Russian Civil War: Famine--American Relief Mission (1921-23)

Figure 1.-- Here we see a French press photo about the American effiort to feed starving Russians after the Civil War. As in the rest of Europe, the Americans placed a special emphasis on feeding children. The press caption read, "La Famine en Russie: N.P.M. a Petrograd (actuelle Lenningrad), en 1922, de jeunes enfants viennent de recevoir de la nourriture de M. Shelby, M. Sander, delegue de l'American Food Commission in Russia (Comite d'Aide Americain pour la Russie Affamee). Famine in Russia: N.P.M. In Petrograd (now Lenningrad), in 1922, young children had just received food from Mr. Shelby and Mr. Sander, delegate of the American Food Commission in Russia (American Aid Committee for Russia Affamee).

The famine in Russia has been described as one of the greatest human disasters in Europe since the Bubonic Plague (13th century). The effort in Russia was different than the earlier effort in Russia. The Bolsheviks were committed to defeating Wesrernm capitalism and democracy. It stands as the first time in human history that any country has ever prevented an enmeny nation from starving. [Patenaude]. The American relief mission to Russia like the effort in Europe was overseen by Herbert Hoover. Even before the ARA effort in Russia began, Hoover had already probably saved more lifes than any other single infividual. As terrible as the Civil War was, the loss of life could have been much worse. The Bolsehvicks in 1921 changed their minds. Faced with a severe famine as a result of their Civil war and a severe drought, the Bolsheviks eventually accepted the American terms. When a critic inquired if he was not thus helping Bolshevism, Hoover retorted, "Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!" There is no way that the ARA personnel arriving in Russua could have been prepared for wht they found. William Shafroth, the son of Colorado's governor and an ARA worker wrote home, "I have seen piles of corpses half naked and frozen into the most grotesque positions with signs of having been preyed upon by wandering dogs. I have seen these bodies � and it is a sight that I can never forget." Anothrer letter describes visiting an orphanage in Kazan on the Volga with lice-ridden children 'huddled together in compact masses like a seal colony'. Many were actually not orphans, but deserted by their starving parents. Shaforth wrote, "I saw emaciated little skeletons, whose gaunt faces and toothpick legs testified to the truth of the report that they were dying daily by the dozen. The stench was nauseating." The first American relief ships arrived in Soviet Russia (September 1921). The U.S. Congress passed an appropriation to send $20 million worth of corn and wheat seed to starving Russia. To oversee the food deliveries, some 300 relief workers set out with the transport available. There were some trucks that arrived with the food, but horse, muel, camel and sleds were contracted. The ARA workers assessed needs and arranged for facilities to store the millions of bushels of corn. Of vital imporance was thousands of tons of seed which began to arrive in the Russian and Ukranian growing areas for the spring plantuing (March 1922). As in Europe, American food again played a role in saving millions of children and adults (1921-23). The menu provided the starving Russians included: corn grits, cocoa, condensed milk, white bread, and sugar. One author claims that the American food deliveries may have even saved the Bolshevik regime. [Salisbury, p. 442.] There were indeed worker strikes as well as a Navy mutiny at Krondstadt (February 1921). We are not sure the American relief saved the Bolshevik regime. There is no doubt, however, that it saved millions of starving Russians. Few Russians and Ukranians today are not related to a relative saved by American food aid. This American undertaking was written out of Russian history by Soviet historians during the Stalinist era. The mere mention of it could earn a term in the Gulag or worse. As a result, relatively few Russians know about it today. And many of those who know about it do not understand the dimensions of the American and other Western efforts to save Russian children.


Patenaude, Bertrand. The Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921.

Salisbury, Harrison E. "Diplomacy: The indivisible peace," The Soviet Union: The Fifty Years (Harcourt, Brace & World: New York, 1967), 484p.

York, Brian. The Soviet Union (1983).


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Created: 2:29 AM 6/26/2018
Last updated: 2:29 AM 6/26/2018