By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — When Russian President Boris Yeltsin liberalised prices at New Year, did he know that the result would be to consign large sections of the population not just to malnutrition, but to actual starvation?
This is among the stark questions that arise from a recent study of the diets of working families in 20 Russian cities. Conducted by the State Committee on Statistics, the detailed survey was designed to reveal the effect on nutrition of ending price controls on all but a few basic food products.
Throughout December and January, the participating families were asked to keep careful records of the food they purchased and consumed. The results of the study were summarised in an article published on February 28 in the trade union newspaper Trud.
The study showed that in December, even before the prices of basic foodstuffs rose by around five times, the average Russian was only just receiving adequate nutrition. The calorific value of the average daily food intake during December was 2600 kilocalories. Depending on the type of work performed, the daily requirement for men ranges from 2600 to 4500 kilocalories, and for women from 2200 to 3600.
The effect of price liberalisation was immediate and horrifying. Calorie intake fell not by just five or 10%, but by 20%, to an average of 2100 kilocalories per day. As Trud observed, this level is inadequate even for an 11-year-old child.
Not only the quantity of food intake suffered, but the quality as well. The new liberalised diet consisted very largely of bread and potatoes. Consumption of milk products was down by 25%, and of meat by 15%.
It is only on average, of course, that Russians now receive the dietary requirements of an 11-year-old. Many grown men and women obviously get far less. The report in Trud estimates that purchasing the most minimal food requirements now takes at least 500 roubles per person per month. The basic pension in the Russian Federation currently stands at 342 roubles.
It is hard to believe that the Russian government, with at least basic resources of information and analysis, did not appreciate the effect price liberalisation would have on diets.
The fact that Yeltsin pressed ahead with his "reform" shows that he was prepared to gamble with the lives of millions of people that economic "shock therapy" would be a quick success.
This gamble has already been lost. The scope of the economic collapse since New Year has dashed any prospect that food intake will begin to recover before malnutrition-related diseases start showing a steep increase.
Russians in January were starving on the products of last year's more or less standard harvest. But with production of agricultural inputs, from tractors to fertilisers, now collapsing, there are serious doubts that large areas of
the 1992 crop will even be sown.
Like the famines of the early 1930s that were set off by Stalin's collectivisation drive, the famine of 1992 will be not a natural but an artificial phenomenon, the outcome of the vicious folly of national leaders.