Bread Upon The Waters
Twice in one generation we kept Russia from starving; the Kremlin plays it down, but the people we fed remember—and history will not forget
August 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 5
Having arrived at St. Petersburg, the American adventurers found the city a little disconcerting in view of their charitable mission. Life seemed to be going on at a prosperous clip. Up and down the Nevski Prospekt pranced innumerable horses pulling sleek clroshkies and troikas in which sat well-fed, fur-clad citizens; shops, theaters, and cafés were in full operation, and it was difficult to believe that millions were starving anywhere in the realm of which this was the gay capital. At the same time they heard disturbing stories about the calloused inadequacy of the Czar and the Russian nobility in meeting the famine emergency; it was rumored that for months the emperor had refused to acknowledge the existence of a famine, so that speculators had been allowed to export millions of pounds of grain in the fall of 1891—reserves that could have been used to save thousands of lives.
While this appalling story was confirmed by the American minister, Charles Emory Smith, when Edgar and Phelps called on him shortly after their arrival, they were at least grimly reassured to hear that the famine was no illusion: the shipload of American flour, due at Libau on April 3, would be welcome indeed. In the worst-afflicted areas along the Volga River far to the east, thousands were dying every day of hunger, typhus, and smallpox. The suffering, Smith lold them, was horribly intensified by the rare severity of the winter that still hovered over the frozen steppes: many peasants had sold all their fuel and most of their clothing for food. But Smith also defended the Czar and the nobles, pointing out that eventually the emperor had forbidden further grain exports and earmarked 150,000,000 rubles for relief, while hundreds of the nobility had gone out to the famine districts to work among the starving, sustaining thousands with food purchased from their own pockets. Pre-eminent among these was Count Leo Tolstoi—although his intransigent attitude toward his own class, whom he blamed for the peasants’ misery more than drought and plague, was not emulated by many.
It was the well-born Samaritans working with the peasants in soup kitchens and feeding stations to whom most of the Missouri ’s burden was consigned after being unloaded at Libau early in April. Since the Indiana had preceded the Missouri by several weeks, a system of equitable distribution to the most needy districts had already been worked out, and Edgar and Phelps found they had little to do but enjoy the accolades of their hosts. A series of ceremonies and dinners began even before the harbor lighters had finished unloading: the bursting of rockets from Russian ships at anchor was echoed by the popping of champagne corks ashore, while the American envoys were welcomed with almost embarrassing enthusiasm. It was to be, on a small scale, a counterpart of the dazzling round of entertainment proffered by the New York society to the officers of the Russian fleet in 1863.
When the first trainload of American flour was ready for the interior, its engine decked with Russian and American flags, there was a solemn church ritual, complete with holy water for blessing the sacks, and a bearded male choir. The service over, each of the American and Russian officials hoisted a sack of flour into the last car; the car was sealed; and a military band shifted gracefully from “God Keep the Czar” to “Hail Columbia.” The locomotive puffed ponderously away, and the officers of the local regiment, somewhat transported, tossed the surprised Americans to their shoulders and paraded them up and down to tremendous applause from a crowd of a thousand spectators. There followed teas, receptions, luncheons, and an elaborate dinner, attended by various Russian dignitaries, and the American consul general, at which the band played a Russo-American march composed just lor the occasion: “Fraternity.”
Possibly feeling a little guilty from all this festivity, Edgar arranged a few days later to tour one of the famine districts not far from Moscow. It was not so .sorely afflicted as, for example, Samara, farther cast, where he might have witnessed death keeping its appointments in every village every day, or roving hands of gaunt and homeless children whose parents had died in the typhus epidemic. But it was enough Io convince him that the famine had not been exaggerated, and he tempered his satisfaction at the sight of American flour being made into wholesome loaves at several feeding stations by collecting some gruesome samples of local “hunger bread”—concocted of ground straw, dead grass, bark, weeds—to take back with him.