- Historic Sites
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
The Missouri ’s, cargo was the most representative shipment of breadstuff from America to Russia during the great famine of 1891-92, since it was made up of contributions from more than half the states in the Union. There were other ships to come, however—the Conemaugh , Philadelphia’s second, in April; the Tynehead , carrying three thousand tons of corn collected by the women of Iowa, in May; and the Leo , in June, bearing a smaller load of flour gathered under the auspices of The Christian Herald . It cannot be said that the American gifts went far toward averting the total effect of the famine—their value was estimated at around $700,000—yet there is no doubt that thousands of peasants owed their survival to spontaneous American fellow feeling. It was a sympathy widely appreciated among Russians, and when in 1893 two of the Czar’s warships visited New York and Philadelphia in connection with the Columbian Exposition, they brought a message of gratitude from the Czar and richly wrought gifts in silver for those who had led the American famine-relief drives.
It is somehow incredible that only one generation separated the famishing Russian peasants of 1891-92 from those of 1921-22, when American aid again came notably to the rescue. Fantastic changes had enveloped the world in that one generation, and nowhere were they more fantastic than in Russia. Yet the probability is that many of the adult peasants whom American food saved from starvation in 1922 had been saved before, as children, in 1892, for the center of the famine area was again along the Volga basin.
The natural causes of Russia’s distress in 1921-22 were the same as those of thirty years earlier—a blistering drought, followed by an unusually cold winter —but now these were starkly assisted by the aftermath of World War I and the civil war between the Reds and the Whites. The loss of millions of peasant farmers who had gone off to serve and die in the various armies had already reduced grain production by twenty-five per cent, and the Bolsheviks’ ruthless policy of “military communism,” whereby food was forcefully taken from the peasants whenever necessary, further interfered with normal production: there was, in effect, an agricultural strike. Transportation also broke down severely, pestilence swept across the land, and the Communist leaders saw their social experiment threatened by economic paralysis and starvation.
Although loath to ask for aid from the hated capitalist world, the men of the Kremlin suspected that if the Soviet nation was to weather the winter, help must come from outside. They therefore permitted Maxim Gorky, the well-known writer, to issue an appeal through the Western press in July, 1921, describing the famine’s extent and asking “all honest European and American people” for bread and medicine.
Fortunately, America this time had ready for action an extraordinarily efficient volunteer relief organization, designed for just such emergencies and possessed of equipment, experienced personnel, and some funds for current operations in Europe. The American Relief Administration, under Herbert Hoover, was world-famous for its work in Belgium and twenty-two other countries. Hoover, although he took a very dim view of communism, promptly answered with an offer to bring food, clothing, and medicine to a million Russian children. The chief strings attached were that the Soviet authorities must permit impartial distribution of these supplies under the direct supervision of American officials who were to move freely about Russia for that purpose, and that, since the A.R.A. was supported by voluntary contributions from American citizens, about one hundred Americans then held by the Communists must be released. To these conditions the Soviet leaders finally agreed, and within a month after Gorky’s appeal, A.R.A. workers and food were moving toward Russia.
Even more than in 1892, however, there were people back home who balked at the idea of aiding a government so unfriendly to the principles of American democracy. The. great Red scare of 1920 was by no means over, and in thousands of households the word “Bolshevik” conjured up a shocking image of a bearded cutthroat with a smoking bomb in his bloody hand. Yet Hoover’s survey of conditions in Russia now indicated that unless millions of children were to be allowed to die in misery, about fifty million dollars more of American funds would be needed.
It is a considerable trophy for Hoover’s political and administrative record that this large amount was raised in time to save the lives of at least ten million Russians. Where Congress had refused one hundred thousand dollars for Russian relief in 1892, it was adroitly nudged into appropriating twenty million in 1921, despite speeches in the House closely echoing the complaints of the earlier day. Hoover had anticipated congressional opposition and was ready with eyewitness testimony, from investigators of immaculate reputation, as to the state of things in Russia; he also made sure that the advantage to American farmers of twenty million dollars spent on American grain was not underemphasized. At the same time he had his assistants—one of them was Christian A. Herter—look around for ways to supplement this sum. The huge war surplus of medical supplies in the hands of the Army and Navy beckoned, and Congress authorized the use of four million dollars’ worth for Russia. About twenty-five million dollars more was contributed by private American citizens through charitable organizations, to be used by the A.R.A.