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Feeding the Soviet Union

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MOSCOW — Four weeks after the failed coup, the Soviet economy was in a tailspin and it was apparent that neither the republics nor the remnant central government had the means to address it. Inflation was running at about 300 percent, and the economy was shrinking at a rate of between 12 and 15 percent, the government calculated. Oil exports, which provided much-needed hard currency, were way down.

The grain harvest was coming up short, and on Sept. 19, 1991, the Soviet Union doubled its food aid request to the Western nations, to a total of more than $14 billion. Reluctantly, the United Sates and the European Community, as it was then known, decided they needed to find a way to pitch in. One of the questions the administration of President George H.W. Bush was still grappling with was whom it should be talking to, and on what issues: Soviet officials, or those from Russia and the other republics?

As Moscow continued to drift, with no one really in charge, the country was grinding to a halt. A Washington Post reporter traveling with Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady to Moscow wrote that, according to one U.S. official, the Soviet economy would not recover until well into the next century — which turned out to be entirely accurate.

As it happened, though, there wasn’t famine that winter of 1991-92. The Soviet Union’s problem wasn’t so much food production as food distribution. Roads were inadequate, but more fundamentally, why should agricultural enterprises ship food to the cities when prices were still controlled and all they got back were a few worthless rubles? The fall of 1991 is when shelves went bare, and it was an image that stayed with Western TV viewers for years afterward, but Soviet citizens were resourceful and stoic, and no one starved. Still, many began to associate “reform” with “breakdown,” especially since the reformers had emerged triumphant when the hard-line August coup collapsed.

The United States shipped over tons of frozen chicken leg quarters, and to this day many Russians fondly remember the “Bush legs” that began to show up in their markets. When the Soviet Union finally vanished, in December, the Russian government moved quickly to free prices, which restored the flow of food to stores, but at a soaring cost to the consumer.

Today Russia is again a major oil exporter. It has become quite hostile to chicken imports, especially from the United States. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wants to make his country self-sufficient, but despite various protectionist measures Russia still has to import some of what it eats. None of it is food aid anymore; what still comes in from abroad fetches a good price these days.

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