Henry Wolfe, (wearing Trenchcoat), and Soviet officials posing with grisly proof of cannibalism, Samara Province, 1922

American idealists in hell

Roland Elliott Brown reviews The Russian Job by Douglas Smith


Beneath the saga of US-Soviet rivalry lies a now-little-mined stratum of argument about the difference between conventional or “bourgeois” morality — with its apparent acceptance of war and want — and the Soviets’ supposedly-class-based morality. This debate concerned life and death: did all human life have value, albeit subject to man-made misery and life’s inherent tragedy, or did a person’s value depend upon their amenability to communism? It concerned religion, too: for many Russians in the years after the October Revolution, conventional morality meant Orthodox Christianity, whereas anti-religious Bolshevism stood for terror, disintegration and hunger.

The Russian Job: The Forgotten Story of How America Saved the Soviet Union from Famine by Douglas Smith, Pan Macmillan, £25

In The Russian Job, Douglas Smith’s account of the American Relief Administration’s effort to alleviate the catastrophic famine that afflicted Russia from 1921-23, Smith tells of Pitirim Sorokin, a sociologist from Petrograd who attempted “a scientific investigation of starvation” during the winter of the first famine year. He saw so much death that he came away with insufficient data and shattered nerves. One peasant told him, “We forgot God and he forgot us”. Sorokin recalled a heavenly curse from Deuteronomy:

“Cursed shalt thou be in the city, and cursed shalt thou be in the field … Cursed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy land, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep … And thou shalt eat the fruit of thine own body, the flesh of thy sons and thy daughters.”

This ancient language seemed suddenly to describe Soviet Russia, where civil war, grain requisitioning and severe drought had left millions of peasants across the country without enough to eat. Villages grew quiet as domestic animals disappeared into the pot. Then people began to eat their dead or rob graves to eat the corpses. There were reports of parents abandoning their children to their fate in marketplaces and even killing and eating those too weak to survive.

Whatever the cruelties of the old morality — and it does seem perverse that poor peasants should bear a curse for communist officials in Moscow — the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin was perverse in a new way. In 1891, during another partly-state-induced famine, Russian idealists of the day, including Tolstoy, had organised relief. Lenin’s sister Anna was among those involved, but the young Lenin had refused to join in.

As he saw it, the famine was progressive, since it would undermine faith in God and Tsar. Only revolution, he said, could bring about “some sort of decent life” or — as he later put it in The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion — “set heaven upon earth.” Now that he was in power, Lenin saw the famine as an existential threat to his government. The communist newspaper Pravda warned of “a catastrophe for all of Russia” and told Russians not to expect much more than schadenfreude from “capitalist predators” in the West. But in the face of international appeals by still-independent Russians — the Orthodox Patriarch Tikhon, who had anathematised the Bolsheviks, and the non-communist All Russian Committee for Aid to the Starving — the bourgeois morality of non-Russians began to look like an asset. Lenin’s friend Maxim Gorky, who enjoyed literary fame in the West, raised the alarm in Tolstoyan fashion.

Gorky’s appeal, titled “To All Honest People”— implicitly acknowledging the Bolsheviks’ suspicion of enemies who might twist the situation to their advantage — reached US Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Hoover, a tycoon who had made his fortune in mining in the years before the First World War, had proved a successful philanthropist during wartime, arranging food aid to Belgians starving under German occupation. Later, as head of the US Food Administration under President Woodrow Wilson, he had established the American Relief Administration (ARA) — an aid agency funded by Congress — which provided food and assisted reconstruction in 32 countries after the war.

The ARA was ostensibly politically disinterested, but Hoover loathed Bolshevism. He opposed diplomatic recognition of the Soviets, and had used the ARA to aid the White Army during the Russian Civil War — a fact he tried to conceal. Yet while the Bolsheviks were understandably suspicious, his motives seem to have been mostly sound, if mildly propagandistic. Upon receiving Gorky’s appeal, he told President Warren Harding that it was a “humane obligation” to go into Russia if the Bolsheviks permitted the ARA sufficient freedoms. These included freedom to use clearly-marked vehicles (in a country still largely illiterate) and to post portraits of himself where food was being given out.

Smith’s ARA men resemble F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “careless people”. There was plenty of boozy hedonism and at least one ARA man was suspected of trading food for sex.

Smith tells the story through the eyes of a handful of ARA men whose papers he was able to access in archives. Around 380 Americans served in the ARA in Russia, although there were never more than 200 in the country at one time. They relied upon suspicious Soviet officials and the secret police to smooth distribution, and upon their own local Russian employees (who were sometimes arrested and intimidated) to operate the kitchens. Most of Smith’s protagonists were young, educated (many were Harvard graduates), idealistic, keen on “adventure” — and naive. They were prepared neither for the Cheka’s infiltration, nor the danger of typhus, nor the sheer horror of one of the worst famines in history.

This book is laden with infernal imagery. Smith’s Americans described crowds of dead-eyed wanderers in dirty rags, little children resembling old people or mummies, far-gone souls expiring on crowded hospital floors, bodies being stacked in heaps in barns or eaten by dogs. The term “famine shock” — a linguistic cousin of shell shock — emerged to describe their experience. Although the ARA endeavoured not to exploit reports of cannibalism, Henry Wolfe, a schoolteacher from Ohio, investigated them — coming face to face with the severed heads of consumed bodies — and quit early, complaining of “depression and nervous tension”.

The ARA’s work was effective. It provided 90 per cent of foreign aid, saved more than 10 million people, and received tremendous gratitude. Even so, some of Smith’s ARA men resemble F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “careless people”. There was plenty of boozy hedonism and at least one ARA man was suspected of trading food for sex. Some Americans formed unequal romantic relationships with Russian women. One of these, J. Rives Childs, sympathised with the Bolsheviks, but married one of the ex-aristocratic “former people”. Not indifferent to finer things, he had to resign after he was caught smuggling antiques out of the country.

A marked ARA van

Lenin’s motives were entirely cynical. The peasants, with whom he’d been at war over grain since he’d seized power, had to live to feed the builders of communism, so he let the Americans feed them. He wanted American recognition and American investment, and even wrote to Hoover to ask for it. He overrode objectors within the party — notably Joseph Stalin, who saw the ARA as a Trojan Horse. But his ideological vanity altered not a bit; whereas in 1891 he had seen famine as progressive, in 1922 he saw in it an opportunity to propagandise against the newly-independent Orthodox Church, proposing to seize its valuables for famine relief (though there is no evidence he used them in this way). In a secret memo, he wrote:

It is precisely now and only now, when in the famine regions people are eating human flesh, and the roads are littered with hundreds if not thousands of corpses, that we can (and therefore must) carry out the confiscation of church valuables with the most savage and merciless energy … crushing any resistance.

This meant provoking violent clashes with religious believers, subjecting clergy to some of the Soviet state’s earliest show trials and executing 1,200 of them, along with thousands of other religious resisters. That Smith doesn’t delve into how this episode, which unfolded when an unusual number of Americans were in the country, helped to shape American conceptions of “Godless communism” — seems a bit of a missed trick.

Smith has highlighted this “forgotten” story for an era newly concerned with the power of disinformation and propaganda, and collects examples of how Soviet propagandists purged it from memory, reducing it in encyclopaedias and textbooks to a Stalinist caricature of American spying and wrecking. Outside the former USSR, it is probably not as “forgotten” as all that — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made the same point about it in his Warning to the West in the 1970s — but Americans understandably remember Hoover for the economic crisis that accompanied his presidency, not for his Bolshevik bailout.

The twentieth century is a strange yet familiar place, in which the names are still recognisable, but the ways of reading events seem antiquated. As late  as 1983, Solzhenitsyn revived the Russian Orthodox critique of Bolshevism for an audience at the London Guildhall, remarking that Russia’s post-revolutionary catastrophes had happened because “men have forgotten God”. Ronald Reagan voiced a similar meme in his “Evil Empire” speech, blaming Lenin’s rejection of religion for Soviet totalitarianism.

Historians are rightly sceptical of such lo-res grandiosity. And yet, there ought to be a prize waiting for the scholar who can chase to the bottom all the ideas that made — and unmade — this inferno.

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