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  • Rubles for VictoryThe Social Dynamics of State Fundraising on the Soviet Home Front
  • Kristy Ironside (bio)

A point of pride in the Soviet Union was that its people paid for an entire year of the Great Patriotic War. In one historian’s estimate, around 388 million rubles were spent each day for a total of 1,418 days; taken together, revenues from war bonds, lotteries, and citizens’ cash donations totaled about the cost of one year’s expenditures.1 In Soviet workplaces, war bonds and lottery tickets not only sold out but were oversubscribed, usually within days and sometimes within mere hours. In December 1942, an elderly beekeeper named Ferapont Golovatyi allegedly arrived at his local party committee, carrying a bag containing 100,000 rubles for the purchase of a fighter plane.2 Following in his footsteps, collective farmers rounded up billions of rubles to purchase aircraft, tanks, and other weapons for the defense of Stalingrad, which bore their names, messages to soldiers, and socialist slogans into battle.

The enormity of these contributions is striking. No less striking is the fact that they poured in at a time when Soviet money had become nearly worthless but was still desperately needed. To pay for the war, the Soviet government turned to the printing press: by 1 January 1946, there were 69 billion rubles in circulation, up from just 18.4 billion at the start of the war, [End Page 799] according to one estimate.3 Although wages increased somewhat due to the pressures placed on the industrial workplace, the purchasing power of the ruble plummeted as a result of massive inflation and severe shortages.4 As resources were diverted from the consumer economy to the front, factories assigned portions of their labor forces to growing food to feed their workers.5 Soviet retail prices, unified with the end of rationing in 1935, split once again into commercial and ration prices. Commercial shops charged higher prices for scarce goods and catered to the wartime elite.6 Ration prices stayed low and did not change during the war; however, there was frequently nothing to buy at these prices. The prices of goods in the peasant markets, to which workers had long turned when factory stores’ shelves were bare, multiplied exponentially as a result. By the second half of 1943, market prices for agricultural products were 13.9 times higher, on average, than they had been in 1940.7 Peasants often refused urban customers’ money and bartered for consumer goods, especially toward the beginning of the war.8 By its end, the countryside held twice the amount of money cities did, fueling bitter anger toward peasant “millionaires.”9 The Soviet ruble was drained of economic value and permeated with social tensions.

Yet workers and peasants on the home front gave billions to the state during this period of great privation and uncertainty.10 Soviet officials offered a simple explanation, chalking up enthusiastic contributions to patriotism and selflessness: at any moment, Soviet patriots were “ready to give their strength, their financial resources, and even their lives for the good of the nation, to defend her freedom, honor, and independence,” claimed Arsenii Grigor´evich Zverev, the people’s commissar of finance (Narodnyi komissariat [End Page 800] finansov, Narkomfin) in 1943.11 A more pragmatic explanation lies precisely in the inflated ruble and the precariousness of daily life: Soviet civilians willingly handed over these sums because money mattered less when it came to procuring necessities than maintaining the social relations that governed access to them. This helps explain why the majority of workers did not resist the pressure to participate in fundraising campaigns, especially those that took place on the shop floor, but it does not explain why individuals often went far beyond the amounts asked of them, sometimes offering the equivalent of two or three months’ wages for war bonds rather than the three to four weeks’ pay campaign slogans called for. Nor does it explain why peasants, who were not paid in money for their work on collective farms, and who received no rations and were long believed to have a “petty bourgeois” attitude toward money, parted so readily with their rubles. To address...