Ninety years ago, Russia experienced a famine that was one of the greatest human disasters in Europe since the Black Death of the mid-14th century. In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent Civil War, a terrible famine devastated Russia and for two years (1921-22) hunger and disease spread rapidly across the country from the major cities in the West to the Pacific Coast.
Most people, including Russians and Americans, have little knowledge of this famine and the American relief effort that was extended to Russia, despite the hostility that existed between the two countries after the Communist Party toppled the Romanov dynasty. It is a little known fact that Herbert Hoover, head of the American Relief Administration (ARA) at that time, managed an emergency food program that saved more lives than any person in history.
The Story Now Told
Stanford University Professor Bertrand Patenaude did years of research to document this amazing feat by the American government coming right on the heels of the end of World War I. The author’s hero is Herbert Hoover, who is often criticized for his early Depression-era presidency. Hoover, a Stanford graduate who earned a degree in geology and later traveled the world as a mining engineer, was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson’s administration to help organize relief efforts for 7 million Belgians who were living under German occupation. Once the war ended, the United States was asked to feed millions of people in 21 war-torn countries and Hoover was invited to lead the newly created American Relief Administration.
In July 1921, Herbert Hoover received a plea for food aid from the Russian novelist, Maxim Gorky — a plea sent to other Western nations as well — and Hoover responded immediately with a promise of support. Hoover and his colleagues, however, were not prepared for what they discovered about the new Soviet Union. While the famine that began in 1921 resulted from the destruction from the First World War and the subsequent violence of the revolution and the civil war that followed, it was made worse when the Bolshevik leadership began a mass requisitioning of grain. As the rural areas were stripped of their grain, the death toll rapidly mounted and 100,000 people a week died. Soviet estimates from the 1920s claim that somewhere between 5-10 million people lost their lives in the famine.
The first American relief ships arrived in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) in September 1921, and the relief workers were some of the first foreigners to witness the devastation caused by the 1917 revolution and the civil war that followed. They were shocked to find a badly fractured railway system, a mistrustful Bolshevik government that spied on American relief workers, and famine that was threatening the lives of up to 16 million people by the winter of 1921.
The “Hoover Boys”
When Hoover realized the extent of the crisis and heard widespread reports of cannibalism, he convinced the U.S. Congress to approve the purchase of $20 million worth of corn and wheat to feed starving Russians. Over 300 relief workers, called the “Hoover Boys,” arrived in the Soviet Union to assess the food needs and logistical challenges, and to build storehouses for the millions of bushels of corn and tons of seed which began to arrive in early 1922 and were shipped across the Russian heartland.
By August 1922, the ARA and its “Hoover Boys” were feeding nearly 11 million Russians a day in 19,000 food kitchens. The ARA also hired 120,000 Soviet citizens to help distribute the food. One survivor said: “People used to call that food ‘America,’ so we were handed out ‘America’ . . . My father used to say, ‘See, the Americans did the right thing, sent us help.’”
In July 1922, Maxim Gorky wrote Hoover to praise him for this remarkable relief effort. He wrote: “Your help will enter history as a unique, gigantic achievement, worthy of the greatest glory, which will long remain in the memory of millions of Russians who you have saved from death.” But that, of course, did not happen. Soviet leaders wanted to forget this tragic episode in their history and subsequently accused the Americans of sending spies into Russia to commit sabotage under the guise of kindness.
Professor Patenaude spent 14 years researching this forgotten piece of Russian-American history and his book, The Big Show in Bololand (which is what the “Hoover Boys” liked to call Bolshevik Russia), lays out this remarkable humanitarian effort, a relief mission largely unknown to the people of both countries.