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.

The epicenter of the famine crisis was the steppeland region of the Volga. Summer droughts and extreme frosts were regular features of the steppe’s climate, and there had been several previous harvest failures (in 1891–1892, 1906, and 1911, just to name a few). The Volga peasants were accustomed to harvest failures and had always maintained stocks of grain for such emergencies. All these stocks were requisitioned in the Civil War between 1918 and 1920. For most of the war the Volga region was located on or just behind the Red Army’s two main fronts: against the White or counterrevolutionary armies of General Anton Denikin to the south and Admiral Alexander Kolchak to the east. Behind the scenes of this military struggle was another battle for the peasants’ grain. Armed brigades of workers went into the villages and emptied barns, shooting any peasants who attempted to resist. To evade the levies the peasants withdrew into subsistence production: they grew just enough to feed themselves and their livestock, and provide for seed, but left no safety margin, no reserves of the sort that had cushioned them from adverse weather in the past, fearing they would lose them to the Bolsheviks.

The armed brigades took no account of this—they took an empty barn as proof that the peasants had hidden all their grain—and forcibly extracted their final stocks of food and seed. In the German Volga region, where the hard-working peasants were labeled as “kulaks,” the brigades, in the hunt for grain, looted everything, burning villages, raping women, holding children for ransom, and torturing the peasants.

Like the Ukrainian “famine-terror” of the early 1930s, then, the great Volga famine of 1921 was created by the Soviet government. The Bolsheviks continued to requisition grain throughout the winter months of 1920– 1921, when the signs of famine were already clear and local Soviet officials were warning of an imminent catastrophe. In the German Volga lands and parts of the Ukraine, the Bolshevik leaders insisted that grain be exported to Russia after they acknowledged these as “famine areas.”

In The Education of a True Believer the Russian writer Lev Kopelev gives a harrowing account of his own involvement in a Komsomol brigade, which was charged with the collection of the peasants’ grain in the Ukraine in 1933.* Kopelev and his comrades took everything, down to the last loaf of bread. Looking back on the experience (he was later to write a memoir of the gulag) Kopelev recalled the children’s screams and the appearance of the peasant men—“frightened, pleading, hateful, dully impassive, extinguished with despair or flaring up with half-mad, daring ferocity”:

It was excruciating to see and hear all this. And even worse to take part in it…. And I persuaded myself, explained to myself. I mustn’t give in to debilitating pity. We were realizing historical necessity. We were performing our revolutionary duty. We were obtaining grain for the socialist fatherland. For the five-year plan.

Kopelev was probably more sensitive than most of his comrades, but the shame he describes, one would like to think, must have been felt and concealed by even the most hardened Bolshevik. Patenaude does not go into reactions. Yet they may help to explain the astonishing obstruction that the ARA encountered from the Bolsheviks. For nothing provokes shame or humiliation like foreign charity.


Patenaude presents a depressing catalog of petty-mindedness. At every stage the ARA’s initiatives were tied up in red tape. There were never enough trains or peasant carts. Relief workers were constantly harassed by the Cheka—the political police—and sometimes arrested on trumped-up charges of counterrevolutionary propaganda or even espionage.

Some Bolsheviks were bound to be suspicious of the Americans. The Communist Party had been shaped by the Civil War, when sixteen foreign countries, the US among them, had intervened on the side of the Whites. During 1918 and 1919 the ARA had channeled food to Denikin’s army at the request of the US Supreme War Council; at the direction of the State Department it delivered food and guns to General Nikolai Yudenitch’s Northwestern Army as it marched through the Baltic region in its offensive against Petrograd.

By 1921, the bloated middle ranks of the Bolshevik Party were filled by semiliterate “proletarians,” peasant sons and workers in Red Army uniforms, who understood the Revolution as a continual civil war against the “capitalist classes” (the “bourgeoisie,” the “kulaks”) and their foreign allies, the “imperialist powers.” For this reason, Lenin found it hard to convince the Party to support the NEP, which required concessions to private and foreign trade. It is no coincidence, as Patenaude makes clear, that the fiercest opposition to the ARA came from the left wing of the Party, which also opposed the NEP. Foreign charity, the leftists feared, might develop into foreign trade—and the creeping foreign domination of the Soviet economy.

They had similar political fears. The Soviet citizens the ARA employed were mostly drawn from the old intelligentsia—doctors, teachers, agronomists, and various officials from the local assemblies for provincial self-government called zemstvos and from the other local assemblies that had been destroyed by the Revolution and the Civil War. Many of these people were employed in the All-Russian Famine Relief Committee (Pomgol), the first and last public body established under Soviet communism, which was briefly given power to raise public funds in 1921. Gorky, who was one of Pomgol’s leaders, believed the new organization might become “the germ of tomorrow’s democratic government.” It was partly as a concession to Gorky and partly as a means of securing foreign aid that Lenin had agreed to the formation of Pomgol; but once the ARA became involved in Russia, Lenin ordered it to be closed down. He had all its public leaders (except Gorky and the writer Korolenko) imprisoned or sent abroad.

Lenin and the Cheka kept a careful watch on the local employees of the ARA. Hoover’s insistence that the ARA should be allowed to operate independently, without intervention by the Communists, infuriated Lenin, who feared the creation of a Western state within the Soviet one. He needed US help to save his country from catastrophe, but he feared that Hoover might become more influential within Russia than himself. “One must punish Hoover, one must publicly slap his face so that the world sees,” Lenin fumed.

Lenin sought revenge with a dirty propaganda trick. In March 1922 the Politburo issued a decree ordering the confiscation of all valuable Church assets—ostensibly to pay for the famine relief. As the Red Guards looted churches, the Soviet press gave the impression that they were doing so to pay the ARA. This was of course a lie—the Bolsheviks were melting down the confiscated gold and silver items, crosses, bowls, and icon covers for the coffers of the state. But there were some incidents when ARA officials leaving Russia were found to have treasures in their bags—jewelry or icons they had bought from the flea markets that thrived in Russia at this time—and such incidents played into Lenin’s hands.

The Russians who benefited from the ARA did not fall for Lenin’s trick. On the contrary, they strongly expressed their gratitude to it. In many villages the US grain arrived at Easter time, and it was received with prayers of thanks. Patenaude relates a moving scene when the ARA officials arrived in one village:

Five hundred peasants, the majority of whom were women and children, were kneeling in a large open space in front of a church facing the road, and with outstretched arms in gestures of supplication, and with tears streaming down their faces they cried as they approached: “You are our Saviours. We would die if you did not come. May God bless you and America.”

Easter—Salvation—America: for millions of Russians the three became synonymous in 1922. Children in the streets of Petrograd would shout “Ahra,” meaning “hoorah.” The writer Mikhail Bulgakov, whose brother worked for the ARA in Kiev, suggested: “‘Ara’ is the sun, around which, like the earth, revolves Kiev.” Will Shafroth, an ARA official, was not exaggerating when he told journalists: “America is a holy name in Russia and Americans are regarded as super-beings.”

Colonel Walter Lincoln Bell was one such demigod. A graduate of Brooklyn’s Polytechnic Institute, he served in France during the war, and ended up in charge of an eight-man ARA mission in the remote steppelands of Ufa and Bashkiria. By September 1922, he was feeding 1.6 million adults and children in 2,750 kitchens spread across an area the size of France. Bell was revered by the local people, who showered him with gifts when, eventually, having organized the building of a railway and 270 bridges, he left in 1923. Back in Brooklyn, however, Mrs. Evelyn Bell could not regard her former husband as a hero: he had not paid her alimony for two years.

Patenaude is at his best when he explores the Soviet cult of America. The ARA became a symbol of the business-like efficiency and can-do energy which the Russians had associated with America since pre-revolutionary times. In common Russian speech the phrase “po-amerikanskii” (“in an American style”) came to signify getting something done with speed and precision.

The Bolsheviks were keen to introduce these qualities to Russia, where, as Lenin often said, the lazy, inert spirit of Oblomov reigned. Among supporters of the NEP, the Americanization of the USSR was regarded as the spiritual equivalent of its electrification. As Bukharin put it in 1923, “We need Marxism plus Americanism.”

This was a time when New York symbolized the techno-city of the Soviet future (Mayakovsky, who went to New York in 1925, wrote an epic poem about the Brooklyn Bridge). Lenin encouraged the cults of Henry Ford and Frederick Winslow Taylor, and their theories flourished in the Soviet Union. Even remote villagers knew the name of Henry Ford; some of them believed he was a sort of god who organized the work of the Soviet government.

The ARA had its own ideas about its role in Russia. Its propaganda made a great deal of the contrast between American energy and Russian (“Asiatic”) inertia; and the writings of its officials in Russia were filled with racial stereotypes on these lines. One ARA official commented:

The Russian people are a peculiar people, answering to few of the tests of the Western democracies. They are lethargic except when driven to bay, philosophic, acquiescent to the arbitrary decrees of chance or selfishness as if these were the laws of fate. They are for all the world like a finely ordered electric motor for which the current is wanting, of little value of themselves, functioning when the power is given.

Hoover hoped that the ARA would activate the citizenry of Russia, giving them the energy and organization to overthrow the Soviet government. That did not happen—though not for want of trying by the peasantry, which rose up in revolts across the land.

The ARA began a long tradition of US foreign aid mixed with capitalist politics (today in Russia it continues to exist). Yet the humanitarian achievement of the ARA is undeniable: without US intervention in Russia in 1921, there would have been no harvest of 1922, and that would have meant, by informed estimates, that ten million more people might have died.

The last food shipment from America arrived in Russia in June 1922. Shortly after that the ARA brought its mission to an end. The Bolsheviks sent a short formal note of gratitude to the Americans. But it fell to Maxim Gorky to express the true emotions of the Russian people. On July 30, 1922, he wrote to Hoover:

In all the history of human suffering I know of nothing more trying to the souls of men than the events through which the Russian people are passing, and in the history of practical humanitarianism I know of no accomplishment which in terms of magnitude and generosity can be compared to the relief that you have actually accomplished. Your help will enter history as a unique, gigantic achievement, worthy of the greatest glory, which will long remain in the memory of millions of Russians whom you have saved from death. The generosity of the American people resuscitates the dream of fraternity among people at a time when humanity greatly needs charity and compassion.

This Issue

March 13, 2003