Lecturer Bertrand Patenaude (MA ’79, PhD ’87) wasn’t sure what to expect when he placed boxes full of archival materials in front of each student in his early Soviet Russia course.

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Harry Gregory

Stanford students dive into Hoover’s historical archives to uncover forgotten chapter in U.S.-Russian history.

With three freshman and three sophomore students, his winter quarter 2023 class was focused on the American relief mission to Soviet Russia during the famine of 1921 to 1923 – a tragedy that affected upwards of 25 to 30 million people, including millions of Ukrainians, and killed 6 million. The region faced famine after disruptions from World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, troubling Soviet economic policies, and a severe drought.

The boxes made available to the students contained historical documents from Stanford’s Hoover Institution Library & Archives. “They opened the boxes, and they were off to the races,” said Patenaude, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. “I said, ‘If you find something interesting, just tell us, and we can gather around you and you can show us what you found.’ Well, that happened within 10 minutes, and at the end of that first session, I had trouble getting them to close the boxes.”

Patenaude’s experimental course format yielded far more for the students than what they might have learned from in a traditional lecture hall. The focused course met once a week for three hours, when students not only attended mini-lectures, but got to explore historical material firsthand, including memoirs, photographs, and data from early-1920s Soviet Russia.

Before he was U.S. president, Herbert Hoover had led the American Relief Administration (ARA), which distributed food and medicine to millions of people in Soviet Russia in that era. The ARA papers, which were one of the founding collections of the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, highlight a largely forgotten American rescue operation.

“It’s hundreds of boxes, and as I told the students: This is not simply a collection about famine and relief,” Patenaude said. “It’s these American relief workers collecting documentation on all aspects of Soviet society, starting with the revolution, and right up through 1923.”

To mark the centennial of this remarkable episode, the Hoover Library & Archives launched the Bread + Medicine project, encompassing both a physical and an online exhibition, a speaker series, a directed reading course during the 2021-22 academic year, and in winter quarter 2023 a course that introduced students to archival research in the ARA records. A companion publication is forthcoming in June.

Some of the students’ research are now showcased as part of the Bread + Medicine online exhibition, featuring stories they discovered exploring the ARA’s operations during the Soviet famine. One student story documents the ARA’s lone American female staff member in Soviet Russia; another focuses on the American ships that delivered food and medical supplies to Soviet citizens.

“A hundred years ago, American relief workers and Russians and the American public had a very special connection,” Patenaude said.

Freshman Anna Pikarska, who is pursuing history and philosophy at Stanford, dove into the diary of an American relief worker who had worked in the Uralsk region at the time. She said the pages revealed a firsthand perspective that was honest, sometimes critical, and sometimes impressed with what he witnessed.

“We usually tend to tell stories through big names,” Pikarska said. “But we often forget that it is all about human-to-human connection at the end of the day. These were the workers who went into these very harsh conditions and who had to see the starving population every day.”

The class was also an opportunity to introduce students to how an archive works, including how to handle the material and “the magic of working with primary documents,” Patenaude said.

“This class was different because we saw the entire operation of the Hoover Institution,” Pikarska added. “So we saw different departments like digitization and preservation and how the documents are stored … why they are digitized.”

Sophomore Emma Barrosa, who is studying international relations, said she appreciated how Patenaude first contextualized what they were reading and then let students take the liberty to leaf through documents themselves.

“This was a great avenue to apply my Russian language skills in a new environment,” Barrosa said. “I feel much more confident now accessing boxes, accessing the archives, for future research papers.”

International relations sophomore Lindi Schroeder said she enjoyed learning more about the process of preserving history and telling stories.

“I think it gives me a greater appreciation for every textbook I read or every time I approach new materials in the sense of: What am I going to learn from this?” Schroeder said.

Senior Sorcha Whitley spent most of her junior year doing research with Patenaude in the Hoover Archives as part of the directed reading course. The pair published findings about special efforts aimed to rescue Russia’s art in an article in Hoover Digest.

“Usually in undergrad, you’re producing essays for classes, or maybe if you’re lucky, you’re giving inputs into papers faculty are writing,” said Whitley, who is majoring in international relations. “Not many students get to produce something and see it published for public consumption.”

Whitley’s research into American dancer Isadora Duncan, who opened a school in Moscow in 1921, is featured in the online exhibition.

The relief effort’s centennial anniversary and the exhibition come at an interesting time, as the United States and Russia enter a new era of complex relations.

“Working in the archives exposes you to a much more personal view of a time period than you would maybe get from reading a textbook,” Whitley said. “So it helps to remember that countries are not monoliths. We can talk about the actions of the government of Russia. [But] at the time in 1921, there were people in Soviet Russia who needed help and were starving – and the ARA could help them.”

The Bread + Medicine exhibition, located in Hoover Tower, has been extended through May 22. The online exhibition is free to explore. In June, Patenaude and Joan Nabseth Stevenson (PhD ’84) will publish a companion book that delves deeper into the history and science of this cardinal chapter in 20th-century humanitarian aid.