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The Great Russian Famine of 1921: When America Heard the Pleas of the Sick and Starving

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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)

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 receiving the plea and signing the Riga Agreement to provide aid, Hoover and his team started to investigate conditions in Russia. They were stunned by the enormous scope of the catastrophe. In the movie Jaws we remember the lead character’s famous line after seeing the gigantic shark, “You’re going to need a bigger boat.” Hoover determined he would need a lot more food and resources for this gargantuan humanitarian emergency. The numbers of famished were absolutely staggering.

Hoover wrote, “We were, in fact, confronted with a famine in about 750,000 square miles of the Volga Valley and 85,000 square miles in the Ukraine. About 25,000,000 people in these regions were in the midst of absolute famine, with death for the whole population of these areas only a few months away.”

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)

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)

One of Hoover’s team wrote upon visiting Orenburg, “dead are seen lying upon the streets of the city and upon roads leading into towns where they soon become a prey to dogs and birds. Sick and starving are collected into homes without facilities to care for them.”

Relief planning and action scaled up. It had to. Colonel William Haskell headed the mission’s headquarters in Moscow. Fundraising efforts began in the United States, including a plea for Congress to finance relief. All this was taking place at a time when the United States was suffering its own internal woes back home with many unemployed. Hoover was actually coordinating aid to out-of-work Americans.

Congress approved aid in the form of purchasing corn from American farmers to send to Russia. Charities in America also answered the call and were assigned districts of Russia in which to carry out relief work. The National Catholic Welfare Council chose Father Edmund A. Walsh to preside over their contributions for fighting the famine. The council went to work in Crimea, Orenburg, Rostov-on-Don, Krasnodar, and some of Moscow. Hoover reported that “Father Walsh’s kitchens were serving daily about 150,000 men, women and children.”

Dr. Boris D. Bogen was one of the lead officers for the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which aided more than one million people in Ukraine and South Russia. Bogen sent a letter to Sidney J. Freiberg in Cincinnati, Ohio. Bogen wrote, “Cincinnatians have never turned a deaf ear to the pleas of the sick and starving. I know that my home city will not fail us now.”

Parts of Bogen’s letter were published in Cincinnati’s Commercial Tribune newspaper in 1922. Also included was a message from the Jewish community in the town of Berdiansk (Berdyansk) in the Ukraine. It read: “We were not always poor. That came to us suddenly. But we hope that we will survive the present historic moment and will be able to repay for the help you have given us. We pinned our hopes on this year’s harvest, but again the crops have suffered from drought and that hope, alas, has vanished.”

The Russian famine was a defining moment in the history and character of America. The United States came to the aid of a country that was ruled by a force that stood against everything that Americans believed. There were millions of lives at stake and America would come to their rescue regardless of political and ideological differences.

Camels were used for the daunting task of hauling food into the snowy interior of Russia (National Archives 200 (S)- ARA-59)

Camels were used for the daunting task of hauling food into the snowy interior of Russia (National Archives 200 (S)- ARA-59)

Boatloads of food crossed the Atlantic on their way to Russian ports. When the ships arrived, there were still tremendous logistical challenges to delivering the food to the hungry, and some were caused by the Communists. Many lives were lost because of transit delays into the interior of Russia.

But American relief workers kept up the fight against hunger and got food through, saving many lives from the deadly famine. As nutrition levels increased, conditions improved for the population. Colonel Henry Beeuwkes of the U.S. Army Medical Corps noted that “food relief extended by the A.R.A. to both adults and children enabled individuals to build up their powers of resistance to disease.”

In 1923 harvests in Russia were restored, and American relief officially withdrew in June of that year. The nightmare of the Russian famine came to an end. The legacy of American humanitarian aid responding to the needs of the hungry and sick worldwide continues.

“The Great Famine” will air on the PBS Series American Experience on Monday, April 11th at 9pm eastern.

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About William Lambers

William Lambers is the author of several books including Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World. This book features over 50 interviews with officials from the UN World Food Programme and other charities discussing school feeding programs that fight child hunger. He is also the author of Nuclear Weapons, The Road to Peace: From the Disarming of the Great Lakes to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Open Skies for Peace, The Spirit of the Marshall Plan: Taking Action Against World Hunger, School Lunches for Kids Around the World, The Roadmap to End Global Hunger, From War to Peace and the Battle of Britain. He is also a writer for the History News Service. His articles have been published by newspapers including the Cincinnati Enquirer, Des Moines Register, the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Buffalo News, San Diego Union Tribune, the Providence Journal, Free Lance-Star (VA), the Bakersfield Californian, the Washington Post, Miami Herald (FL), Chicago Sun-Times, the Patriot Ledger (MA), Charleston Sunday Gazette Mail (WV), the Cincinnati Post, Salt Lake Tribune (UT), North Adams Transcript (MA), Wichita Eagle (KS), Monterey Herald (CA), Athens Banner-Herald (GA) and the Duluth News Journal. His articles also appear on History News Network (HNN) and Think Africa Press. Mr. Lambers is a graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Ohio with degrees in Liberal Arts (BA) and Organizational Leadership (MS). He is also a member of the Feeding America Blogger Council.