By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — Russians, like other northern Europeans, tend to be tall if properly fed. "If" is of course the important word here: throughout most of Russia's history, the nutrition of the bulk of the population has been abominable.
But by the 1970s the worst problems were being coped with, and per capita consumption in the USSR of meat, fish, eggs and dairy products was nearing the levels of much richer societies in the west. The result now is that younger Russian adults are noticeably taller than their parents.
Young adults, that is. The prospects for today's children are different. One of capitalism's gifts to the 21st century seems certain to be another generation of short Russians.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies reported recently that about half of Russia's children were underdeveloped mentally and physically due to malnourishment. In some regions the proportion was as high as 70%.
Detailed figures have been available for years on the nutritional decline that has beset Russia since the Soviet Union was dismantled. But the setback has only become world news since bad weather in the 1998 growing season, combined with a drastic fall in the ability of Russians to afford imported foodstuffs, brought pleas for international food aid.
Ironically, there has been no unanimity among Russia's rulers that such aid is needed. Food and agriculture minister Viktor Semyonov insisted during October that there was "no threat of food shortages, no grounds for the threat of food shortages today". Russia, he maintained, had stocked up "rather well" on key foodstuffs.
In one sense, Semyonov was right — the stocks in food stores in most parts of the country are enough to meet expected demand.
Nevertheless, the Red Cross-Red Crescent was well advised earlier in the autumn to launch a US$15 million international appeal to help save Russians from starvation. The humanitarian organisation has reportedly targeted 1.4 million people in a dozen of the worst-hit regions as urgent recipients of food parcels and soup kitchen meals.
The trouble is that large numbers of people in Russia are too poor to buy the food that is available.
According to the State Statistical Committee, more than 44 million Russians, some 30% of the population, live below the official poverty line. Even the wages of large numbers of full-time workers are below the "minimum subsistence level" of about 500 roubles (US$32) a month, and many elderly people receive pensions of as little as 270 roubles.
The budgets of millions of households took a drastic blow in August, when devaluation of the rouble more than doubled the price of many imported foodstuffs. Earlier in the year, imports had accounted for as much as 70% of the meat and dairy products consumed in Moscow and other large cities.
The new post-devaluation government sent out feelers to the US and the European Union seeking food aid. Burdened by farm-sector surpluses, the US government responded with an offer of food grants and concessional loans for the purchase of meat and grains. A final agreement on the aid was reached on November 6.
Commentators in the Russian press have argued that the Clinton administration's offer had more to do with securing rural votes in a congressional election year than with helping Russians secure their next meal. And indeed, the aid will do essentially nothing to solve the immediate challenges involved in preventing widespread hunger.
Russian agriculture suffered cruelly in 1998 from hot, dry weather in May and June, followed in the central areas of European Russia by cool, wet weather in July and August.
The drought was among the causes of the smallest Russian grain crop since the early 1950s, down by 47% from that of last year. The cold and rain favoured the spread of fungal diseases through the potato crop, ruining the hopes of millions of part- time gardeners that they would eat cheaply through the winter.
The real disaster was the potatoes. Russia has reportedly harvested enough grain this year for human consumption, and the country's market for animal feed grain has shrunk dramatically in the 1990s as the ability of the population to afford meat has declined. But home-grown potatoes are the staple of countless people whose wages have not been paid or whose jobs have disappeared entirely. Among these people, there are many who now face actual starvation.
The US food aid, which is to be resold by the Russian government to food processing and distributing firms at commercial prices, will do nothing for such people.
Their need is for their purchasing power to be restored, through the payment of wages and livable pensions. But the Clinton administration, while shipping part of the US agricultural surplus to Russia, backs the International Monetary Fund in calling on the Russian authorities to avoid any major expansion of the country's money supply, even for the purpose of paying wage arrears.
While the incidence of hunger can be expected to rise sharply in the coming months, the phenomenon was already well established in the country during the period of economic "stabilisation" that ended abruptly in August.
According to US researcher Frank Durgin, average daily caloric intake in Russia fell from 3300 kilocalories in 1986-90 to 2460 in 1997. The latter figure is about sufficient for a physically active adult. With income inequalities at extreme levels, millions of Russians last year must already have been receiving far less.
Figures cited by the OECD in October suggested that tens of millions more Russians, while avoiding actual hunger, had the nutritional value of their diets fall alarmingly. From a per capita figure of 75 kilograms per year in 1990, average meat consumption was down to 51 kilograms in 1997.
Durgin notes big declines for intake of dairy products, fish, eggs, and fruit and vegetables.
While imports have meant that the average Russian diet has not been tied directly to the crisis in the country's agriculture, that crisis has been dire. Livestock numbers have halved in the past five years.
According to the OECD, Russian agricultural output in 1997 was 64% of the 1990 level, and official Russian figures suggest a further drop in 1998 alone of at least 10%.
The OECD states that total capital investment in the Russian agro-industrial complex fell between 1990 and 1997 by a factor of 16.
Meanwhile, the government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported on October 6 that, compared with last year, the country was behind both in the sowing of winter crops and in autumn ploughing. "The federal stock lacks exactly half of the seed required ... The same goes for mineral fertilisers and pesticides."
Feeding the new capitalist Russia, it seems, will increasingly be a job for the soup kitchens.