January 02, 2014

U.S.-Soviet Grain Trade: 5 Stages of Grief

U.S.-Soviet Grain Trade: 5 Stages of Grief

Friday, January 3, marks 50 years since the first sale of grain from the United States to Soviet Russia.

The Russian Revolution was – to put it lightly – a rather traumatic event, both for those involved and for those watching from dangerously close by. Take the United States, for one. Looking back, we can discern, in its trade relations with the newly-formed Soviet government, evidence of the familiar five stages of grief (although, being a country, they played a bit fast and loose with the ordering):


1. Denial

The horror!

When your image of communists equates them with pure evil, when your greatest fear is that your country may also succumb to its “spectre,” it’s really no time for trade. For over 45 years – through prosperity, depression, war, and McCarthyist witch hunts – the U.S. did not trade in grain with the USSR. To be fair, however, as millions of Soviets died of famine, considerable grain and food was donated to the USSR through the ARA from 1921 to 1923, by which point NEP had rescucitated Soviet agriculture and the Soviets even began exporting grain.


2. Bargaining

"Ask not what the Soviets can do for you, but what you can send the Soviets."

Which brings us to the deal of 1963-64: a four-million-ton shipment of U.S. grain to the USSR. Rather suddenly, grain sales were on the table again. Long decades of denial were finally over. While the sale was handled by private U.S. companies, it was supported and publicized by JFK himself – one of his last acts as president. As told by Ben Nordemann, the architect of the deal, it was an exercise in careful bargaining and unexpected goodwill, naturally accompanied by toasts to friendship and world peace.

Later, larger shipments followed – but not all of them went quite as well.


3. Anger

No, Soviets, no invading other countries! No more grain for you!

But let’s not forget that the Cold War was still going on. Once initiated, grain sales could now theoretically be used for less world-peace-related and more sanction-like purposes. In 1980, the Carter administration imposed a grain embargo on the Soviet Union for invading Afghanistan, at a time when the Soviets were importing 12-16 million tons of wheat per year. Sounds like a good plan, doesn’t it? In fact, the embargo amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist, as the Soviets just imported their grain from elsewhere.


4. Depression

All that laughter somehow didn't lead to more grain deals.

And so the grain trade boomed, undeterred by political considerations. But just as the Soviet Union began to open up – keyword "began" – agricultural trade got a bit “depressed.” Up until then, the USSR had been such a good market: a giant country with woefully inadequate technology, always in need of grain to feed its own people. Now their technology was catching up, grain harvests were doing fine. Oh, and they were still communists – the tensions of the early 80’s were certainly no help.


5. Acceptance?

Putin and Bush in Sochi: doesn't this look like acceptance to you?

Would there have been a grain-trade equivalent of acceptance at the end of this long process? What with the Soviet Union gone and Russia in its stead, we may never know. And the point, actually, is rather moot. Since early in this century, Russia – before the Bolshevik Revolution a breadbasket for Europe – has been exporting grain again...



Image credit: Wikimedia Commons


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