No.2, March 1935, pp.73-74.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

 

UP TO NOW, 55,000,000 Soviet Russians received definite rations at definite low – privileged – prices at exclusive distribution centers. The card system embraced bread, flour, barley, legumes, potatoes, meat, lard, vegetables, sugar, fish, herring, preserves; further, clothing, shoes, linen, yarn, sewing needles, etc.

In these distribution centers established for workers and employees, there was a daily bread ration of 800 grams [1] for the worker, 400 grams for the employee in the main cities; in the provinces, this norm went down to 500 and 300, and even to 200 and 100 grams per day in the hard times of 1932-1933. In addition, there was received for the whole month one kilo of barley or legumes, a few kilo of potatoes, from one-half to one kilo of meat, some margarine, a couple of herrings, a half-kilo of sugar. “Shock brigaders” [udarniki] received from one to two kilos of meat per month, butter and still other special rations.

In the better supplied distribution centers (like those for the workers in heavy industry), the norm was higher. The technicians, the engineers, the artists, the scholars, the foreigners had their special distribution centers where they had an ample selection of definite amounts of normated commodities to buy from. The best distribution centers were those of the upper governmental, party and GPU officials. The highest party and government officials were not bound by any norms.

This intricate system of small, larger and largest privileges created social inequality in the restaurant provisioning. Whereas the working woman of a Moscow textile factory received a cabbage soup and a piece of bread for 80 copecks [2], the higher party official obtained an excellent menu of five courses in the Kremlin restaurant for the same sum.

In the distribution centers, the following prices per kilogram were paid in 1933: black bread, 27 copecks; white bread, 52 copecks; meat, 2 to 4 rubles; herrings, 3 to 10 rubles; sugar, 2 rubles; butter, 6 to 8 rubles. (These figures – like those that follow – are taken from the official Moscow reports.)

On April 1, 1934, the bread prices were increased 100% to 54 and 104 copecks respectively.

With these rations, it was very difficult to manage. Whoever did not possess foreign currency, gold, silver and objects of value and thereby have the privilege of being able to buy all goods in the “Torgsin” stores at cheap prices, was compelled to purchase supplementary food supplies in the government “commercial stores” or on the market (the free or the kolkhoz market). The commercial stores are governmental sales centers with appreciably increased, but nonetheless controlled prices.

In the commercial stores established in the middle of 1933, prices per kilogram were (figures in parentheses represent the prices in the privileged distribution centers):

 

 

Rubles

 

Rubles

Black bread

2.00

(0.54)

White bread

3.00

(1.04)

Meat

10.00 to 12.00

(2.00 to 4.00)

Butter

30.00

(6.00 to 8.00)

On the market, prices were 2 to 4 rubles per liter [ap. 1 liquid quart] of milk, 1 ruble per egg, in addition to which there were vegetables and meat. The peasant came to the market not as a seller but as a purchaser of bread; he paid for it in coin or exchanged milk and eggs for it.

From January 1, 1935 onward, the provisions card for bread, flour, barley and legumes is abolished; the card system is to remain in effect for the time being so far as other living needs are concerned.

Instead of definite rations at privileged prices, every consumer now receives any amount of goods he desires – but at higher prices.

The whole Soviet Union has been divided into eight price districts. Goods are cheapest in the first district (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan) and dearest in the eighth (Far East). Moscow is part of the third, and Leningrad part of the fourth price district.

The spread of prices among the districts is as follows: black bread from 0.80 rubles to 1.50 rubles, white bread from 1.20 rubles to 2.80 rubles, flour from 1.35 to 3.50 rubles.

For a comparison with the prices up to now, we take the fourth district (Leningrad). In the following table, the hitherto existing privileged prices are in parentheses and the hitherto existing commercial prices are in brackets:

 

 

Rubles

 

Rubles

 

Rubles

Black bread

1.20

(0.54)

[   2.00 ]

White bread

2.40

(1.08)

[   3.00 ]

Flour

4.00

(2.00)

[   8.00 ]

Grits

6.20

(1.00)

[10.00 ]

Pearl-barley

4.20

(0.80)

[   8.00 ]

Maccaroni

5.60

(1.20)

[   8.00 ]

Peas

5.10

(0.80)

[   8.00 ]

Beans

5.50

(0.80)

[   8.00 ]

Rice

10.00

(2.00)

[ 12.00 ]

One sees immediately: an extraordinary price rise compared with the previous privileged prices; but it is a burden upon the worker’s household essentially only with regard to the bread price, for up to now the worker obtained from his distribution center only slight amounts of the other provisions anyway.

The additional burden is to be equalized by a wage increase. How does this work out?

This total wage amount is increased in the budget year of 1935 by 4,200,000,000 rubles; there are 22,000,000 wage and salary recipients in the Soviet Union, so that each one is to receive an average of 190 rubles per year more than at present – that is, 16 rubles per month.

Every wage recipient has to take care of himself and in addition an average of one and a half mouths (55,000,000 who must receive victuals from 22,000,000 who receive wages).

The monthly bread requirement in Russia (where bread is the principal means of sustenance) amounts to 20 kilograms per person, making So kilograms for 2½ months. For these 50 kilograms, the worker paid:

13.50 rubles on January 1, 1934. 27.00 rubles on April1, 1934 60.00 rubles from January 1, 1935 on.

This is an increased burdening of the proletarian household of 13.50 rubles at first, then of an additional 33 rubles – a total of 46.50 rubles.

As against this, there is first a wage increase on April 1, 1934 of from 10% to 15% for all workers and employees who received less than 140 rubles per month (a total of 12,000,000 wage, salary, stipend and annuity recipients); and second, the present wage increase of 16 rubles per person.

The total wage increase in the course of the years amounts – for persons

Who earned more than 140 rubles monthly
– to 16 rubles

Who earned less than 140 rubles monthly
– to 30 rubles

Who earned less than 100 rubles monthly
– to 26 rubles

Who earned less than 50 [3] rubles monthly
– to 21 rubles.

The result of all this, therefore – cogent and on the basis of official Moscow figures – is: After the abolition of the bread cards the average person with an income has additional expenses of 46.50 rubles and additional income of 30 rubles; the deficit is 16.50 rubles or – if one assumes the average wage to be the pretty high figure of 140 rubles – 12%. After the abolition of the bread cards, the real value of the average Russian wage, as compared with January 1934, has been diminished by twelve percent.

The elimination of the bread cards nevertheless registers an advance in economy taken as a whole. Two years ago it was impossible. At that time it would have led to complete chaos, to a war of everyone against everybody. Now, disorganized and weakened agriculture has recuperated to the point where bread is at hand for the population as a whole in town and country in adequate amounts. The gravest agrarian crisis of Soviet Russia – graver than the one during war communism – is beginning to be overcome.

Early in 1933, an old Moscow working woman told me:

“If we are to weather these hunger years, we all ought to get the Order of Lenin; we have earned it a thousand times more than the heroes of the civil war.”

Now they have put the very worst of the hunger years behind them. But why must this advance be paid for by the workers with new sacrifices ? The Soviet government was guided by the following considerations:

  1. Bread is at hand, but even today it suffices for the population as a whole only with a certain restriction of consumption. This restriction can be achieved either administratively (by those very bread cards) or by market measures, by lowering the purchasing power. This time the decision went for the second way.
  2. In recent years the peasants bore the heaviest burdens. The present enactment shifts them; it signifies a heavier burdening of the workers in favor of the peasants: a portion of the surplus revenue from the price increases is to be turned over by the government to the peasants in the form of raised governmental purchasing prices for agricultural products.
  3. The largest portion of the surplus revenues of the government is to be invested in industry, especially in the war industry. The price increases are a special form, specific to Russia (where there can be no property taxes), of renewed indirect taxation. The tempos of development of industry, which were somewhat slowed down in 1933 and 1934, will again be accelerated at the expense of the urban working population.

 

(Europäische Hefte)
Prague, Jan. 18, 1935.

 

Footnotes

1. 100 grams is slightly more than one-fifth of a pound; 800 grams is one and three-quarters pounds; a kilo is 1,000 grams. – Ed.

2. 100 copecks equals 1 ruble. Not quoted on foreign exchange, the “normal” (uninflated) ruble used to equal the “normal” American half-dollar. – Ed.

3. According to reports of the Commissariat of Labor, in March 1934 around 270,000 invalids in the Soviet Union received less than 40 rubles support per month, and around 300,000 beneficiaries of annuities less than 20 rubles.

 
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