Famine of 1891-1892

Much of this entry is taken from an article by David P. Lilly, student at Loyola University in Chicago. A link to the entire article is provided in the sources section below.

The Russian famine of 1891-92 affected an area of around 900,000 square miles in the Volga and central agricultural areas. Ironically, these were once the most fertile and productive parts of Russia. This area included the provinces of Nizhni-Novgorod, Riazan, Tula, Kazan, Simbirsk, Saratov, Penza, Samara and Tambov. It affected between fourteen to twenty million people, of which 375,000 to 400,000 died, mostly of disease. Due to malnutrition caused by the famine, people were more susceptible to infection.

The famine in 1891-92 was initially caused by the bad weather in 1890 and 1891. The dry autumn delayed the seeding of the fields, and the winter, which began early, was more severe than usual, with only light snowfall. Heavy snow usually protects the seedlings from the cold. Melting snow and ice caused the spring floods of the Volga that spread over the plains whose grass is used as fodder. This year the small amount of snow caused the ground to freeze. This killed the young plants because the late planting did not give them enough time to take root. The poor weather eliminated the main source of feed for the animals. They were crucial to the peasants because they provided the power needed to plow the fields. The cold weather lasted until mid-April, followed by a summer in 1892 that was extremely hot and dry. Five rainless months contributed to the smallest total grain harvest for European Russia in a decade.

Despite the poor harvest of 1891, there was enough food available to feed the population, but this would only have been possible if the harvest was rightly distributed. This was almost impossible because the limited means of communication could not establish equilibrium between certain areas. In some areas there was a surplus and in others there was a deficit.

Russia: Famine, 1891 Photograph by Granger. Source: fineartamerica.com.
Russia: Famine, 1891 Photograph by Granger. Source: fineartamerica.com.


Relief Efforts

By the fall of 1891 it had become obvious that a major calamity could be prevented only by the shipment of enormous quantities of grain into the stricken provinces. The government was ignorant of the famine until tax collectors reported that the peasants of the region had nothing with which to pay them. Petersburg thought that the collectors were to blame and the Emperor sent men into the interior to investigate. The grain buyers, however, knew of the situation. They quickly bought and exported reserve grain before an Imperial ukase (edict) forbidding the export of wheat, oats and rye was issued. A special Relief Committee was organized by Alexander III, who named his son, the future Nicholas II, as president. The Emperor himself gave half of his income, around five million rubles, to relief funds while the Empress, through the special relief committee, collected twelve million rubles, mostly from foreign donations. The Empress' sister, Grand Duchess Elizabeth, organized her own relief committee that held bazaars in Moscow to sell peasant-made items. The central treasury, with its slow, cumbersome procedures was the main source of famine relief. For this reason, aid reached the afflicted areas tardily Relief was also slowed even more because there was no system of distributing assistance; everything was done on a trial and error basis. The government distributed special financial aid of 150 million rubles to the zemstvos to finance food and seed purchases. They bought food, then loaned it to those who could be expected to repay. In such a system, only some workers and landowners were eligible, and the rest of the rural population, consisting of the elderly, children, and widows, were excluded.

Flour was distributed monthly to children over the age of two, and to women and men who were unable to work. It only lasted between fifteen to twenty days, and due to the lack of fuel it usually had to be eaten raw. Many of those who did not belong to a commune were denied aid because the government hoped that they would find work. The government did not realize that work was extremely scarce and even if they found employment the wages were low while food prices were very high. At most the zemstvos could only provide one and a fourth pounds of rye per day to able bodied men or women. Those receiving this aid were chosen by a Zemski Nachalnikwho was appointed by the government to preside over a specified district or county. The power of the official to choose who received food and who did not, thus practically deciding who lived and who died, was very often abused. Only one-third of the seed that was needed was distributed and more often than not eaten by the sowers. They received it too late or not at all because they were too weak to walk to the place of distribution. Even if they had enough seed most of the peasants would be unable to plow because millions of horses either died or were sold, leaving enormous areas unsown. In February 1892 the government addressed the shortage of stock problem by arranging for the purchase of 30,000 horses from the Kirghiz steppes.

The West, particularly the United States, helped the relief effort by contributing money and food to the famine stricken area. Western newspapers such as The Times of London sent correspondents into the area to report on the situation first hand. They described in great detail the horrors they saw and were partly responsible for the foreign aid that came into Russia. The journalists pleaded for their readers to contribute to the relief effort to help the starving. The Iowa Auxiliary of the Red Cross sent a cargo of corn rather than money because the correspondents described how inefficiently the aid was getting to the peasants. Sympathetic Philadelphians sent six million, pounds of flour that had been collected by merchant millers to Russia. The relief movement was started by the publisher of Northwestern Miller, W.C. Edgar, who assembled a donation collected from states. Transportation was provided free of charge by railroads and sent on two steamships from New York to the Baltic port of Libau. Mr. Edgar accompanied the expedition and wrote articles about the situation and encouraged others to help in the relief.


The Russian famine. (1892). London: E.J. Mansfield.

Stadling, J. J., & Reason, Will. (1897). In the land of Tolstoi : experiences of famine and misrule in Russia. New York: Thomas Whittaker, 2 & 3, Bible House.


Lilly, David P. "The Russian Famine of 1891-92." The Student Historical Journal. Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois, 1994-1995. (online)

"The Russian Famine." The Graphic (9 January 1892): 45.