How the U.S. saved a starving Soviet Russia: PBS film highlights Stanford scholar’s research on the 1921-23 famine

The world barely remembers the terrible famine in the Soviet Russia – or the American charity that relieved it. Historian Bertrand Patenaude tells how Herbert Hoover saved more lives than any person who has ever lived.

Corn grits, cocoa, condensed milk, white bread and sugar.

An American Relief Administration transport column on the frozen Volga in Tsaritsyn, which is now Volgograd. (Image credit: Courtesy Hoover Institution Archives)

This was America’s menu for the starving millions in Soviet Russia during the 1921-23 famine – one of the greatest human disasters in Europe since the Black Death. The famine relief was spearheaded by Herbert Hoover, whose biographers credited him with saving more lives than any person who has ever lived.

The story is featured in the PBS “American Experience” documentary, The Great Famine, which will be broadcast nationwide on April 11. The film will have a Stanford showing at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 6, in Lane History Corner.

The film is based on Stanford researcher Bertrand Patenaude’s The Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921.

The world barely remembers the terrible famine – or the American charity that alleviated it, marking what was perhaps the first time that a large-scale relief was extended to an enemy. Patenaude said the typical American reaction to this jaw-dropping moment of history is: How come I’ve never heard about this?

Bertrand M. Patenaude, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is also a lecturer in history and international relations at Stanford University.

Bertrand Patenaude (Image credit: Courtesy Bertrand Patenaude)

Patenaude, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, has retrieved the tale from archival oblivion, with an acclaimed book and the upcoming film. His book draws largely from the Hoover Institution Archives, which contain the enormous holdings of the American Relief Administration (ARA). He also relied on family albums, journals and letters from ARA workers and their families.

Herbert Hoover, often criticized for his early Depression-era presidency, is Patenaude’s unlikely hero. Hoover entered Stanford in 1891, the year of the university’s founding, and graduated with a degree in geology in 1895. He became a mining engineer and worked around the world. During World War I, more than a decade before his presidency, Hoover helped organize relief efforts for 7 million Belgians living under German occupation.

With the end of the war, the United States was asked to feed tens of millions of people in 21 war-torn nations. Hoover was tapped to head the newly created ARA.

Nothing prepared the ARA team for what they found in the largest nation in the world, Soviet Russia. The communist state had a transportation system in chaos, a hostile climate, a mistrustful Bolshevik government that spied on the U.S. relief workers and the horrifying magnitude of a catastrophic famine that threatened 16 million with starvation at its height in the winter of 1921.

The famine, exacerbated by government mass requisitioning of grain in the previous years, was killing about 100,000 people a week. Soviet estimates from the 1920s claim 5 million died in the famine, although other estimates range up to 10 million.

People had been reduced to eating weeds mixed up with ground bones, tree bark and clay, as well as horses, dogs, cats, rats and the straw from roofs. The government made efforts to stop the selling of human flesh and posted guards in cemeteries to prevent raiding.

“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,” wrote William Shafroth, the son of Colorado’s governor and an ARA worker in Soviet Russia.

Shelters for orphaned and abandoned children multiplied across the famine zone during the fall and winter of 1921. (Image credit: Courtesy Hoover Institution Archives)

His letters recalled visiting an orphanage in Kazan on the Volga with lice-ridden children “huddled together in compact masses like a seal colony.”

Most had been orphaned or deserted by their parents.

“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,” he wrote. “The stench was nauseating.”

In Samara, one American described 283 children holed up in three rooms.

The first American relief ships arrived in Soviet Russia in September 1921. In December, the U.S. Congress passed an appropriation to send $20 million worth of corn and wheat seed to starving Russia. About 300 relief workers set off into unfamiliar terrain – often by horse, camel and sled – to assess needs and arrange for storehouses for the millions of bushels of corn and thousands of tons of seed, which began to arrive in the Russian heartland in March 1922.

The effort was internationally praised for its efficiency, grit and ingenuity. By August 1922, five months after the corn reached remote villages, the ARA was feeding nearly 11 million a day in 19,000 kitchens. The ARA hired 120,000 Soviet citizens to help its effort.

One survivor, Zukra Ibragimova, appears in the PBS film.

“People used to call that food ‘America,’” she says. “So we were handed out ‘America.’ At home, people cooked soup out of it, fed their children. This, of course, was a great help to us. My father used to say, ‘See, the Americans did the right thing, sent us help.”

Seed from the American Midwest, planted in the spring of 1922, ensured that the famine would not return.

In July 1922, author Maxim Gorky wrote to Hoover on behalf of the Soviet government to praise the relief efforts.

“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 whom you have saved from death,” he wrote.

But it didn’t happen. Soviet leaders had an interest in forgetting and distorting this episode in their history, which was rewritten to tell a tale about conniving American spies infiltrating to commit acts of sabotage under the guise of kindness.

“Lenin’s government never recognized America’s humanitarian motives,” said the PBS film’s award-winning producer, Austin Hoyt.

On the American side, Hoover’s reputation as a failed president overshadowed his humanitarian achievement. He was viewed as the man who saved Russia but couldn’t save his own citizenry from the economic spiral of the Great Depression.

Joseph Stalin’s genocidal Ukrainian famine, during which as many as 5 million peasants died of starvation in the 1930s, further buried the memory of the earlier catastrophe.

It’s unfortunate. According to George Nash, Hoover’s biographer, “Hoover was really the vanguard of that whole approach that has become associated with America in the last hundred years, namely that when there is a humanitarian tragedy in the world, whether from war or famine or revolution or a typhoon or an earthquake, that Americans will be there to organize the relief.”

Patenaude, who received his PhD from Stanford in 1987, took 14 years to write The Big Show in Bololand, which received the 2003 Marshall Shulman Book Prize. But the PBS film, funded in large part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, is likely to plant this chunk of history more firmly in the public consciousness.

Patenaude met with Shafroth, the last surviving member of the expedition, who was living in a Raleigh, N.C., retirement community in 1990. “He’s the only relief worker I met. They’re all gone now,” said Patenaude.

The 96-year-old man, who had supervised 16,000 Russian workers in 900 kitchens, had dressed formally in a suit for the visit.

“At the end of our 90-or-so minutes together, when it was clear that he was very tired, I got up to leave.

“He rose and shook my hand, and said weakly, ‘I was waiting for you to come,’” recalled Patenaude.

Shafroth, who died the following year, was not reproaching Patenaude for any tardiness: “He had been waiting a very long time for some historian to come so he could tell his story.”