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 …

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