Famine in Russia Claims Millions of Lives

Drought following a civil war caused the complete failure of the grain crop in Russia’s Volga region. Of the thirty million people left completely destitute, between three and four million died of starvation. A massive relief effort by the American Relief Administration, headed by Herbert Hoover, saved millions.

Summary of Event

In the early twentieth century, Russia’s grain-growing provinces along the Volga River were especially vulnerable to disaster. Drought caused regular crop failure, and the population was so dense that even in favorable years productivity barely met subsistence levels. Furthermore, agricultural methods were primitive, and peasant holdings too small to finance improvements. A famine in 1892 killed an estimated 400,000 people despite substantial private and public relief efforts in a country with a stable government and functioning infrastructure. Famines;Russia
American Relief Administration
Humanitarianism;famine relief
[kw]Famine in Russia Claims Millions of Lives (1921-1923)
[kw]Russia Claims Millions of Lives, Famine in (1921-1923)
American Relief Administration
Humanitarianism;famine relief
[g]Russia;1921-1923: Famine in Russia Claims Millions of Lives[05330]
[c]Disasters;1921-1923: Famine in Russia Claims Millions of Lives[05330]
[c]Government and politics;1921-1923: Famine in Russia Claims Millions of Lives[05330]
[c]Humanitarianism and philanthropy;1921-1923: Famine in Russia Claims Millions of Lives[05330]
Hoover, Herbert
[p]Hoover, Herbert;American Relief Administration
Litvinov, Maksim Maksimovich
Nansen, Fridtjof
Gorky, Maxim
Haskell, William N.

A series of events in the early twentieth century made the Soviet people even more susceptible to famine. During World War I, planted acreage declined by almost 30 percent as men and horses were diverted to the front, and the area suffered heavily during the Russian Civil War (1918-1921). In the early years of the Bolshevik regime, under a policy known as War Communism, War Communism government demands completely depleted peasant stores and further discouraged planting. Refugees from cities swelled the rural population. Finally, a dry, cold winter that was followed by a hot, rainless summer nearly destroyed the already meager crops of wheat and rye throughout the Volga region. Russia’s other major agricultural region, the Ukraine, also experienced a poor harvest that prevented internal aid on a large scale.

In May of 1921, the head of the Soviet state, Vladimir Ilich Lenin, proclaimed a retreat from the disastrous policies of War Communism, and in addition to discontinuing requisitions he allowed limited private enterprise under the New Economic Policy New Economic Policy (NEP). At the same time, the Soviet foreign minister, Maksim Maksimovich Litvinov, explored the renewal of diplomatic relations with the West. Both of these trends, which would eventually reestablish Communist Russia as a functioning state and a member of the international community, were too new to be of use during the famine in the Volga region.

In July of 1921, the noted Soviet revolutionary writer Maxim Gorky sent an appeal to Fridtjof Nansen, director of the International Red Cross, detailing the desperate situation in the Volga provinces and asking for international aid. Nansen appealed to the League of Nations, which refused to supply aid to Russia as long as the Communist regime held power. He then informed Gorky that the only other possible source of aid on the scale required was the United States and directed the appeal to Herbert Hoover, secretary of commerce under Warren Harding and director of the American Relief Administration (ARA). The ARA, a government agency founded to provide relief to children in Belgium, became a private foundation in 1919. It was the chief source of food relief in postwar Europe, but it had also become a political tool, and it was credited with the downfall of Béla Kun’s short-lived Communist regime in Hungary.

The fate of thirty million Russian peasants depended on cooperation between Soviet Russia and a private American foundation headed by vocal anti-Communists. In a triumph of humanity and common sense over ideology, however, negotiators in Riga (in present-day Latvia) worked out an agreement in which the United States would supply grain and supervisors to the stricken region, and Russia would underwrite most of the costs of distribution. The Americans agreed to refrain from interfering in Soviet politics, and the Soviets promised to give Americans and their Russian employees autonomy in conducting relief operations. In December, the U.S. Congress appropriated money to purchase grain. The ARA also received charitable contributions from many sources.

Hoover appointed William N. Haskell, a career soldier, to direct operations in Russia, and Haskell staffed the mission with experienced relief personnel. Overall, the system worked efficiently: Corruption was kept to a minimum, and the Soviet government was cooperative. Initially, ARA efforts focused on feeding children, its principal targets in postwar Europe, and relief workers set up kitchens in stricken towns. Although accustomed to the squalor and destitution of war-torn Europe, Americans were ill prepared for what they encountered on the Volga. Thousands of refugees dying of starvation huddled on the outskirts of every major town, and piles of emaciated corpses lay unburied in cemeteries. Authorities gathered abandoned and orphaned children into unheated warehouses, where they lay in rags on bare boards; for many, food meant bread made from straw and acorns. The demands of efficient and effective relief meant that aid workers had to abandon many of those suffering, and as a result numerous relief workers later succumbed to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Feeding children was only a temporary solution: Unless adults were also fed, there would be no grain crop in 1922. To forestall such a disaster, the United States agreed to supply large quantities of maize, wheat, and rye seed. Delivering this grain within Russia proved an almost impossible undertaking: The country’s railway network suffered from neglect and the ravages of war, and many draft animals had been eaten. To their credit, however, the Soviets assigned the highest priority to delivery and planting. Weather in the summer of 1922 proved favorable, and the fall harvest was adequate, if not abundant. American relief personnel remained in Russia through the winter, dismantling operations or transferring them to Soviet control. By May of 1923, the last ARA workers had returned to the United States.

In addition to famine relief, the ARA operated a remittance program in which Americans could pay ten dollars to have a parcel of staple foods delivered to a designated recipient in Russia. This program generated revenue for famine relief and helped nearly a million people outside the famine’s hardest-hit areas survive years of extreme privation. The practice of designated relief had unpleasant repercussions, however, as people who had not received adequate relief ascribed counterrevolutionary activity to those who had. Their targets were principally people with relatives in the West, and a disproportionate number of them were Jews.


The famine in Russia’s Volga region ranks high as a cause of preventable human mortality in the twentieth century. It would probably occupy a more prominent place in the historical record were it not for the even more devastating Ukrainian famine of the 1930’s, which came to be recognized as a linchpin in the catalog of the evils of Stalinism.

With respect to feeding the hungry and saving lives, both the Russian government and the American Relief Administration achieved their stated goals. At its height, American aid provided eighteen million Russian peasants with food. Without this aid, mortality would certainly have been much higher, and recovery correspondingly slower.

If Hoover hoped that food aid, unaccompanied by explicit indoctrination, would bring about the collapse of Bolshevism, he was surely disappointed. The Soviet government emerged from the famine years more firmly entrenched and with a far more realistic attitude toward the emerging socialist state’s capabilities. As years passed, the story of famine relief was rewritten to downplay the role of the American government, and the humanitarian motives of the ARA were called into question. After the American withdrawal, the Soviets arrested many Russian ARA workers on charges of counterrevolutionary activities, although it is not clear whether they were targeted specifically for their work with the ARA or for other activities.

Famine relief opened Russia to Western journalists and cultural figures, but the contact did not lead to renewed diplomatic relations, and the Soviet and U.S. governments continued to rely on the Red Cross and other nongovernmental bodies for another decade. In the United States, the large grain purchases made for Russian famine relief helped stimulate a flagging agricultural sector and contributed to recovery from the postwar economic slump. A less welcome result, from the point of view of Hoover and the Harding administration, was the stimulus given to domestic radicalism by relief campaigns among American leftists. Famines;Russia
American Relief Administration
Humanitarianism;famine relief

Further Reading

  • Duranty, Walter. Duranty Reports Russia. New York: Viking Press, 1934. First-person coverage from The New York Times. Despite inaccuracies, this and I Write as I Please (1935) provide a vivid, compelling picture of the human dimension of the famine.
  • _______. I Write as I Please. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1935. Vivid firsthand account of the Russian Civil War and aftermath, with two chapters on the Volga famine.
  • Figes, Orlando. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. New York: Penguin Books, 1998. Describes the impact of revolution on the Russian population; highlights the general breakdown of infrastructure.
  • Patenaude, Bertrand. The Big Show in Bololand. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002. Based on firsthand accounts, this publication of Stanford’s Hoover Institution is comprehensive, balanced, and written to be read. “Bololand” refers to Russia under the Bolsheviks.
  • Robbins, Richard G. Famine in Russia, 1891-1892: The Imperial Government Responds to a Crisis. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976. Good background on agricultural vulnerability in the Volga region; includes comparisons of the 1891 and 1921 famines.
  • Weissman, Benjamin M. Herbert Hoover and Famine Relief to Soviet Russia, 1921-23. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1974. A scholarly book that emphasizes the diplomatic and administrative aspects of famine relief.

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