Throughout history, agriculture has been one of the main industries of the Russian economy and has employed millions of people. For a long time, agricultural products have been the foundation of Russia’s GDP, and today agricultural producers contribute significantly to the Russian economy.
Approximately 10% of the working population is involved directly in agricultural production, with a large number of people being employed in related industries, such as the chemical industry, transportation and processing and other industries.
Agricultural products account for approximately 5% of Russia’s GDP, and in 2012 their volume in absolute terms amounted to more than 3.34 trillion rubles (approximately $100 billion), among which the products of agricultural enterprises totalled 1.6 trillion rubles, private households 1.44 trillion rubles, and registered family-operated farms and farm businesses 300 billion rubles. From January to October 2013, the volume of agricultural output amounted to 3.13 trillion rubles.
Agriculture has always been of particular importance to Russia, largely due to the fact that until the beginning of the twentieth century, the country’s economy remained focused predominantly upon agriculture. Agriculture became the main occupation in the era of Kievan Rus’, when the development of communications between towns allowed people to sell their agricultural surpluses. During the times of feudal fragmentation, trade relations were largely disrupted, however. Principalities such as Novgorod and Smolensk were actively engaged in the trade of agricultural products, including commerce with merchants from foreign countries.
The recovery of commercial agricultural production was related to the emergence of a centralized Russian state in the fifteenth century. The sixteenth century marked a transition to an agricultural production system that would dominate the state for more than three hundred years. Such a system involved serfs who were personally dependent upon the lord of a large manor (boon), and who were engaged in individual agricultural production that was accumulated by the lord of the manor from the serfs (render). Serfs were the property of the landowner (from 1592, when unauthorized departures of serfs from one landlord to another were banned completely). The use of serf labour made it possible to ensure a sufficiently high degree of stability and predictability in agricultural production, but also deprived it of any incentives to improve.
At the end of the seventeenth century, the Moscow state annexed the left bank of the Ukraine, which had a large amount of agricultural land and a favourable agricultural climate. The peasants of the newly acquired territory remained personally free for a long time, although in fact they were dependent upon their landlords. It was not until the eighteenth century that the peasants were finally converted into serfs. At the same time, the ancestral land ownership system was fully developed, with the largest landowners possessing vast expanses of land, and tens (sometimes hundreds) of thousands of serfs.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, when the need for structural reforms of the economy arose, one of the most important issues was the question of a change in agriculture, because the efficiency of agricultural production was very low, primarily due to the notoriously inefficient use of serf labour. The year of 1861 saw the abolition of serfdom, which granted personal freedoms to former serfs. However, the structure of agricultural production remained largely unchanged, and manorial land ownership continued to prevail. Only at the beginning of the twentieth century did large peasant farms begin to play a prominent role in the production of agricultural products.
By the First World War, Russia’s agricultural products were dominated by cereals, which accounted for 88.5% of the total crops (more than 4 billion rubles, and approximately 25% of the total GDP of the Russian Empire). Planting acreage increased by 15% from the beginning of the century, and crop yield per capita increased by 20%. In 1913, the total grain yield was approximately 92.5 million tons, of which 10.5 million tons were exported, comprising 28% of total world grain exports. However, the livestock sector was not sufficiently developed. But on the whole, agricultural production developed extensively, even though it was highly dependent upon weather conditions that led to regular crop failures.
After the Revolution, agriculture fell into disrepair, because villages were short on peasants, had difficulties with beasts of burden, and most importantly, were impeded by the policy of the Soviet Republic in its early years restricting the free sale of agricultural products. During the 1920s, there was a gradual recovery of agricultural production, but major changes occurred only in the 1930s with the intensification and collectivization of agriculture, at which time individual farms were forcefully united into collective farms that were tasked with fulfilling state-assigned plans in terms of agricultural products. Yet only in the late 1930s did agricultural production surpass the level of the agricultural output of the Russian Empire, although even then not across all indicators (in particular, at the beginning of 1941 the total cattle and horse stock in the USSR was lower than during the times of the Russian Empire, for which livestock was not an agricultural priority).
The Second World War caused great damage to Russia’s agriculture, and it took the country’s agriculture more than ten years to recover. It was not until the late 1950s to early 1960s that the level of agricultural production across all indicators exceeded the agricultural output level of the Russian Empire. Nonetheless, even by the mid 1980s, after 70 years of agricultural development, the level of the main indicators that measure this development only doubled in size when compared to those of pre-Revolutionary Russia. Cereal production measured 210 million tons in 1986 versus 92.3 million tons in 1913, and the total cattle stock amounted to 120.9 million head in 1986 versus 58.4 million head in 1913.