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Herbert Hoover and Famine Relief to Soviet Russia, 1921-1923
By Benjamin M. Weissman
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 1974 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
The Politics of Famine Relief
By the early summer of 1921 the peasants of the Volga region knew that they faced a famine year. They prayed for a miracle. All one could do was pray. Even if the rains finally came, it would be too late to plant and harvest a crop. As far back as the oldest peasant could remember, a prolonged drought in the spring meant famine and slow death for millions.
Many believed that God was punishing them for sins committed earlier in the year. But even the most devout knew that the widespread starvation that followed the loss of the crop was in some measure the fault of human authority. Men in power far from the fertile plains of the Volga made decisions that left the peasant with little or no reserve grain to sustain life if the rains failed. In 1891, for instance, when the wheat died in the fields during another drought, the peasants were already nearly destitute. Liberation from serfdom thirty years earlier had not lifted them from poverty. Primitive techniques of agriculture still prevailed throughout Russia. The expense of maintaining the huge tsarist bureaucracy was exacted mainly from the peasants in the form of direct taxes and a series of indirect taxes on vodka, sugar, tobacco, and matches. Added to this burden were the redemption payments — annual installments owed the government for land settled on the peasants in the emancipation edict. Any surplus, whether in cash or in crops, that may have been realized in a good harvest was thus absorbed. The loss of one season's crops confronted the peasant with starvation. In the Volga area, where drought was a constant threat, the peasant eked out his life under a suspended sentence of death.
At first, the government of Alexander III refused to acknowledge the existence of the 1891 famine. The starving peasants found a voice, however, in an appeal to the world for help written by Count Leo Tolstoy. The government responded to the worldwide publicity about the disaster by permitting the organization of private relief activity in the stricken area.
The abdication of the government from direct responsibility for relief of the starving was a political blunder. Famine relief became a training school for reform and revolution. The zemstva(local self-government councils), whose powers had been severely curtailed by a series of special decrees, took on new life in the fight against the famine. Their revival kept active in public life a group that would later press for reform of the autocracy. Famine relief also reactivated certain revolutionary groups that had been paralyzed by official repression after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. This new revolutionary movement was inspired and strengthened by direct contact with the impoverished peasants.
One group of revolutionists — the Marxist "Emancipation of Labor" — seemed strangely insensitive to the plight of the peasants as well as to the political potentialities of famine relief. Georgi Plekhanov, founder and leader of this group, asserted that the proper role for a revolutionary socialist was not to engage in famine relief but to organize the destruction of the system that breeds famines. Among those who agreed with this view was a young Marxist lawyer, Vladimir Ulyanov, who was living in Samara when famine struck the area in 1891. Ulyanov scorned the philanthropic efforts of the local intelligentsia as typically philistine diversions from the primary task of building the revolution.
When famine struck again in 1921, the passage of thirty years had transformed Ulyanov into V. I. Lenin and had elevated him to supreme authority in Russia. Perhaps better than anyone else, Lenin realized the threat that a famine posed to the existence of the Bolshevik regime. As early as March, 1921, he had warned the Tenth Congress of the Russian Communist party:
If there is a crop failure, it will be impossible to appropriate any surplus because there will be no surplus. Food would have to be taken out of the mouths of the peasants. If there is a harvest, then everybody will hunger a little, and the government will be saved; otherwise, since we cannot take anything from people who do not have the means of satisfying their own hunger, the government will perish.
Again, as in 1891, the peasant was helpless against the onslaught of famine, partly because of government policy. Throughout the years of civil war and foreign intervention against the Bolshevik regime, the government had systematically appropriated grain from the peasants by means of special "collection" squads. Several months before the outbreak of the famine, Lenin frankly admitted the harshness of this policy: "The peculiarity of 'war communism' was that we actually took from the peasant his entire surplus, and, sometimes we took not only the surplus but part of his necessary supply in order to meet the expenses of the army and to support the workers."
At Lenin's insistence, the system of forced requisitions was finally replaced by a moderate tax in kind. The change was part of the New Economic Policy (NEP) — a retreat from the rigidities of "war communism." To stimulate the revival of economic activity, especially in agriculture, the regime had decided to permit a limited amount of private enterprise and free trade in farm produce. But for the peasants of the Volga, the change had come too late. There had been no time to pile up reserve stocks. When drought struck, the stage was set for a reenactment of the age-old tragedy of the eastern plains.
THE FAMINE OF 1921
In the spring of 1921, reports of a devastating drought began to circulate in Moscow. Months had passed without rain in the Volga region. On 26 June Pravda carried the grim announcement that a famine worse than that of 1891 was raging in the Volga area. Several days later, Pravda reported that the people in the stricken area were "in mass flight." The prospects for immediate relief were dim. One Soviet economist estimated that the government would be able to muster no more than 20 percent of the food needed to supply the people in two of the starving provinces, Samara and Saratov.
Toward the end of July, the full dimensions of the disaster became apparent. In a series of radio messages intercepted by the American commissioner at Constantinople, the Party leadership in Moscow alerted activists throughout the country to the dangers presented by the famine. The peasants in the Samara region were eating grass, leaves, bark, and clay. The Central Committee of the Communist party urged its members in the area to try to stop panic and migration, "since the flight of the peasants from the affected area will cause the situation to be worse for years to come" and "will ruin entirely our economic life." On 23 July the Central Committee admitted that the situation was desperate: "The Soviet government is unable to help."
The regime withheld official announcement of the famine to the outside world for more than a month after the first reports in Pravda. Finally, on 2 August the government released a formal communique on the famine as a "Note from the Government of the RSFSR [Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic] to the Heads of All Governments." The message, signed by Georgi Chicherin, commissar of foreign affairs, acknowledged the existence of "unusual conditions" in ten Russian provinces inhabited by about eighteen million people. The stricken areas were in immediate need of forty-one million poods [one pood equals about thirty-six pounds] of grain in order to provide half-rations to the rural population. "The starving regions," according to the note, "have no grain stocks with which to relieve the famine, and shipments from other provinces can be only extremely limited." Chicherin admitted that there was some movement of "terror-stricken people" from the drought areas but declared that the "migration has not assumed a character that threatens social order and security in the slightest." He concluded with a cautious appeal for help: "The Soviet government welcomes the help of all providing it does not involve political considerations. We thank all foreign organizations and groups that offered their assistance."
In one part of the communique, Chicherin expressed the hope that the official announcement would "correct a total misunderstanding about the situation in the starving provinces." He evidently had in mind rumors about an imminent collapse of the economy, and possibly of the Soviet authority itself, at least in the famine areas. These rumors were being fed by confusion within Soviet ranks about the famine situation. While members of the Soviet Legation in Warsaw were telling foreign correspondents that conditions in the drought areas were desperate, Izvestia was publishing encouraging reports from the same region. A month later, Soviet officials in Moscow still disagreed about the stand to be taken on the famine. According to the Times(London), one official would attempt to minimize the extent of the suffering, while another would "exaggerate the already sufficient terrible facts."
The British press was the most fruitful source of "terrible facts" about the famine. In 1921, the foreign capitalist press was still barred from Soviet Russia. Because of the presence of a British trade mission in Moscow at the time, however, the London newspapers were able to relay to the world all the horror stories current in the Russian capital. According to one report, people in Moscow were fainting in the streets from hunger. The number of those actually starving was estimated at thirty-five million by the head of the British trade mission.
During the fall and winter of 1921, various relief commissions conducted extensive surveys of the famine regions. The most detailed investigation was carried out by the official Soviet relief agency, the Central Commission for Aid to the Starving (abbreviated in Russian as Pomgol). According to a Pomgol report issued in 1922, seventeen provinces, with an estimated population of over twenty-five million people, were directly affected by the famine in the fall of 1921. The number of those who were actually starving ranged from 55 percent of the population in Perm to 90 percent in Samara. In five provinces of the Ukrainian Republic, 12 percent of the entire population of ten million faced death by starvation in December 1921. This figure rose to 48 percent by April 1922. Nevertheless, by August 1922, over 1,100 carloads of food were shipped from the Ukraine to the eastern provinces of Russia: the contribution of the famine-stricken provinces was 74 carloads.
The first of a series of special representatives sent to Russia by Herbert Hoover gave a much more optimistic report. James P. Goodrich, former governor of Indiana, was commissioned by Hoover in September 1921 to make an independent survey of conditions in Russia with the consent and assistance of the Soviet government. On 1 November 1921, Goodrich reported that European Russia could easily supply the needs of the starving region. He acknowledged that conditions in Kazan, Simbirsk, and Saratov were very bad, but he called some of the accounts in the American press exaggerated and recommended withholding assistance until the Soviet government exhausted all its available resources of food and gold.
An entirely different picture was presented by two top-ranking specialists from Hoover's organization — the American Relief Administration (ARA). After an exhaustive firsthand investigation of conditions in Russia and the Ukraine, they estimated that the drought had reduced the total crop in Russia by about seven million tons; a net deficit of some three million tons within the country was certain. They concluded that outside help was absolutely necessary if disaster was to be averted.
The most pessimistic report of all was issued by Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian who was at that time head of the International Committee for Russian Relief. Nansen estimated that nineteen million people in Russia were facing death from starvation in 1921 and that ten to twelve million would certainly die if substantial outside help were not obtained.
In 1922, the League of Nations issued a comprehensive report on the famine. According to this report, agriculture throughout Russia had declined to a dangerous level by the time the drought struck. Years of war, counterrevolutionary struggle, blockade, and boycott had aggravated a shortage of farm equipment and railway cars. The division of farm acreage into small holdings after the Revolution had led to a regression to primitive methods of cultivation. The shortage of manufactured goods brought on by the hasty nationalization of industry had virtually destroyed the market for farm products and thus reduced the peasant's incentive to increase cultivation and sowing.
The final blow was the requisition policy pursued by the Bolshevik government during the Civil War. The area under cultivation shrank to 70 percent of the average sown during the five years immediately preceding World War I. The reduction in the Volga region was even greater. According to the League report, the effect of the drought under these circumstances was to bring on the worst famine to strike Europe in modern times. The number of deaths directly attributable to hunger and disease in the famine areas was estimated at one to three million.
The actual extent of the famine will probably never be known. Most contemporary observers, however, agreed that between ten and thirty million people faced starvation and that the government had neither the resources nor the organizational capability to cope with the disaster.
To the Bolshevik regime, the famine posed one of the most crucial challenges since the seizure of power in 1917. The tight discipline of the Civil War years had already become dangerously attenuated. The government frankly admitted widespread disaffection.
Parallel with the dissatisfaction of the peasant there is increased discontent on the part of the workers, who were starving when there was actually bread in the villages. As a result, there is a decline in manufactured goods; factories are standing idle; there is poor work; we can see failure of our economic plans and a deterioration in the international situation.
Even within the Party, the vanguard of the working class, a decline in morale in the face of these great problems is noticeable here and there....
Lenin's prophecy that the government would fall if there were a crop failure was not unrealistic. The abortive 1921 uprising of the garrison in the devoutly revolutionary city of Kronstadt had served warning that Bolshevik rule was not yet secure. But as long as the government still commanded the loyalty of the Red Army, the Cheka(internal security forces), and Party activists throughout the country, there was little danger that the starving peasants in the famine areas could mount a successful revolt against the regime. The real menace to stable rule was the serious disruption of the natural and social environments.
Hunger-crazed peasants were beginning to leave their homes by the thousands, frequently abandoning their children to certain death. Vidkun Quisling, at that time a member of Nansen's staff, reported that he had spoken with peasants who had eaten their own children, sisters, or brothers. An ARA supervisor declared that cannibalism was widespread in his area.
During a famine, however, cannibalism is less destructive than the consumption of horses and cats. The slaughter of horses reduces the possibility of effective plowing for a new crop. The disappearance of cats causes a sharp increase in the rodent population and thus in the incidence of rat-borne diseases.
Famine reaches disaster level when the starving muster their last energies to flee to other areas. This eliminates the last hope of a new crop. The refugees rapidly drain the resources of nonfamine areas; hoarding increases; food supplies disappear. Famine and pestilence sweep across new areas, reducing even further the number of plowers and sowers upon whom ultimate rescue depends. As the process continues, the possibility of reversing it diminishes. Family ties, social loyalties, and finally the authority of government fall away. A regime that manages somehow to maintain its rule becomes indeed "lord of the flies."
Excerpted from Herbert Hoover and Famine Relief to Soviet Russia, 1921-1923 by Benjamin M. Weissman. Copyright © 1974 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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