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Vavilov and the Famine

In response to:

Martyred by Monsters from the October 9, 2008 issue

To the Editors:

In his excellent review of Peter Pringle’s biography of Nikolai Vavilov [ NYR, October 9], Daniel Kevles refers to the 1922 “threat of famine from poor harvests” in the Soviet Union and Vavilov’s state-sanctioned role in traveling to the US to purchase two tons of seeds and in persuading Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration (ARA) to ship most of it to Riga. While not the focus of the article, the threat of famine which Professor Kevles mentions was unfortunately much more than that. Poor harvests were nothing new, but in this case, the stored stocks of grain peasants had amassed for such eventualities were depleted by the government’s requisitioning of them during the Russian Civil War.

Over five million people died in the ensuing Povolzhye famine, centered mainly in the Volga-Ural region, of 1921–1922. Responding to Maxim Gorky’s New York Times appeal for aid “To All Honest People,” millions were saved though by the heroic efforts of only a couple of hundred ARA workers and 120,000 Soviet citizens, who during the height of their activities were feeding 10.5 million people across an area the size of the United States east of the Mississippi. A comprehensive account of this history as well as the political, economic, and philanthropic roles played by both Hoover and the ARA is contained in Bertrand Patenaude’s The Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921 (also see the review by Orlando Figes, which appeared in these pages, March 13, 2003).

Russell Todres
Atlanta, Georgia

Daniel J. Kevles replies:

I am grateful to Russell Todres for the reminder of the ghastly extent of the Soviet famine in 1921–1922. While the new Soviet government bore significant responsibility for it, Lenin appeared to be serious in wanting to reduce the likelihood of recurrent famine by strengthening the hardiness of Russian grains. According to Pringle, he is reported to have said: “The famine to prevent is the next one. And the time to begin is now.”

Vavilov’s trip to the United States in the winter of 1921–1922, just when Lenin was moving to the New Economic Policy, was in energetic service of the Soviet agricultural future. Vavilov helped establish the Association for Promotion of American-Russian Agriculture, Inc., a stockholding company on Fifth Avenue, in New York City, whose aim was to foster cooperative agricultural improvement. In less than a month, he bought 6,224 seed packets from twenty-six different American seed companies. He also obtained corn seed from an Indian reservation that was reputed to be suitable for northern Wisconsin and might flourish in Russia’s northern belt, where the growing season was comparably short. In addition to having the two tons of seeds shipped, he brought home sixty-one boxes of seed in his personal luggage.

Vavilov’s tour de force won admiring attention among Soviet officials. On his return, he was elected, at age thirty-five, to a corresponding membership in the Soviet Academy of Sciences, the first step to the full membership he eventually achieved.

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