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The Greatest Relief Mission of All


On July 31, 1921, The New York Times published an appeal by Maxim Gorky “To All Honest People.” Tragedy had come to “the country of Tolstoy”—millions of people were threatened by starvation in the worst famine crisis the world had ever seen. But Russia’s misfortune was an opportunity to restore faith in the “creative force of humanitarian ideas and feelings” whose “social import was so shaken by the war” of 1914–1918. Gorky asked “all honest people in Europe and America for prompt aid to the Russian people. Give bread and medicine.”

Until Gorky’s letter, the West had no idea of the extent of the crisis, which in the end would claim perhaps five million lives. The Soviet government, whose overrequisitioning of peasants’ grain had largely been to blame, ruled out any mention of “famine” (golod) in the press, which mentioned only “deficits” and other euphemistic terms.

But by the summer of 1921 one quarter of the peasantry in Soviet Russia was starving, more or less. The darkening shadow of “Tsar Hunger” spread from the Ukraine, the Don and Volga regions, to the Urals and the Kama basins, the steppes of Orenburg, Bashkiria, Kazakhstan, and southwest Siberia. The worst-affected regions were on the Volga steppe. In Samara province nearly two million people (three quarters of the population) were said to be dying from hunger and disease by September 1921: 700,000 of them died before the end of the crisis, mostly from cholera and typhus, which fed on the bodies of the weak. Hungry peasants resorted to eating grass, weeds, leaves, moss, tree bark, roof thatch, and flour made from acorns, sawdust, clay, and horse manure. They slaughtered livestock and hunted rodents, cats, and dogs. In the villages there was a deathly silence. Older people nearly reduced to skeletons, and children with their bellies bloated by edema, lay down quietly to wait for death. Those with enough strength boarded up their ruined farms and fled with their belongings to the towns. Huge crowds assembled at the railway stations in the desperate hope of getting on a train—to Moscow, to Siberia, to anywhere, so long as it was rumored there was food.

Hunger turned some people into cannibals. On the steppelands around Pugachev and Buzuluk, where the famine reached its peak, nearly all the villagers were said to be consuming human flesh. The practice really took off with the onset of winter, around November 1921, when the first snows covered the remaining food substitutes on the ground and there was nothing else to eat. Mothers, desperate to feed their children, cut off limbs from corpses and boiled the flesh in pots. People even ate their relatives—often their young children, who were usually the first to die and whose flesh was particularly sweet. Documents in the Soviet archives show that several dozen butcher shops and cafeterias had to be closed down for serving human meat. Bandits went around killing people for their flesh. The stealing of corpses from cemeteries became so common that in many regions armed guards had to be posted at the gates. In some villages the peasants stored the corpses in barns and stables, and refused to give them up to the authorities. They seemed to think that the dead belonged to them, rather than to God or to the state, and that this entitled them to dispose of them as they saw fit. In one village near Pugachev a woman was caught feeding the remains of her husband to her child; when the police tried to take away the corpse she shouted: “We will not give him up, we need him for food, he is our own family, and no one has the right to take him away from us.”

Gorky’s appeal was heard by millions in the West. But only one man, Herbert Hoover, head of the American Relief Administration (ARA), was in a position to respond to the emergency that had inspired it.

Hoover may seem an unlikely benefactor of the Soviet Union. A convinced anti-Communist, he is usually remembered as the “callous president” who gave little comfort to the poor in the pre–New Deal years of the Great Depression between 1929 and 1933. But as Bertrand Patenaude points out in his long history of the ARA in Russia, the “Depression epic” has obscured our view of Hoover’s humanitarian achievements between 1917 and 1923.

A self-made tycoon in the mining industry, Hoover was renowned for his business acumen and organizational ability. The outbreak of war in 1914 found him in London. He organized the repatriation of 200,000 US tourists and expatriates stranded in Europe. He then established a Commission for Relief to feed civilians cut off by the fighting in Belgium. In 1917, Hoover returned to Washington, where President Wilson made him head of the newly established Food Administration, responsible for provisioning all the Allied countries in Europe.

After the war, when the Food Administration was disbanded, Hoover created the ARA. Its immediate humanitarian purpose was to provide food relief to the war-ravaged countries of Europe. But, as Patenaude concedes, it also had the aim of averting an economic crisis in the US by relieving farmers of their unmarketable surpluses, which had been stimulated by the wartime need for food. Hoover thought, moreover, that giving food away to the Europeans made good sense for foreign trade: it bought goodwill for America and increased demand for other US goods.

By 1920 the ARA was delivering food to over twenty countries in Europe. In all these countries it employed a small number of Americans to supervise a larger staff of local citizens actively involved in the administration, transportation, and distribution of packages of food and grain supplies. In running things this way, the ARA had a clear (“American”) philosophy: to promote civic activism in the local population as a democratic force to counteract the influence of Bolshevism on the Continent. For Hoover, too, it kept down the running costs of the ARA. Politics and business and philanthropy were never far apart.

All three were involved in the ARA’s decision to extend relief to Russia in 1921. As Patenaude explains, Hoover, like Wilson, regarded Bolshevism as a “symptom of people in distress”—the Russian Revolution was a “food riot.” Food relief was thus an antidote to the “Bolshevik sickness.” “Bolshevism is steadily advancing westward,” Wilson cabled congressional leaders from Paris in January 1919. “It cannot be stopped by force but it can be stopped by food.” Hoover likewise thought that, once they had been fed, the Russians would recover their political health and overthrow the Bolshevik regime—or perhaps subvert it from within.

Hoover’s thinking was encouraged by the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in March 1921, following a series of popular uprisings by peasants, workers, and, most famously, the Kronstadt sailors (whom, before he suppressed them, Trotsky had described as the “pride and joy of the October Revolution”). The NEP brought to an end the requisitioning of peasant grain by the regime (though illegal seizures by the Bolshevik brigades continued until 1923) and introduced a form of mixed economy with scope for private trade in foodstuffs and consumer goods. Eager to earn recognition by the Western powers, Lenin’s government even signed foreign trade agreements with Britain, Germany, Norway, Austria, and Italy.

To the ARA’s advisers in Russia, the NEP seemed to signal a retreat from Communist dictatorship. The US was not willing to trade with Soviet Russia, let alone recognize the Soviet government (the Riga agreement which set the rules for the ARA’s involvement in Russia referred only to the “Soviet Authorities”). But Congress viewed the ARA in Russia as a democratic opportunity, and in the autumn of 1921 it passed a bill providing $20 million to finance the mission. Patenaude refers to documents declassified in 1940 in which Hoover acknowledged that food relief would promote US interests in the Russian market (“an economic vacuum”) and provide an opening for “active citizens” to wrest control of the Soviet state. Hoover saw no contradiction between these two aims and the principle of philanthropy: what was good for America was good for Russia too.

At the peak of its activities, in the summer of 1922, the ARA was dispensing food in various forms (flour, unmilled grain, packages of food, complete meals from soup kitchens and cafeterias) to 10.5 million adults and children stretched across an area the size of the US east of the Mississippi. It was an amazing feat, in view of all the problems it encountered, from the utter chaos of the railway system to the inefficiency and petty thieving of the Soviet bureaucracy, and the constant threat of bandits on Russia’s country roads. The entire operation was carried out by a mere 199 Americans, aided by approximately 120,000 Soviet citizens. It was, by a long way, the biggest relief mission in the history of the world.

The Big Show in Bololand is the first comprehensive study of the ARA in Russia since H.H. Fisher’s The Famine in Soviet Russia, published back in 1927, and as such it is a considerable achievement. It is based on an exhaustive study of the ARA archives held at the Hoover Institution at Stanford as well as personal papers held in archives throughout the US. This source base enables Patenaude to write at length about particular aid workers. He is able to record, as an entertaining sideshow, their colorful adventures, impressions, and reflections about Russia while they worked on the “big show” of getting food and medicines to millions of remote villagers.

But there is a danger in these sources too. The ARA men were mostly either veterans of World War I—like Colonel William N. Haskell, graduate of West Point, who led the Russian mission of the ARA—or recent college graduates who felt they had missed out on the ad- venture of the war. Some were knowledgeable about Russia—like Frank Golder, a Stanford history graduate with a Harvard Ph.D. in Russian history who was born in Odessa. But most had never before been to Russia, and knew very little about it. They thought Russia was “exotic” and very “primitive.” They called it “Bololand” (the “Bolos” were the Bolsheviks) and felt superior to the poor and helpless peasants they had come to save (jokingly they called themselves the “Babyfeeders”). Patenaude is conscious of these patronizing attitudes and at several points he comes close to analyzing them. But at other times he shares their modes of speech, using terms like “Bolo” (without quotation marks or apparent irony), not just in the title but throughout the book.

Patenaude has not made use of the Soviet materials that have been available since 1991. These might have helped him to shed more light on the causes of the famine, which may in turn explain the hostile attitudes of many Bolsheviks toward the ARA.

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