Nobody knows exactly how many people died in Muscovy during the autumn of 1601 and the year that followed. Even for Rus, which was accustomed to drought and crop failures, the situation at the dawn of the seventeenth century was extraordinary. Contemporary sources describe the meteorological events that led to the catastrophe: frigid temperatures, constant downpours, and a heat wave in April that caused seeds to sprout early, only to be covered by summer snows. And we now may know the direct cause: In 2008, geologists at the University of California Davis concluded that the famines and cold summers of 1601-1602 were the result of the eruption of the volcano Huaynaputina in Peru in 1600.
Hungry throngs wandered the countryside, desperately seeking some way to feed themselves and their families. The government even took the extraordinary step of allowing serfs to leave their masters if the latter were unable to feed them. In the cities, free food was distributed. But these measures did little to help. Serfs leaving their landowners had no place to go, and the crowds of villagers streaming toward the cities in the hope of finding food created shortages in the cities as well. Street vendors of kalachi (loaves of white bread) were afraid to set foot outside, since they were immediately beset by unruly hoards that took what they could by force and then fought over the takings among themselves.
By some accounts, two million Russians died of starvation in 1601-2 — one-third of the population. Over 125,000 were buried in mass graves near Moscow.
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