Imagine receiving a letter from someone in a faraway land—a personal plea for help. The letter says there are many children desperately in need of food and medicine. You contact various charities and work hard to organize aid. A massive plan is put together to feed one million children.
The relief mission begins in this distant land, and you find your resources barely scratch the surface of the crisis. A much larger hunger problem exists for children and adults. It is a full-scale famine.
Such a scenario actually did take place in 1921 when Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, received a call for help from a prominent Russian writer, Maxim Gorky. It was a plea for "bread and medicine" for children.
Large parts of Russia were suffering through a devastating drought. Already the country was weakened by World War I and the takeover by Communists. Once the drought moved in, crops failed. Communities were out of food.
For many of us, it’s hard to imagine there being no food. Today, if you live in New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, or many other cities and towns, you are practically surrounded by food. There are restaurants and grocery stores around almost every corner—and they keep restocking. In developed countries there is a food supply chain which, though not without problems, pretty much keeps moving.
Severe drought struck Russia in 1921 and many villages ran out of food. (National Archives 200 (-S)-ARA-6) (William C. Lang Collection)
But in 1921 in large parts of Russia, that was not the case. There was practically no food to be found anywhere. People tried to flee to other parts of the country in search of food, with no success. The only recourse was to contact Herbert Hoover and the American Relief Administration, which had provided aid to Europe during and after World War I.
After World War I and during the Russian Famine it was the American Relief Administration (ARA) that fed the hungry. Here is an undated photograph of one of the ARA stations in Russia. Today, the UN World Food Programme is the largest humanitarian aid organization, taking on the current hunger crisis afflicting nearly one billion people worldwide. (National Archives 200 (S)-ARA-19)