- Bread upon the Waters: The St. Petersburg Grain Trade and the Russian Economy, 1703−1811 by Robert E. Jones
In Bread upon the Waters , Robert E. Jones makes a strong case for viewing the daily activities of large social groups in imperial Russia in the long eighteenth century from an economic perspective. The book explicates the dynamics of the Russian grain trade over the course of the eighteenth century while engaging with major themes in Russian historiography: economic policy and commerce, estate management, and geographic determinism. Jones explores the implications of designating St. Petersburg, a strategically situated port, as the capital of an empire by demonstrating how this move created and shaped a grain market that extended down into the Russian heartland. Bread upon the Waters lays out the entire supply chain, from the soil to the table, which formed in an effort to bring provisions to the capital, highlighting both the individual entrepreneurship in transporting the grain as well as government efforts to regulate the price of bread in the capital. Through this excursion Jones sets up his explanation for the sudden and nearly continuous rise in the price of cereals in the second half of the eighteenth century.
Bread upon the Waters builds on some of Jones’s earlier work on the grain trade, 1 and while the combined narrative falls outside of recent historiographical trends in imperial and cultural history, the book is very much aware of them. Jones sees this work as complementary to recent narratives of Russia’s expansion. 2 For him, the acquisition of new territories could be seen as part of Russia’s economic policy, driven by a need for seaports and fertile land for a growing population (P. 72). 3 [End Page 420] Whereas recent scholarship has emphasized other lenses through which to view human activity, Jones’s narrative emphasizes “need for money as a motivator for human behavior” (P. 5). In contrast to the spate of academic literature on the peculiarities of imperial governance in particular regions, this book instead shows how a unified St. Petersburg grain market formed across several regions of the Russian Empire. The Russian Empire governed regions differently, emphasized diversity, and practiced tolerance, but in some ways it also integrated the space it controlled. Bread upon the Waters shows that territories capable of producing grain and delivering the surplus to the waterways along the St. Petersburg supply chain became integrated into that market, while other fertile regions did not.
The book casts a wide net across imperial Russia’s social and economic relations, but it focuses mainly on two, somewhat contradictory trends: the government’s efforts to enable merchants to conduct the business of bringing grain to St. Petersburg while keeping grain prices low for consumers. In his approach to this broad subject, Jones draws on a variety of sources. He introduces statistics to calculate the demand for cereals, and rye in particular, in St. Petersburg and to demonstrate the difficulties of transporting grain to St. Petersburg. The cost of transportation made up at least half the price of a chetvert (about 5.6 bushels) of flour in the capital. He also draws on the debates in Russian government to show the logic of Russia’s policy. These are a particularly interesting reflection of Russians’ understanding of political economy in the eighteenth century. Moreover, many government policies, particularly regulation, were based on stereotypes about merchants, who were seen as duplicitous price-gougers, while policies to increase production of grain sought to return peasants to their “rightful” place in the fields. Neither the imperial government’s efforts to supply its subjects with affordable bread nor the debates over the role of exports in its political economy were unique to imperial Russia. Russia’s particularism emerges in the delicate balance the government sought to achieve in its grain policy in St. Petersburg.
In the opening chapter Jones introduces the structural and policy changes that made St. Petersburg Russia’s main port...