100 Years on from revolution: new book reveals poverty of Soviet diet

Detailed academic study of Soviet economy and society details how poorly Soviets ate and the gruelling difficulty of everyday life in the postwar USSR:

  • Soviet citizens only ate a sixth as much meat and a third as much fish as Americans, and the meat was much lower quality
  • The Soviet diet relied heavily on bread and potatoes, even in the 1960s and 70s when famines were a thing of the past
  • Soviet citizens also ate six times less fruit and vegetables, as well as a drastically more limited range due to trade restrictions
  • Waste and inefficiency far higher under communism

While most now agree the Soviet Union was a failed experiment, with horrifying economic, social and human circumstances, many believed that they at least kept their citizens fed in the post-Stalinist era. This common view is wrong, according to a reevaluation of the data released by the Adam Smith Institute, part of a major new study into the economic history of the Soviet Union.

Previous assessments, relying too heavily on credulous acceptance of official data, held that the Soviet plate was actually more generous than the American equivalent, the study shows. But CIA data consistently overestimated the living standards that communism provided. Of course, Soviet citizens actually needed more than Americans, because many more worked on farms or in factories, and it is much colder.

Soviet diets were not only relatively meagre, compared to what most people could afford in the West, they were narrow and lacking in eggs, cheese, fish, meat, fruit and vegetables, the study shows. What’s more, the Soviets didn’t even achieve equality—after the 1970s the poorer sections of society had rapidly declining meat consumption.

And contrary to claims of capitalist waste, the paper shows, the Soviet Union actually wasted far more food than the US. The USSR was the world’s biggest milk producer, and yet only 60%  made it to the kitchen table—compared to 90% of milk produced in the USA. Internal Soviet estimates showed that meat production would have been 15% higher, and fruit and veg production 40% higher, without spoilage during production and storage.

One hundred years since the fall of the Tsars, there are still some advocates for communist solutions to social problems, and many apologists arguing that the USSR was successful after the death of Stalin. But the new study shows this is untrue on every major measure.

The paper also reveals that:

  • In 1976 only two thirds of Soviet families had a refrigerator—the USA hit two thirds in the early 1930s. Soviet families had to wait years to get one, and when they finally got a postcard giving notice they could buy one, they had a fixed one hour slot during which they could pick it up. They lost their chance if they did not arrive in time
  • In the same period, the USA had nearly 100m passenger cars. The USSR? Five million. People typically had to wait four to six years, and often as long as ten, to get one.
  • There was 30x as much typhoid, 20x as much measles, and cancer detection rates were half as good as in the United States
  • Life expectancy actually fell in the Soviet Union during the 1960s and 1970s
  • The USSR had the highest physician-patient ratio in the world, triple the UK rate, but many medical school graduates could not perform basic tasks like reading an electrocardiogram
  • 15% of the population lived in areas with pollution 10x normal levels
  • By the US poverty measure, well over half of the Soviet population were poor
  • Around a quarter could not afford a winter hat or coat, which cost an entire month’s wages on average (the equivalent of £1700 in UK terms)

After a century defined by the communist experiment, it is fading out of the mind of new generations—author Jose L Ricon’s book reminds us why we ought to keep it in our imaginations.

Sam Bowman, Executive Director of the Adam Smith Institute, said:

“One hundred years on since the November Revolution many people still do not really know what life was like in the Soviet Union for ordinary people. This is a work of scholarship that shows, for the first time, a comprehensive picture of just what a misery communism was for the people forced to endure it – not “just” poverty, not “just” slow economic growth, not ‘just” political repression and the gulags, but a failure to provide people’s basic needs on almost every level.”

Ben Southwood, Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute, said:

“We all know about purges, famines, gulags, and democides committed by Lenin and Stalin, but the sheer bland drudgery of regular Soviet life is shocking in a different way. Communism did not just fail in the big ways, it failed in the small ways too.

“And it’s not as if communism traded off poor living standards for perfect equality, environmental stewardship, and a focus on the important things in life. 

“They frittered away billions on unproductive military research, destroyed the fourth largest lake in the world, had the worst ever nuclear disaster, polluted their air to an incredible degree, and despite all of this, only achieved a distribution of income and status that was somewhat more equal than the rest.”

Read the full report here!

Notes to editors:
For further comments or to arrange an interview, contact Matt Kilcoyne, Head of Communications, matt@adamsmith.org | 07584 778207.