“I have not felt so much at home for a long time,” wrote Mark Twain of arriving in Odesa in 1867. It was a curious sentiment. The jewel of New Russia—an oasis of Italian opera on the Ukrainian steppe—would seem a long way from the riverboat culture from which Twain sprang. But its resemblance to his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, was surprisingly strong. Odesa, like Hannibal, was a fast-growing limestone city laid out on a grid at the water’s edge. Twain knowingly sized up its broad streets, brisk-paced pedestrians, low and sparsely decorated houses, and “familiar new look.” When a “smothering cloud of dust” greeted him, Twain and his party welcomed it as “a message from our own dear native land.”
There was a reason for the resemblance: both cities were wheat ports. Catherine the Great had founded Odesa on the Black Sea in 1794 to capture the grain trade, and Hannibal shot up on the Mississippi River just twenty-five years later, as wheat and other produce passed through its wharves. It was the cities’ youth and wheat-fueled growth spurts that explained their grids, their utilitarian characters, and their dust clouds (partly the result of bustling traffic on not-yet-paved roads). “Look up the street or down the street,” Twain wrote of Odesa, “we saw only America!”
Twain’s visit to Odesa came at a turning point. Ukraine had been the breadbasket of Europe, but the US wheat trade was about to dramatically overtake it. By the end of the century, New York exported as many tons of grain per week as Odesa at its height had exported per year. Wheat coursed through towns like Hannibal, flowing down rivers, over rail lines, and out across the seas.
Did this grain trade matter? Hardly anything mattered more, argues the historian Scott Reynolds Nelson in his gripping Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World. Readers may roll their eyes at the title, given the long string of gimmicky commodity histories by journalists (Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Tea: A History of the Drink That Changed the World, Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That…). But Nelson, an award-winning scholar, is quite serious about the world-ordering power of wheat. Moreover, his grain obsession is infectious. You begin the book a sober reader, calmly appreciating the complexity of historical causation, and you finish it a raving wheat monomaniac.
In particular, you find yourself ranking the United States’ achievement of wheat supremacy as an event of paramount significance. It mattered for the United States, whose wheat sales propelled its economic growth. It mattered for the European societies buying US wheat, which they used to urbanize and colonize. And it mattered for Russia and the Soviet Union, where grain shortages became a continual source of humiliation, tumult, and death.
The global wheat trade is, relatively speaking, a recent phenomenon. Early exchange between distant ports focused on items that were valuable enough by weight to justify the considerable expense of transport. Silk, spices, sugar, indigo, precious metals, porcelain, coffee, tobacco, and enslaved human beings filled ships and caravans up through the Industrial Revolution. Grain is particularly bulky, which made hauling it from fields, over dirt paths, and onto ships more costly.
Those costs placed serious constraints on preindustrial politics. How far a city could grow or an army could march depended on how much grain it could cart across rough roads. Empires, Nelson notes, generally sought to conserve their supplies, pulling grain inward from their edges to their central cities.
It was this centripetal pattern of grain flows that Catherine the Great rejected when she established Odesa. Influenced by Enlightenment-era French economists, Catherine sought to develop Russia’s empire not by hoarding grain but by aggressively selling it—to foreigners. After wresting Ukraine from the Ottoman Empire, she recruited immigrants to till its black soil, including German Mennonites to whom she promised religious freedom and exemption from military service. The unimposing village of Khadjibey on the Black Sea, rechristened Odesa, would be her new center of commerce. Ukrainian wheat would be lugged there and, rather than dragged back to Moscow, shipped to Western Europe and sold.
Catherine’s strategy required a faith in international commerce that, two centuries earlier, would have been rash. Yet the instruments of trade—the ships, the laws, the financial arrangements—had since advanced considerably. Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations (1776), urged politicians to recognize the heady possibilities of a brisk international grain trade. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, written the same year, proposed this as a strategy for the new United States. “Our plan is commerce,” Paine wrote; rather than fighting Europe, the new country would feed it.
Or so Paine hoped. In reality, two wars with Britain, followed by a tariff battle and consequent collapse in grain prices, undercut wheat’s prospects in the early republic. Then came domestic enemies: southern politicians who worried about what too many free-soil farmers in the electorate would mean for slavery. Powerful slaveholders took an increasingly dim view of anything—railroads, agricultural colleges, cheap land—that would connect the prairies and plains of the West to eastern markets, and they used their considerable political power to block grain-favoring legislation. The combination of war, tariffs, and southern interference largely locked wheat merchants out of international markets. Grain was sold domestically, but by the 1830s US exporters were making ten times more selling cotton than wheat.
Russian wheat exporters, meanwhile, caught some important breaks. The Napoleonic Wars put hungry armies on the move and disrupted the continental grain trade. Torrential rains then drowned European fields. With demand high and supply low, grain prices soared, and the free port of Odesa flourished. Swelling with wheat profits, it grew faster than any other major city in nineteenth-century Europe. By the 1850s it had more than five hundred granaries. Thousands of Jews came to lebn vi Got in Odes, as the Yiddish saying went—to live like God in Odesa. The poet Alexander Pushkin came, too, though he griped about its “European mode of life.” Street signs, receipts, and theater notices in Italian—plus Odesa’s eight macaroni factories—signaled a city that was gazing optimistically west, toward the destinations of its grain ships.
By a cruel accident of geography, Russia’s grain ships had to pass between two narrow straits, the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, both controlled by the Ottomans, to reach European markets. In 1853 Tsar Nicholas I, Catherine’s grandson, feeling this was no longer tolerable, provoked the Crimean War. Nicholas made the error of ceasing grain exports at the war’s start, probably to conserve wheat for his own forces. But this set off bread riots in England and dramatized for Britain and France the dangers of relying on Russian grain. They entered the war on the Ottoman side, ruining Russia’s territorial ambitions, finances, and control of the wheat trade.
It helped Europe that US wheat was finally becoming available. With rich soil, clear skies, and an immense bounty of sunlight, the central farmlands of the United States were among the most promising agricultural zones on the planet. European tariffs dropped starting in the 1840s, and then the Civil War pushed wheat-hostile slaveholders out of politics. Immediately after the slave states seceded, northern legislators started doling out western land, building railroads, and establishing agricultural colleges.
While US grain glided smoothly from field to port, Ukrainian wheat floundered on muddy roads. Odesa relied on carts—hundreds arriving daily, some from hundreds of miles away—to move its produce. The city only got its first train station in 1865, and this did little to speed the transportation of goods. Given the parlous state of Russian railways, in 1880 wheat cost more than six times as much to ship across South Ukraine as across the United States. The Russian railroad was less a “network,” huffed the British consul, than “separate thread lines which run parallel to one another.” Even after the rail station opened in Odesa, it was years before a trip to Moscow became possible—by a route hundreds of miles longer than necessary.*
Meanwhile, US wheat entered European markets with detonating force. Nelson notes how dynamite, patented in 1867, allowed engineers to blast tunnels through mountains, enlarge rivers, and deepen ports for the reception of larger ships. They used the explosive to widen the mouths of importing cities to accommodate “the firehose of cheap American wheat,” Nelson writes. One of these “gullet cities,” Antwerp, saw its trade increase sixfold in just two decades.
The more boats full of grain crossed the Atlantic going east, the more merchants needed cargo to fill those ships’ holds on their returns. Millions of Europeans took advantage of this to gain cheap passage to the United States in steerage; the time of the US’s wheat boom was also its age of mass immigration. Among the immigrants were descendants of the German Mennonites whom Catherine the Great had recruited to farm Ukraine. When their immunity from Russian military service expired, they moved from the steppe to the plains, where yet again they made new homes on treeless lands. They brought seeds of a hardy winter wheat, Turkey Red (named for the country, not the bird), which they spread liberally across the West. The wheat that once enriched Odesa would now enrich Omaha.
The result wasn’t just a rewiring of the international food trade’s circuitry, but also a dramatic amplification of its current. “It is difficult to comprehend the volume of grain that crossed the Atlantic,” Nelson writes. In just the 1870s, the value of US food exports to Europe increased by 611 percent, the largest commodity being wheat. The biggest European cities—London, Paris, Berlin, and Rome—all more than doubled in size in the second half of the nineteenth century. As food prices dropped, European life expectancy, which had remained nearly static during the early Industrial Revolution, finally rose, from thirty-six years in 1850 to forty-three in 1900. In 1892 the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, noting the astonishing fertility of the “wide prairies of America,” declared that the age-old problem of production had been solved; humanity’s only remaining problem was distribution.
Cheap, easy-to-transport calories can feed cities, but they can also feed armies. Nelson sees a turning point in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871, in which the Germans overcame perennial on-the-march supply-chain issues by simply buying grain from the United States. Their victory demonstrated a new potential for military forces to cross great distances. Nelson notes that the sudden availability of cheap wheat also fueled Europe’s scramble for African and Asian colonies. “American grain,” he argues, made long-distance conquest “easier for European empires to imagine.”
At this point, it helps to take a deep breath. Were these major historical changes solely the result of wheat? Of course not. Public health, sanitation, and smallpox vaccination probably did more to lengthen European lives than abundant grain did, and, even if we were to fixate on food, the potato also provided cheap calories. Similarly, the causes of European imperialism went far beyond wheat: steam technologies, geopolitical rivalries, and new racial ideologies all played their parts. Oceans of Grain, with its bug-eyed wheat obsession, acknowledges such complications only briefly while racing past them. From a lesser historian, such explanatory haste would be vexing. Yet Nelson is such a lively, creative thinker that you feel less that he’s cutting corners and more that he’s on a roll. This book is all gas and no brakes, but it’s hard not to cheer as it vrooms by the stands.
You cheer because you’ve come to see a familiar history with fresh eyes. What you see, most clearly, is the towering importance of the United States’ ascent. Between 1869 and 1911 its already prodigious agricultural output increased by a factor of two and a half, giving it the world’s largest economy. Its farm-fueled rise was “the most consequential event of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the Western world,” the sociologist Monica Prasad has written. “It was a growth of a kind no one had seen before and that no one really knew how to handle.”
“The Song of Odessa has been sung,” lamented the engineer P.S. Chekhovich in 1894. “It will fall into decline and face a slow death.” He wasn’t wrong; Russian agriculture entered a dark period that lasted at least a century. With its export markets withering, Russia lacked the resources to modernize, and governmental attempts to revive farms were halting. In 1891 a grain crisis saw peasants “pulling down their thatched roofs to feed their horses, pushing their children to beg in the city for bread, and finally eating their own horses,” Nelson writes.
Outmatched in Europe, Russia looked east for new commercial outlets. The enormous, expensive Trans-Siberian Railway connected Moscow to the Pacific. Or it would have, had Russia’s expansion not provoked a Japanese counterattack, in which Japan sank Russia’s Pacific fleet, seized its would-be port, and helped cause another grain crisis. Strikes, mutinies, and bread riots fed into the Revolution of 1905. In Odesa, which was hit especially hard by the Japanese war, they led to one of the worst pogroms in Russian history—a slaughter of Jews that left more than three hundred dead.
Russian wheat prospects grew dimmer still in the lead-up to World War I, when the Ottomans closed the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits, blocking western grain exports entirely. The global conflict that ensued had origins that went far beyond the Black Sea’s wheat trade. But “grain was key to almost every stage of World War I,” Nelson observes: to the rising tensions in Europe that caused it, to its geostrategy, and to the domestic revolts that accompanied it. Yet again, Russian grain shortages led to bread riots and revolution, now a Communist one, which wrecked Odesa.
“Bread to the people!” was the desperate slogan with which the Bolsheviks seized power. Grain loomed large for the revolutionaries. Leon Trotsky, educated in Odesa, was the son of a Ukrainian wheat farmer. One of the early Soviet Union’s most celebrated writers, Maxim Gorky, had worked in a bakery and written a novel about a baker. Nelson, in another of his contagious enthusiasms, focuses on a more obscure figure, a socialist theorist known as Parvus. He was from a grain-dealing family and had lived in Odesa, which made him a “new kind of Marxist” who emphasized international trade over labor. “Parvus saw the lines that bind us all together,” Nelson writes. Though the Bolshevik leaders eventually turned their backs on Parvus, Nelson maintains that his grain-centered worldview influenced Lenin’s theory of imperialism, as well as the thought of Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg.
Still, theoretical bread couldn’t substitute for real bread, and the Russian Revolution decimated the country’s agriculture. The civil war and economic restructuring pushed 1921 grain harvests down to less than half their pre–World War I levels; the ensuing famine killed at least three million people. The next decade brought more devastating hunger, this time engineered by Joseph Stalin, who in the early 1930s confiscated Ukraine’s grain harvests, starving Ukrainian farmers to feed Soviet cities. Exact figures are hard to come by (Stalin had the demographers executed), but privately Soviet officials placed the death toll at 5.5 million—a figure that the historian Timothy Snyder has endorsed as “roughly correct, if perhaps somewhat low.” Ukrainians know the event as the Holodomor, from the Ukrainian words for “killing by hunger.”
The United States faced agricultural problems, too, but of an entirely different sort. Its woes initially stemmed from abundance, from bumper crops that flooded the market and overshot demand. At the Depression’s start, the federal government purchased 250 million bushels of wheat—wheat it had no use for—just to prop up prices. The secretary of agriculture complained that dieticians, by encouraging self-control, were undermining farmers. “Eat one more slice of bread each day and help the farmer,” pleaded the Civic and Commerce Association of Minneapolis, as part of one of the Depression’s numerous “eat more” campaigns.
Cajoling people to consume more cheap wheat was an ongoing quest for Minneapolis, a milling center for the plains. A Minneapolis mill invented the breakfast cereal Wheaties as an outlet for the bran that, in their pursuit of “purity,” millers blithely discarded. “Won’t you try Wheaties?” a barbershop quartet implored in the world’s first radio jingle. “For wheat is the best food of man.” Wheaties advertisers latched onto athletes as a way to hawk calories. It was winning a Wheaties national contest for sports announcing that sent a young Ronald Reagan to Hollywood in 1937. Such was life in what the politician Huey Long called “the land of too much.”
The United States overcame its “too much” problem by finding foreign outlets; it remains one of the world’s top wheat exporters. Soviet leaders, meanwhile, struggled perpetually with what they called the “grain problem.” Although they beat back famines after World War II, they never restored their country to its nineteenth-century grain glory. In the 1970s Moscow found itself dependent on surplus wheat from US farms. The wheat it bought was descended from Turkey Red, the hard winter wheat that German Mennonites had once grown in Ukraine.
Do grain flows still matter? They have become so abundant and seamless that it’s easy to ignore them. Yet there’s at least one world leader who shares Nelson’s wheat obsession: Vladimir Putin. Food security has been a “central concern of the Putin government,” writes the historian Susanne A. Wengle in her recent book Black Earth, White Bread (2022). With quotas, tax breaks, and subsidies, Putin has over the past two decades nurtured agribusiness and rebuilt Russia’s grain production, which has helped sanction-proof the Russian economy. A wheat supplier once more, Russia now accounts for more than 16 percent of international exports, making it yet again the largest exporter of wheat in the world.
Were Russia to absorb or gain control of Ukraine, that number would approach 30 percent—a “staggeringly large” portion of the market, the economic historian Adam Tooze has remarked. Wheat is far from Putin’s only motive for invading; blocking NATO’s eastward lurch and Ukraine’s westward tilt are obviously central to his thinking. Still, in reassembling Catherine the Great’s realm by regaining control of Ukraine’s rich soil and Black Sea port, he could symbolically reverse the humiliating losses that Russia suffered since losing its centrality in the grain market.
Doing so would not only secure Russian food supplies against outside interference, it would let Russia interfere with other countries’ food supplies. Already, the interruption of grain flows resulting from the invasion—atop the ongoing supply chain crisis—has raised food prices sharply, with worrisome consequences especially for Africa and the Middle East. The president of the European Commission has accused Russia of deliberately causing a global food crisis by targeting Ukrainian silos, rails, and ports. This not only drives up the price of Russian grain (and the plundered Ukrainian harvests it is seeking to sell); it buys international support, as countries desperate for grain find it hard to publicly object to Putin’s actions. With Ukraine fully under his control, Putin could wield wheat as an even more formidable weapon.
Nelson finished his book before Putin’s invasion, but he isn’t surprised by it. “Every would-be empire thrives on the global traffic in food and energy,” he noted in late February. Even if Putin’s invasion fails, Nelson predicts, ambitious Russian leaders will continue to see their path to power as running through Ukraine’s fertile fields.
It’s a bleak logic, suggesting that little has changed since Catherine the Great pushed back the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth century and Stalin starved Ukrainian peasants to feed Soviet cities in the twentieth. For the world’s sake, you hope that Nelson is wrong. But watching Russian troops once again spill over the border, you fear that he’s right.