How millers fared in Soviet Russia

August 16th 2017 by Lydia Smith

In this week’s blog I’d like to tell you about an article from the Northwestern Miller on the Soviet Union’s milling industry. In the 1927 March/April edition, a piece by R.J. Goldberg was published on how Russian millers and their industry were coping in the tumultuous conditions of the 1920s. By this point, the highly unpopular policy of War Communism had been abolished and the New Economic Policy (NEP) had been introduced. The NEP allowed peasants to trade surplus goods and provided an incentive to produce extra, which Lenin hoped would solve widespread food shortages.
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This then meant that competition forced prices down, benefitting the peasants who had previously suffered from harsh economic policies. The relaxation of regulations also allowed international trade, which meant domestic goods could not be priced higher than American or German produce - even though these countries were seen as to be at ideological odds with Russia. This was good news for peasants who could take advantage of the low prices that the domestic and international competition spurred.

This was all part of the process of industrialisation which was introduced to modernise Russia and establish themselves as equals with the major powers. They aimed to increase agricultural exports such as flour and oil from sunflower seeds, a move that created a boom in business for Russian millers, who needed to supply the goods to meet the demand. Besides boosting exportation, Russia also needed to develop the food industry, as the country historically suffered a number of famines that left a huge death toll. These crises had been a serious cause for resentment against the Tsar, and culminated in his downfall. The Bolsheviks did not want to repeat his mistakes, so desperately needed to improve food supply. Again this meant a focus on improving quality and efficiency in the milling industry, and subsequently creating a greater demand for the miller’s goods. You could say that millers played a role in securing the Bolsheviks’ power!

On the same page as this article, there was another piece about the introduction and success of the Soviet Miller and Baker magazine. While on the surface it appears fairly innocent, read a little deeper and you can see the cracks in the façade. The author claims that they took ideas from factory workers, millers, engineers etc. on how to improve efficiency and productivity. They go on to write, “the response of the young workers is very gratifying, indicating an alertness of mind over that of the pre-war worker. With such interest and co-operation the development of the industry to a higher plane seems very possible”. While this portrayed the Soviet Union positively at the time, retrospectively we know that workers were treated badly in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, and it is unlikely they had this degree of respect. It appears that the article could merely be subtle propaganda, used to glorify communism in the west. It seems remarkable that communistic propaganda can sneak its way into an annual for American millers!

What I found most interesting about this article is that this has all since been consigned to history, but in 1927 it was written by someone living at that moment. While we don’t know the nationality or allegiances of the author, it does seem they are at least sympathetic to the regime. This then raises the question, is it intentional propaganda or innocent admiration? As modern readers, we know what was happening at the time of writing and we know what was to come in the USSR. We know that Stalin was tightening his grip on power, the impact policies of industrialisation and collectivisation would have, and the millions of deaths Stalin’s dictatorship would cause. This article is a window into a time before the deadly potential of Stalin’s regime were fully recognised. Yet still there is a link the milling industry. Mills seem to crop up everywhere!