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Feeding Russia

June 2024
5min read

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.

A relief campaign might help speed the process. The possibility of using food as a weapon was highlighted when Hoover laid down both domestic and foreign conditions for his program. Soviet officials had first to release about one hundred Americans held as prisoners on one charge or another, and to refrain from any interference with ARA personnel as relief was distributed “without regard to race, religion, or social or political status.” Meaning that the Russians could not deny food to suspected opponents.

At home Hoover brought together a number of charitable organizations under the ARA umbrella, including the American Friends Service Committee, the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee, the American Red Cross, the YMCA and YWCA, and Lutheran, Baptist, and Catholic welfare organizations. But he pointedly excluded a number of other fund-raising committees that were sympathetic to the Soviets.

Hoover talked the conservative Congress of the United States into putting up some $20 million and got the Army and Navy to spring some $4 million’s worth of surplus medicines from their unused wartime stockpiles. In addition, Hoover made the Russians contribute some $11 million of their own in gold.

That was big money for the time, and it sustained big operations. In two years the ARA shipped more than 700,000 tons of food, clothing, and medicine to the stricken regions. A staff of two hundred, under the direction of Col. William Haskell, oversaw the distribution of mountains of rice, corn, flour, sugar, and milk, aspirin and chloroform, vaccine and blankets, shoes and delousing powder.

It was no picnic. The Samaritans had to contend with transportation breakdowns, foul weather, losses, thefts, and hassling by Soviet policemen, spies, and bureaucrats—as well as loneliness, cold, and disease. At least one died of typhus. But the job was impressively done. Estimates are that some 10.5 million Russians were fed at 18,000 emergency shelters. Fully 8 million children were inoculated. In regions where the dead had lain in the streets and the half-naked living had fought one another for the carcasses of frozen household pets or chewed thatch torn from their roofs, life was restored.

The staunchly anticommunist Hoover’s brilliant relief campaign helped preserve the Bolshevik revolution.

The Russians of 1923 were not ungrateful. Official thanks came at a Moscow banquet for ARA chiefs at which Hoover got a scroll of thanks signed by Lev B. Kamenev, president of the Council of People’s Commissars. It expressed gratitude from “the millions of people who have been saved as well as the whole working people of Soviet Russia,” and declared that “the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics never will forget the aid rendered to them … holding it to be a pledge of the future friendship of the two nations.”

It would be lovely to stop there. But only three years later the Large Soviet Encyclopedia pooh-poohed the ARA effort, minimized the number of Russians helped, and understated the amount of American relief money by 98 percent—crediting the ARA with spending about $1.5 million instead of the $60 million actually laid out. Its second edition, in 1950, listed the episode as one of the efforts by “the capitalist world” to do in the U.S.S.R.

Hoover, as Secretary of Commerce, did nothing to discourage the efforts of American companies to help build Russian industry. But when he himself was elected President in 1928, as just the kind of efficient, nonpolitical progressive businessman the country needed, he refused diplomatic recognition to the Bolsheviks.

Then came the onslaught of the Depression. Deeply and sincerely convinced that American character, local initiative, and private benevolence would be harmed by handouts and make-work projects, Hoover fought off calls for federal relief programs, and across the country ragged men in tent cities called “Hoovervilles” learned to think of the humanitarian as a hardhearted supporter of the status quo. Seldom has a reputation been reversed so swiftly.

Yet in both feeding the hungry abroad and refusing federal help to them at home, Hoover was true to basic American convictions—and contradictions—of his time. There are richer ironies too. His work helped to preserve the Bolshevik revolution for Stalin to capture.

But we have no assurance that a Bolshevik collapse in 1921 would necessarily have been followed by something more benign—not in the decade that saw the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. And we do know that 10 million or more Russians who might have perished lived instead. That itself may be the best reason to look with kindness on proposals to feed the Russians.

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