Russian famine of 1921–1922
The Russian famine of 1921–1922, also known as the Povolzhye famine, was a severe famine in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic which began early in the spring of 1921 and lasted through 1922.
This famine killed an estimated 5 million people, primarily affecting the Volga and Ural River regions, and peasants resorted to cannibalism. The famine resulted from the combined effects of economic disturbance because of the Russian Revolution and Russian Civil War, exacerbated by rail systems that could not distribute food efficiently.
One of Russia's intermittent droughts in 1921 aggravated the situation to a national catastrophe. Hunger was so severe that it was likely seed-grain would be eaten rather than sown. At one point, relief agencies had to give food to railroad staff to get their supplies moved.
Before the famine began, Russia had suffered three and a half years of World War I and the Civil Wars of 1918–1920, many of the conflicts fought inside Russia. There were an estimated 7–12 million casualties during the Russian Civil War, mostly civilians.
Before the famine, all sides in the Russian Civil Wars of 1918–21—the Bolsheviks, the Whites, the Anarchists, the seceding nationalities—had provisioned themselves by seizing food from those who grew it, giving it to their armies and supporters, and denying it to their enemies. The Bolshevik government had requisitioned supplies from the peasantry for little or nothing in exchange. This led peasants to drastically reduce their crop production. The rich peasants (kulaks) withheld their surplus grain to sell on the black market. In 1920, Lenin ordered increased emphasis on food requisitioning from the peasantry.
Aid from outside Soviet Russia was initially rejected. The American Relief Administration (ARA), which Herbert Hoover formed to help the victims of starvation of World War I, offered assistance to Lenin in 1919, on condition that they have full say over the Russian railway network and hand out food impartially to all. Lenin refused this as interference in Russian internal affairs.
Lenin was eventually convinced—by this famine, the Kronstadt rebellion, large scale peasant uprisings such as the Tambov Rebellion, and the failure of a German general strike—to reverse his policy at home and abroad. He decreed the New Economic Policy on March 15, 1921. The famine also helped produce an opening to the West: Lenin allowed relief organizations to bring aid this time. War relief was no longer required in Western Europe, and the ARA had an organization set up in Poland, relieving the Polish famine which had begun in the winter of 1919–20.
Scope and duration
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The early 1920s saw a series of famines. The first famine in the USSR happened in 1921–1923 and garnered wide international attention. The most affected area being the Southeastern areas of European Russia, including Volga region. An estimated 16 million people may have been affected and up to 5 million died.
In the summer of 1921, during one of the worst famines in history, Vladimir Lenin, head of the new Soviet government, along with Maxim Gorky, appealed in an open letter to "all honest European and American people", to "give bread and medicine". In an open letter to all nations, dated 13 July 1921, Gorky described the crop failure which had brought his country to the brink of starvation. Herbert Hoover, who would later become the U.S. President, responded immediately, and negotiations with Russia took place at the Latvian capital, Riga. A European effort was led by the famous Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen through the International Committee for Russian Relief (ICRR)
Hoover's ARA had already been distributing food aid throughout Europe since 1914. After the Germans invaded Belgium in 1914, Hoover set up the Belgian Relief committee to alleviate the devastation and starvation that followed. As World War I expanded, the ARA grew, when it next entered northern France, assisting France and Germany from 1914 to 1919. In 1920 and 1921 it provided one meal a day to 3.2 million children in Finland, Estonia, various Russian regions, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, and Armenia. When it began its emergency feeding operation in Russia, it planned to feed about one million Russian children for a full year. Other bodies such as the American Friends Service Committee, the British Friends' War Victims Relief Committee and the International Save the Children Union, with the British Save the Children Fund as the major contributor, also later took part. As historian Douglas Smith writes, the food relief would likely help "save communist Russia from ruin".
The United States of America was the first country to respond, with Hoover appointing Colonel William N. Haskell to direct the American Relief Administration (ARA) in Russia. Within a month, ships loaded with food were headed for Russia. The main contributor to the international relief effort would be the American Relief Administration (ARA), founded and directed by Hoover. Although it had agreed to provide food for a million people, mostly children, within a year it was feeding more than 10 times that number daily.
The ARA insisted it have complete autonomy as to how the food would be distributed, stating its requirement that food would be given without regard to "race, creed or social status", a condition stated in Section 25 of the Riga agreement. U.S. spokesmen said they would also want to have storage facilities built in Russia, wrote journalist Charles Bartlett, and would expect to have full access to those to assure that food was distributed properly.[a]
Hoover also demanded that Russia use some of its gold holdings to defray the cost of the relief effort. He secured $18 million from the Russian leadership, $20 million from the U.S. Congress, $8 million from the U.S. military, and additional money from U.S. charities, to arrive at a total of approximately $78 million from all those sources. After an agreement was finally signed at Riga, the U.S. set up its first kitchen in Petrograd, where 1.6 million people had already starved to death.
For almost two years now a scant two hundred Americans, on a battle line far longer than the western front, have been fighting a foe more pitiless than any the allied armies faced. From the Baltic to the Caspian Sea, from the Crimea to the Urals, they have conquered the famine, saved more lives than were lost in the World War, healed a sorely-suffering people of the diseases which threatened to sweep the whole of Europe, won the benedictions of a great, but stricken, nation, achieved the world's greatest adventure in humanity!
W. Howard Ramsey, newspaper editor
Over 10 million people were fed daily, with the bulk of food coming from the ARA. The ARA had provided more than 768 million tons of flour, grain, rice, beans, pork, milk, and sugar, with a value at the time of over $98 million. In order to transport and distribute the food after it was collected in the U.S., the ARA used 237 ships, under the direction of 200 Americans, and with the help of 125,000 Russians on location, unloading, warehousing, hauling, weighing, cooking and serving the food in more than 21,000 newly established kitchens.
But even after the food had reached the people in need, Col. Haskell, informed Hoover of an unexpected new danger. He explained that fuel was unavailable for heating or cooking, and millions of Russian peasants had clothing consisting mostly of rags, which would lead to certain death from cold exposure during the approaching winter.
The children at risk included those in orphanages and other institutions, as they usually had only one garment, often made of flour sacks, and they lacked shoes, stockings, underclothing or any clothing to keep warm. Also at risk were children living at home with their parents, who also lacked enough clothing, which made them unable to reach the American relief kitchens. Col. Haskell cabled Mr. Hoover that at least one million children were in extreme need of clothes. In response, Hoover quickly initiated a plan for collecting and sending clothing packages to Russia, which would come from donations by individuals, businesses, and banks.
Medical needs were also paramount. As noted by Dr. Henry Beeuwkes, the chief of the Medical Division in Russia, American relief was supplying over 16,000 hospitals which were treating more than a million persons daily. Because those institutions were scattered over areas with few railroads and often poor roads, with some hospitals over a thousand miles from the main supply base in Moscow, the task was monumental. Dr. Louis L. Shapiro, an army colonel who was one of the ARA's medical directors in Russia, recalled that south Russia had little more than "mud ruts for roads, with limitless prairies." On one trip, with few car necessities or regular gas, he drove 150 miles on tires without inner tubes, instead stuffed with straw. "After our kitchens were established and our clinics able to distribute medical supplies," said Shapiro, "children who had been eating a diet of clay and leather scrapings, responded quite rapidly."
According to Dr. Beeuwkes, everything was in short supply, including beds, blankets, sheets, and most medical tools and medicines. Operations were performed in unheated operating rooms without anesthetics, and often with bare hands. Wounds were dressed with newspapers or rags. Water supplies were polluted with much of the plumbing unusable.
To help the widespread medical emergency, the ARA distributed medical supplies which included over 2,000 different necessities, from medicines to surgical instruments. Overall, there were 125,000 medical packages, weighing 15 million pounds, sent on 69 different ships. According to Dr. Shapiro, when the ARA left Russia in 1923, after two years of relief efforts, "the Russians had been pulled out of the slough of famine and death. I can say without boasting that no relief organization ever worked so hard to complete its task."
In May 1922, Lev Kamenev, President of the Moscow soviet, and deputy chairman of all Russian famine relief committees, wrote a letter to Col. Haskell, thanking him and the ARA for its help, while also paying tribute to the American people.
The government of the Russian nation will never forget the generous help that was afforded them in the terrible calamity and dangers visited upon them...I wish to express, on behalf of the Soviet government, my satisfaction and thanks to the American Relief Administration, through your person, for the substantial support which they are offering to the calamity stricken population of the Volga area.
By the summer of 1923, it was estimated that the U.S. relief given to Russia amounted to over twice the total of relief given it by all other foreign organizations combined. European agencies co-ordinated by the ICRR also fed two million people a day, while the International Save the Children Union fed up to 375,000. The operation was hazardous—several workers died of cholera—and was not without its critics, including the London Daily Express, which first denied the severity of the famine, and then argued that the money would better be spent in the United Kingdom.
Throughout 1922 and 1923, as famine was still widespread and the ARA was still providing relief supplies, grain was exported by the Soviet government to raise funds for the revival of industry; this seriously endangered Western support for relief. The new Soviet government insisted that if the AYA suspended relief the ARA arrange a foreign loan for them of about $10,000,000 1923 dollars; the ARA was unable to do this, and continued to ship in food past the grain being sold abroad.
|America's Contribution to the Russian Famine Relief Effort|
|Children fed daily||4,173,339|
|Adults fed daily||6,317,958|
|Maximum number fed daily||10,491,297|
|Number of meals served||1,750,000,000|
|Number of separate kitchens opened||21,435|
|Medical supplies value||$7,685,000|
|Hospitals provided with supplies||16,400|
|Number of inoculations given||6,396,598|
|Number of vaccinations given||1,304,401|
|Tons of food provided||912,121|
|Tons of medical supplies provided||7,500|
|Number of U.S. ships used||237|
As with other large-scale famines, the range of estimates is considerable. An official Soviet publication of the early 1920s concluded that about five million deaths occurred in 1921 from famine and related disease: this number is usually quoted in textbooks. More conservative figures counted not more than a million, while another assessment, based on the ARA's medical division, spoke of two million. On the other side of the scale, some sources spoke of ten million dead. According to Bertrand M. Patenaude, "such a number hardly seems extravagant after the many tens of millions of victims of war, famine, and terror in the twentieth century".
Fridtjof Nansen's journey to the famine regions of Russia, 1921
Children's corpses collected on a wagon in Samara, 1921
Starving Russian girl in Buguruslan, 1921
Victims of the 1921 famine during the Russian Civil War
The famine came at the end of six and a half years of unrest and violence (first World War I, then the two Russian revolutions of 1917, then the Russian Civil War). Many different political and military factions were involved in those events, and most of them have been accused by their enemies of having contributed to, or even bearing sole responsibility for, the famine.
The Bolsheviks started a campaign of seizing church property in 1922. In that year over 4.5 million golden roubles of property were seized. Out of these, one million gold roubles were spent for famine relief. In a secret March 19, 1922 letter to the Politburo, Lenin expressed an intention to seize several hundred million golden roubles for famine relief.
In Lenin's secret letter to the Politburo, Lenin explains that the famine provides an opportunity against the church. Richard Pipes argued that the famine was used politically as an excuse for the Bolshevik leadership to persecute the Orthodox Church, which held significant sway over much of the peasant populace.
Russian anti-Bolshevik white émigrés in London, Paris, and elsewhere also used the famine as a media opportunity to highlight the iniquities of the Soviet regime in an effort to prevent trade with and official recognition of the Bolshevik Government.
- 1921 Mari wildfires
- 1921–1922 famine in Tatarstan
- Kazakh famine of 1919–1922
- Famines in Russia and the USSR
- Fram (play)
- List of famines
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- Soviet famine of 1946–1947
- American Relief Administration
- At a conference in Geneva on 15 August organised by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the League of Red Cross Societies, the International Committee for Russian Relief (ICRR) was set up with Dr. Fridtjof Nansen as its High Commissioner. Nansen headed to Moscow, where he signed an agreement with Soviet Foreign Minister Georgy Chicherin that left the ICRR in full control of its operations. At the same time, fundraising for the famine relief operation began in earnest in Britain, with all the elements of a modern emergency relief operation—full-page newspaper advertisements, local collections, and a fundraising film shot in the famine area. By September, a ship had been despatched from London carrying 600 tons of supplies. The first feeding centre was opened in October in Saratov.
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