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Help!, a Russian poster from 1921.
The Russian famine of 1921, also known as Povolzhye famine, which began in the early spring of that year, and lasted through 1922, was a severe famine that occurred in Bolshevik Russiamarker. The famine, which killed an estimated 5 million, affected mostly the Volga-Ural region.

The famine resulted from the combined effect of the disruption of the agricultural production, which already started during World War I and continued through the disturbances of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and Russian Civil War with its policy of War Communism, especially prodrazvyorstka. One of Russia's intermittent droughts that happened in 1921 aggravated the situation to the level of the national catastrophe. In many cases recklessness of local administration, which recognized the problems only too late, contributed to the problem. Hunger was so severe that it was doubtful that seed-grain would be sown rather than eaten. At one point, relief agencies had to give grain to the railroad staff to get their supplies moved. Peasants often had to resort to eating weeds, food surrogates and even cannibalism trying to save seeds for planting in the fall.

History of the famine

Origins of the catastrophe

Russia had suffered six and a half years of the First World War and the Civil Wars of 1918-20 before the famine began; much of them fought inside Russia.

Before the famine, all sides in the Russian Civil Wars of 1918-20 - the Bolsheviks, the Whites, the Anarchists, the seceding nationalities — had provisioned themselves by the ancient method of "living off the land": they seized food from those who grew it, gave it to their armies and supporters, and denied 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. According to the official Bolshevik position, which is still maintained by some modern Marxists, the rich peasants (kulaks) withheld their surplus grain in order to preserve their profits - statistics indicate that most of the grain and the other food supplies passed through the black market . The Bolsheviks believed that peasants were actively trying to undermine the war effort. The Black Book of Communism states that Lenin ordered the seizure of the food peasants had grown for their own subsistence and their seed grain in retaliation for this "sabotage", leading to widespread peasant revolts. In 1920, Lenin had ordered increased emphasis on the food requisitioning from the peasantry.

The American Relief Administration, which Herbert Hoover had formed to help the starvation of World War I, had offered assistance to Lenin in 1919, on condition that they have full say over the Russianmarker railway network and hand out food impartially to all; Lenin refused this as interference in Russian internal affairs.

This famine, the Kronstadt rebellion, large scale peasant uprisings such as the Tambov rebellionmarker, and the failure of a German general strike convinced Lenin 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; fortunately, war relief was no longer required in Western Europe, and the A.R.A. had an organization set up in Polandmarker, relieving the Polish famine which had begun in the winter of 1919-20.

The international relief effort

Starving Russian children during the famine.
Circa 1922.
Although no official request for aid was issued, a committee of well-known people without obvious party affiliations was allowed to set up an appeal for assistance. In July 1921 the writer Maxim Gorky published an appeal to the outside world, claiming that millions of lives were menaced by crop failure. At a conference in Genevamarker 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 (ICCR) was set up with Dr Fridtjof Nansen as its High Commissioner. The main participants were Hoover's American Relief Administration, along with other bodies such as the American Friends Service Committee and the International Save the Children Union, which had the British Save the Children Fund as the major contributor.

Nansen headed to Moscow, where he signed an agreement with Soviet Foreign Minister Georgy Chicherin that left the ICCR 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.

The ICCR managed to feed around ten million people, with the overwhelming bulk coming from the ARA, funded by the US Congress; the International Save the Children Union, by comparison, managed to feed 375,000 at the height of the operation. 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 on poverty 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.

The Bolsheviks permitted the relief agencies to continue distributing free food in 1923, while they sold grain abroad. The net effect, since grain is fungible, was that they received money for nothing from the western philanthropists. When this was discovered, foreign relief organizations suspended the aid.

François Furet estimated there were 5 million deaths in the famine; for comparison, the worst crop failure of late Tsarist Russia, in 1892, caused 375,000 to 400,000 deaths. That failure followed years of normal and bumper harvests, with the resulting buildup of reserves; the harvest of 1888 had been "excellent beyond even the more optimistic hopes". Also, that was in a time of peace, international commerce, and good order; there had not been war throughout Russia as there was from 1914 to 1920.

Political uses

As noted above, the Russian famine of 1921 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 Communist government also mounted an attack against a resistant Russian Orthodox Church: churches were stripped to provide for the relief of the famine victims, after a refusal by Patriarch Tikhon to sell off church valuables to raise needed funds to feed famine victims.

See also


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