Measures for alleviating grain shortages in Estland’s and Northern Livland’s rural municipalities in the 1860s


  • Ülle Tarkiainen Rahvusarhiiv



agriculture, famine, Russian Empire, Estonia


This article is part of a joint project conducted by Finnish and Estonian scholars that aims to comparatively study the famine of the 1860s in those countries. Unlike Finland, research into the last large-scale famine of the 19th century has begun only rather recently in Estonia. Kersti Lust has contributed the most to this area of research. The task of this article is to trace the development of agriculture in the present-day Estonian area in the 1860s, focusing primarily on the size of harvests. Attention is paid to some factors that still made agriculture vulnerable even in the 1860s. Additionally, the article also considers methods adopted at the local level in attempts to resolve the situation, alleviate food shortages, and ward off famine.

The appendices to the annual reports drawn up by the governors general of Estland and Livland include statistical data on the amounts of winter grain (rye), summer grains (barley, oats) and potatoes sowed, the size of their harvests (in chetverts), and the number of inhabitants. These appendices also provide an estimate of crop yields (how many seeds these types of crops produced). The fact that more precise information from Estland on 1868 is missing has to be pointed out as the largest gap. In spite of imperfection, the absolute numbers presented in the appendices of the reports from the governors are used in this article since there are no better options.

The archives of rural municipal governments provide the opportunity to ascertain how different localities tried to alleviate the situation that emerged as the result of crop failure and to ensure that all members of the rural municipality were supplied with grain. The extent of crop failure, the use of communal grain, and the purchase of grain using money from the rural municipal treasury or on loan unfold from rural municipal council transcripts. Many archives of rural municipal governments have been lost over time. There are only 156 collections in total that contain transcripts from 1868 and 1869.

The most important grain was rye, which could withstand poor growing conditions. The amount of winter grains sowed in Estonian territory as a whole was around 200,000 chetverts in the 1860s, and in the better years, the harvest of winter grains exceeded the threshold of 1,000,000 chetverts. The average crop yield of winter grains was 4.8 in the 1860s (excluding 1868). Barley and oats were primarily grown as summer grains, whereas oats were mostly used as animal feed.

It was only starting in the 1830s that potato cultivation had begun spreading more extensively in the Baltic region, whereas it started being used primarily in distilleries, where it was cheaper raw material compare to rye. Unlike grains, potatoes were cultivated considerably less in Livland than in Estland. The potato harvest failed in Estland in 1866 and 1867, when the crop yield was only 2.8. The crop nevertheless did not fail in 1868 in the northern part of Livland as a whole, but it was poor (the crop yield was 3.4). Good potato harvests in Estland in both 1869 and 1870, when it set a record, surpassing the 662,000 chetvert threshold, contributed to recovery from the famine.

Crop failure (less than three seeds) was not universal, rather it affected only one crop type and was mostly regional. In Northern Estonia and primarily in Saaremaa, the years of poor harvests in 1865 and 1867 were followed by the rainy summer of 1868, which brought with it crop failure and famine. The most complicated situation was in Saaremaa because the soil there was not very fertile. There winter grain yielded 2 seeds, summer grains 2.5 and potatoes 0.5 seeds. Thus, less potatoes were harvested there than were planted. Tartu County was the only district in Livland where average or satisfactory, and even good harvests were almost consistently achieved in the 1860s.

Grain grown in Estland and Northern Livland was mostly consumed in the domestic market. Manorial estates cultivated grain primarily with the needs of the market in mind, while farms had to look after covering their own needs first and foremost. At that time, 1 chetvert of winter grain and 1 chetvert of summer grains was considered the food requirement of one person for a year. In Estland, 1.1–1.7 chetverts of rye and 1.2–2.2 chetverts of summer grains were produced per inhabitant in the 1860s. Rye was produced in quantities below this norm (0.8) in 1865, 1867, as well as in 1868, according to indirect data. In Northern Livland, 1–1.4 chetverts of rye and 1.1–2.0 chetverts of summer grains were produced per inhabitant. There the production of rye was slightly below the norm (0.9) in 1865, 1867, 1868 and also in 1870. Although crop yield was higher in Northern Livland, the large number of very small holdings in the crown manorial estates there, where secondary livelihoods, primarily fishing, occupied an important place, caused lower indices per person. The rye harvest per person was lowest in Pärnu County and Saaremaa (0.6) in 1868. The relative proportion of crown manors was especially large in these two counties.

Alongside harvests and crop yields, it is also necessary to examine how the population coped in situations of crop failure and hunger, and what measures were taken for alleviating grain shortages.

This particular crop failure was the first serious touchstone for the rural municipal communities that had only just been liberated from the control of the manorial estates by the Baltic Rural Municipalities Act in 1866. According to this act, each rural municipal community had to elect a council, which was the governing body of the rural municipal community. Thus, the council was the body that had to make the decisions concerning the use of the communal granary’s grain reserves, the taking out of loans, and distributing aid.

Harvests in many regions of Estland and Northern Livland, and especially in Saaremaa, were so small in 1868 as the result of crop failure that they did not make it possible to survive over the winter or to allocate grain for the next sowing. The crisis reached its culmination in the winter of 1868 and the spring of 1869, when famine struck the most backward regions, gripping the province of Estland more or less as a whole, whereas the situation in Lääne County was the worst. Of the counties of the northern part of Livland, it struck only Saaremaa severely. Epidemics broke out in addition to the famine, primarily typhus, as well as dysentery, measles, smallpox, etc.

The rural municipality was obliged to care for all its members, especially if they encountered difficulties due to either illness or poverty. Particular attention started being paid to providing poorer people with food and shelter. Food supply policy in the Russian state was founded on maintaining reserves in local communal granaries in order to prevent famine in the event of crop failure. In an emergency, members of the community could borrow grain from the granary for food or sowing, but the borrowed grain had to be returned together with interest in the form of grain from the new crop. In good years, the rural municipality could sell the surplus grain and set aside the money earned from such sales in the rural municipal treasury.

When the communal granary’s grain reserves had been distributed and the granary was empty, the next measure was to purchase additional grain in return for the savings of the rural municipality, using both money from the treasury as well as obligations. In some rural municipalities, such measures were sufficient, and the rural municipality managed in this way to ride out this difficult period and also to feed its poor. More exceptional measures did not have to be adopted. This, of course, depended on the condition of the rural municipal treasury, which differed widely. Money taken from the rural municipal treasury was also a loan that had to be paid back. Here the principle of joint surety applied, thus this also had to be paid back on behalf of those who were themselves incapable of doing so.

These measures nevertheless were not sufficient everywhere because primarily in Northern Estonia and Saaremaa, rural municipality transcripts record that the whole rural municipality had declined into great need and poverty, and all of the poor were starving. If the rural municipality had spent its own financial resources, the next step was to apply for a crown loan with which to procure grain, which would in turn be loaned out to the people of the rural municipality. The public authorities already made it known well in advance that rural municipalities could take out loans in an emergency, stressing that this was not aid and that it had to be paid back.

The rural municipality could use granary reserves and money from the rural municipal treasury and receive support loans from the state only with the consent of the parish judge. The threshold for requesting permission was quite high because rural municipalities mostly already had communal granary debts, and the authorities feared the creation of new debts. The decision to take out a loan was not taken lightly in the rural municipalities because both paying back the loan and the payment of interest were considered to be too difficult.

Taking out a crown loan was placed on the agenda only in the event of a very serious emergency, when reserves were completely depleted. The need for loans continued to grow at the end of 1868 and over the first half of 1869, when there were shortages of bread grains as well as seed grain.

Different types of tactics can be seen in the case of taking out loans that corresponded to the size and opportunities of the rural municipality. In some rural municipalities, it was common procedure to assess the situation separately for each month, and smaller sums within the range of 100–600 roubles were taken out repeatedly as loans. Elsewhere – primarily in larger rural municipalities – the aim was to borrow a larger sum all at once that exceeded 1,000 roubles. A small proportion of the rural municipalities in Järva, Viru and Lääne counties had taken out a loan by then, but the sum could even extend to 3,000 roubles.

Since the rural municipalities had been made responsible for looking after supplying the peasantry with food, resolving the situation depended on the extent of the famine and the economic condition of the rural municipality. At the same time, the rural municipality lacked sufficient power for coping with the tasks assigned to it. The resources of the rural municipality were limited, and it did not have possibilities for redistributing reserves between rural municipalities. In cases of more serious famine when communal granary reserves were insufficient, the manorial estate and, above all, the state had the means for assisting the population.

Grain harvests did not depend solely upon the weather or other natural conditions, but also on agrarian relations. The farm economy was still almost entirely dependent on the manorial estate economy in the 1860s. Major changes took place in the 1860s aimed at accelerating the transition from the mode of management based on corvée to a system based on a money economy. The reorganisation of relations between farm and manorial estate did not immediately bring any noticeable changes. The three-field system remained in use in compact hamlets with fields divided into strips in Estland and Saaremaa until the enclosure of farms, which was usually carried out just before the manor put the farms up for sale.

Enclosure became universal in the latter half of the 19th century, when the sale of farmland to peasants as hereditary property became its primary impetus. The outright purchase of farms took place early in Livland precisely in those areas with predominantly dispersed settlement where farms had accumulated money from the sale of flax and where it was not necessary to carry out the enclosure of farms before starting to sell farms. At the same time, this is precisely what led to Northern Livland’s more rapid commercial and financial development compared to Estland. Areas with enclosed farms that had been purchased outright were naturally not immune to unfavourable weather conditions and crop failure. They nevertheless had better chances for coping with grain shortages. Only the establishment of new economic relations, primarily the enclosure of farms and the growth of peasant smallholdings, created the prerequisites for the transition to crop rotation and for increased crop yields, which made it possible to cope better with setbacks.


Download data is not yet available.

Author Biography

Ülle Tarkiainen, Rahvusarhiiv

Ülle Tarkiainen is researcher at the Estonian National Archives.





Artiklid / Articles