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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 speed with which Hoover’s organization moved into Russia and began operations astonished the Soviet officials assigned to co-operate with it. The first cargo—seven hundred tons of flour, rice, sugar, and milk—reached Petrograd on September 1, 1921; and from then to the end of the work in 1923, a steady procession of ships arrived at Russian ports, bringing all told more than half a million tons of American gifts in food, medicine, and clothing to destitute Soviet citizens. It was distributed over an enormous area by a field staff of two hundred Americans, with the aid of eighty thousand Russians who worked under them in local committees usually headed by a doctor or school teacher; co-operation was excellent.
It is not to be imagined, however, that this vast relief project, in a violently disrupted country, was accomplished without formidable troubles. The halfruined Russian railroads proved incapable for months of handling the influx of American food fast enough, and whole shiploads piled up maddeningly in Russian ports while A.R.A. directors in the famine areas pleaded for them. Again and again entire trains of food were lost for weeks at a time, shunted aside in some forsaken railway yard along the route because of desperate bottlenecks. Frightful conditions of congestion, starvation, disease, filth, and civil disorder were met everywhere; and of course the A.R.A. workers were not immune. All were overworked; many fell sick; one died of typhus; one simply disappeared.
But the most constant and exasperating obstacle was the Soviet government. Devoted to the Marxist dogma that there could be nothing but enmity between capitalist and Communist, and knowing of Hoover’s outspoken distaste for their regime, most of the Kremlin leaders were never quite convinced that the A.R.A. was not an organization bent upon subverting the revolution. “Food is a weapon” was one of the favorite Communist maxims of the time, one which Soviet leaders themselves had not been reluctant to act on. For a long time the Russians who provided liaison between the A.R.A. and the central government were hardly more than a branch of the Cheka (secret police), continually harassing, obstructing, and intimidating in an effort to control the distribution of supplies. Luckily Colonel William Haskell, A.R.A. chief in Russia, stood up to this bedevilment unflinchingly, demanding—and eventually getting—full adherence from the Soviet leaders to the original agreement. An ironic index of his success was that in the early days of the program, the Cheka concentrated on Russians working for the A.R.A. when they embarked on an orgy of arrests; later they were inclined to verify that a man was not working for the Americans before carting him off to jail.
Not all the top-echelon Communists, it should be added, were unfriendly. L. B. Kamenev, a member of the original inner circle around Lenin and Trotsky, strongly supported Haskell whenever a real showdown loomed; and he was the very antithesis of the cartoonist’s Bolshevik. A.R.A. officials found him urbane, courteous, and efficient—a kind of prototype of the hero in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon —and his close co-operation with the Americans probably stood him in poor stead when Stalin had him shot in 1936.
The American relief to Russia in 1921-22 dwarfed that of 1892 in everything except empathy. Not only in magnitude but in scope, it was a far more ambitious undertaking, since it included very extensive medical and sanitary assistance under the direction of American doctors: complete re-equipping of scores of hospitals, for example, and an inoculation campaign that reached eight million Russians. Statistics, picked almost at random, are impressive: America shipped in forty tons of chloroform and ether, fifty-seven tons of castor oil, fifteen tons of aspirin, thirteen hundred sets of surgical instruments, eight million bandages, etc.
It was above all the condition of Soviet children that moved American workers to push their program. “There are 81 children,” read an early A.R.A. report of a visit to an emergency refuge for waifs, “of whom 20 have had typhus and of whom 10 are now ill with it. There are 21 beds, 20 blankets, no bed linen or body linen, no warm clothing, no footwear, and some of the children, although they had been a month in the institution, were literally half-naked.” To see these sick and emaciated youngsters—“ghastly caricatures of childhood” one American called them—recover some measure of health and begin to put on weight at feeding stations was a heartening experience. “More than once,” an A.R.A. man remembered later, “wearied by a discussion with the government representative more futile than usual, I would drop everything and wander out to the nearest A.R.A. kitchen just to look at the children and get back my confidence that it was worth while trying to help them after all.”