Feeding Russia

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Good news and bad news come hurrying on each other’s heels these days. It was heartening, during last summer’s failed coup in the Soviet Union, to discover that the idea of democracy had dug itself in so deeply in the Soviet Union in the short time that it has been allowed an aboveground existence. But the latest headlines from Moscow sound a dire note. Freedom, this winter, may simply mean the license to starve—unless there is help.

Russian leaders are asking desperately for assistance in forestalling possible famine, and even hardline American anticommunists willing to let ordinary people go hungry just to prove the horrors of socialized agriculture are not immune to pragmatic arguments in favor of giving aid—arguments such as the need to avoid despair, discord, chaos, anarchy, and dictatorship in the “new” Russia, which will help no one. Or arguments such as the creation of a nice outlet for American food surpluses. Or the benefits of having an established and friendly American presence when Russia re-enters world markets.

After all, we did it before on just that mix of charitable and hardheaded motivation. At the very birth of the Soviet government, American gifts kept millions of Russian citizens from death by starvation and disease—and perhaps saved the infant revolution.

What’s more, that rescue operation was the second lifesaving gift of bread in thirty years. American grain donations had bailed out the czarist government during a bitter famine in 1892. Both episodes were part of a long, strange love-hate relationship between America and Russia, which is examined in this issue.

The second episode is the most interesting. For one thing, it frames a fearful symmetry, with famine bracketing the beginning and the end of the Soviet experiment. For another, it helped to create an American President, Herbert Hoover, by enhancing his reputation as a great world humanitarian—a reputation that, ironically, was soiled by his apparent indifference to suffering at home during the Great Depression. There is talk now that George Bush may suffer a similar fate.

But to the story. In the spring of 1921 the young Bolshevik government was confronted with the possibility of widespread starvation. War under the czar, then revolution, then civil war between Red and White armies had gutted the country, and to top it off, new planting was discouraged by forced collectivization.

A shortfall in the grain harvest was the last straw. Millions faced death by hunger, cold, and disease for which medicines were not available. So, swallowing his pride, Lenin allowed a public appeal for foreign aid. It would have to be in large part American aid, since Europe was still scarred and suffering from the recent war.

It was not an easy thing for him to ask, nor was the request likely to fall on sympathetic ears. In 1918 and 1919 the Bolsheviks had proclaimed that their takeover in Russia was the first step in an imminent worldwide revolution. They had declared war on the “bourgeois” governments of the world, repudiated Russia’s foreign debts, and canceled her treaties. Lenin described the new Russia as “a lone island in the stormy seas of imperialist robbery.”

Now he had to put the world revolution on hold and ask favors of the “robbers.” How could he possibly expect that they would help him? But he did, by relying not only on American generosity but on capitalist economics too. Russia had gold, timber, and minerals to sell, and there were also good possibilities for profit in helping her rebuild and modernize a “backward” economy. The prospect of trade and sweet deals for U.S. corporations would override the political objections of the American business classes by shoring up the communist government. And so it proved.

The United States had both an organization and a man ready to step in. The American Relief Administration (ARA) had been created by the government shortly after the armistice to help feed and rehabilitate Europe. Its director, Herbert Hoover, was the very quintessence of American capitalism and humanitarianism and anticommunism. In 1921, at forty-seven, he was also strategically positioned as Harding’s Secretary of Commerce.

Hoover, born to a blacksmith in West Branch, Iowa, had become a mining engineer after graduating from Stanford University, made a million in global mineral enterprises by the age of forty, and had begun to devote himself to good works. He was tapped to administer a big program of war relief for occupied Belgium, then became our Food Administrator in World War I. He specialized in organizing and coordinating huge programs of production, conservation, and distribution of foodstuffs; he understood and spoke the new century’s language of global transfers, multimillion-dollar transactions, and epic mobilizations of men and machines. He was a match for the task.

He also considered Bolshevism and its “tyranny” to be “the negation of democracy,” a threat to the spiritual strength and individualism that Americans exemplified. But he had no thought of letting a famine run its course in hopes that it would induce Lenin’s collapse. He welcomed a chance to feed the people of Russia and to sustain their hopes for the inevitable day when Bolshevism’s failures would destroy it from within.