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1919-1922 - Famine in Soviet Russia

The massive famine of 1919-1922 killed somewhere between 2.5 million people, or as many as 5 million. By December 1922, as many as five million men, women and little children had died during two years of famine, mostly in the lower Volga. The famine in the U.S.S.R. in 1921-2 probably caused 3,000,000 deaths through starvation and many more from indirect effects.

After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the ensuing Civil War produced acute food shortages in southwestern Russia. Wartime devastation was compounded by two successive seasons of drought, and by 1920 it was clear that a full-scale famine was under way in the Volga River Valley, Crimea, Ukraine, and Armenia. Conditions were so desperate that in early 1920 the Soviet government sent out a worldwide appeal for food aid to avert the starvation of millions of people. Several volunteer groups in the United States and Europe had by then organized relief programs, but it became clear that help was needed on a larger scale because an estimated 10 to 20 million lives were at stake.

The year 1921 is remembered as the first year of the great Russian Famine. None similar to it can be found in Russia's history. It was as unparalleled and unprecedented as the events that caused it. To a certain extent, the conditions created by war and by revolution account for the phenomena described. But they cannot explain the continuing decay of agriculture after four years of the Bolshevist regime. Just how far the regime itself is responsible can be especially well seen from the gradual decrease of the area under cultivation. the factors of war (1916) and revolution (1917) were not decisive, and that the really catastrophic change came as a result of the Bolshevist policy. The famine began as early as 1919 and 1920, with the shrinking of the planted area to three-fourths and two-fifths of its normal size. It fell down to the half of the area planted before the war in 1921. Under such a condition, shortage of food has become an inevitable consequence, even if there were good crops in Russia.

The Southeastern part of Russia was its grain-producing and exporting region. This was the famine-stricken area. The strip extended to the Ukraine in the West and to the Asiatic provinces in the East. In the basin of the lower Volga and Kama the crops were here less than one-tenth of the average. At the end of October 1921, the Bolshevist Central Statistical Bureau gave the following figures which it considered as definitive. The famine-stricken area covered 41% of the entire planted area in Russia, 33% of the rural population and 30% of the urban population.

Even if Russia's entire crop could be equally distributed among the whole population of Russia, the population would be put on a starvation ration. But no such equal distribution was possible, in the first place, because such surpluses as were to be found outside the famine-stricken area were badly needed by the Bolsheviks themselves, to feed their army and their officials. In the second place, the Bolshevist official sources admit that they would be unable to transport the necessary grain to the starvation area. Under such conditions, every region had to rely on its own resources.

The cause of the poor crops was, of course, an unprecedented heat and dryness. From October 1, 1920, to the end of June, 1921, the rainfall (including the snow) was only 2.75 inches, while in the ten previous years the average rainfall was five times more-14 inches. The greatest part of the rain fell, moreover, before the sprouts appeared above the surface, and there followed an exceptionally early thaw. This is quite true. But it is not quite so exceptional. This part of Russia is periodically exposed to dry winds from the Asiatic deserts. The moving sand of the Asiatic wilderness gradually advances in the western direction, pushed by the winds.

However, a series of measures had been tried in the past by the Government and by the Zemstvos in order to check this advance and to paralyze the detrimental consequences of the recurrent dry seasons (which regularly last for two or three years at a stretch, when they come). Perfected methods of modern agronomy were used, such as dry farming, fastening of the slopes of sandy ravines, planting of trees, etc.

Not only have all these methods been discontinued since the Bolshevist domination, but even the normal resources of rural economy have been utterly destroyed. The import of agricultural implements, which had increased ten times for the last twenty years before the war, has practically ceased, while the local manufacture has been unable to supply, e.g., in plows even 10% of what has had to be scrapped as outworn. Another cause of deterioration of conditions in agriculture is the decrease in the number of live stock, due to the lack of fodder and to the policy of requisitions and assessments by the Soviet authorities. A well known Russian economist, Mr. Lositsky, writing in a special Bolshevist organ stated that the average consumption of meat in Russia increased from 0.82 pood per capita (a Russian pood is equivalent to about forty pounds) in 1918-19 to 0.91 in 1919-20 and 1.59 in the winter of 1920-21. Cattle were slaughtered in abnormal quantities owing to a widespread shortage of food and fodder. The figures given by the official Red press for December, 1920 and February, 1921, show that the number of horses had been reduced by 28.6 percent, compared with the pre-war situation.

But the reason why these poor crops brought on a famine which menaced the lives of millions was that grain was requisitioned with unheard-of severity in the Volga region, and the agents received special thanks from the 'Central Committee' for having collected 170 percent of the amount assessed. It was a real orgy. The whole area at the time of the requisition looked like a conquered country delivered as booty to the victorious soldiers. Violence, looting, bribery, orgies of drunken commissaries, night visits to private houses, arrests and shots and what not were daily occurrences. They left the peasants from their crops of 1920 an amount of food barely sufficient to sustain life until the next crops on starvation rations. In fact, the peasant could feed on that grain only until the spring, 1921. Even thus he had to consume a part of his seed reserve, and as a result almost 40 percent of the summer fields remained unsown.

In the countryside, peasants rebelled against payments in valueless money by curtailing or consuming their agricultural production. In late 1920, strikes broke out in the industrial centers, and peasant uprisings sprang up across the land as famine ravaged the countryside. The original famine belt of Russia extended from the north end of the Caspian northward to central Russia and thence in a broad belt eastward beyond the Ural Mountains. Although famine conditions first arose in the Samara region they have extended themselves over a wide district in the Ukraine, the Caucasus, and elsewhere.

In 1921 the situation in certain parts of the Soviet Ukraine was as serious as in the Volga region. The famine extended to the Volga, in the Tartar Republic of Kazan, in the Bashkir district between Ufa and Orenburg in Central Eastern Russia; in Samara, the large, famine-stricken department of the Southeast, in the German Volga communes, in the Soviet Ukrainian territory, and far to the south in the Crimean area. By 1922 famine had visited the five industrial provinces of the Ukraine- Kharkov, Nikolayev, Zaporozhie, Odessa, Yekaterinoslav. In the southern regions mass starvation among the workers is going on even now. In some places all the children of workers' families, up to the age of 4 and 5 years had died out.

Although it had not officially recognized the Soviet regime, the United States government was pressed from many sides to intervene, and in August 1920 an informal agreement was negotiated to begin a famine relief program. In 1921 President Warren Harding appointed Herbert Hoover, then secretary of commerce, to organize the relief effort. Congress authorized $20 million, and Hoover proceeded to organize the American Relief Administration (ARA) to do the job. Under Hoover's terms, the ARA was to be a completely American-run relief program for the transport, storage, and delivery of relief supplies (mainly food and seed grain) to those in the famine region. After Soviet officials agreed, hundreds of American volunteers were dispatched to oversee the program.

The excessive drought with its ensuing grain shortage caused a change and enlargement of policy. Reports of investigations showed the famine to be due to destruction through drought rather than to discouraged production under the Bolshevik régime. Approximately 80 per cent of the grain crop of the Volga district, the principal grain-growing territory of Europe, was destroyed. Consequently the problem has not been that of feeding the city dwellers alone, but of feeding the food producers - the farmers- as well.

By 1922, in the eight or ten 'Governments' of Russia or the four Governments of the Ukraine affected by famine, each one of which is comparable with the separate Transcaucasian republics in area and population, probably fifty per cent of the entire population is in serious want. In Georgia the percentage is not over two and one-half; in Azerbaijan, less than three and one-half; and even in Armenia, only twelve and one-half. Contrary to the situation in Russia the lack of the Transcaucasian region is due to adverse political rather than climatic conditions, local wars interfering with ordinary agricultural pursuits.

The chief difficulty in the relief of the Russians of the famine district was owing to congestion at the ports. It is impossible to evacuate food supplies as rapidly as they are received, and local congestion on the rail routes to the famine district further increases the delay.

The Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic, which extended, roughly speaking, from the Don to the Dniester, and from the Black Sea to about latitude 52 degrees, included a total area of 178,000 square miles. The population was approximately 25,000,000, of which about 3,500,000 were Jews. The total number of children up to and including the age of 15 was 11,100,000.

The statistical information given out by the authorities was almost wholly unreliable. Statements made by the Central Moscow authorities, the Central Ukrainian authorities and the local Government authorities differed enormously. General statements as to total requirements differ almost as widely as estimates of crops. All the "official" ones, except those made by the Central Government in Moscow, appeared to be absurdly high. Fear of tax demands by local, Ukrainian and Moscow authorities led not only to understatement of resources, but also to exaggeration of needs.

With a consumption requirement of 556,000,000 poods (a Russian pood is equivalent to about forty pounds), and a probable supply of 700,000,000, there would appear to be a surplus of 144,000,000 poods. Of this, according to the Kharkov authorities, 51,000,000 poods had been delivered to Moscow as part of the Ukrainian contribution to the needs of Russia, leaving 93,000,000 poods surplus for the Ukraine itself. In spite of the probability, however, that the Ukraine as a whole had surplus food, all the evidence pointed to a serious shortage in certain parts. The Governments affected were Donetz, Zaporozh, Ekaterinoslav, Nikolaievsk and Odessa. Their total population was 9,600,000, but neither all the uyezds (districts) of each Government nor the entire population of any of them was in distress.

Information given by local officials was undoubtedly colored by a desire to avoid taxation and to pet outside assistance. The official statements gave a total population requiring assistance of 3,700,000, including 1,660,000 children ; but possibly these figures should be scaled down about 50 percent., giving, say, 2,000,000 total, including 900,000 children. Whatever the actual figures may be, there can be no question that over a very considerable area conditions are as serious as in any part of the Volga Basin.

Conditions were most serious along the Black Sea coast, partly because the drought was most serious there, but also because this section was furthest removed from the regions of normal crops in the North. Seaport cities were getting some supplies in by water, but apparently they do not penetrate far into the neighboring country districts.

In one respect the famine area of the Ukraine is in a more serious situation than that of the Volga. The drought followed four or five years during which the peasants were ravaged by a succession of wars, insurrections, pogroms, bandit raids and other disturbances which were far more serious than anything of this nature that happened on the Volga. Their domestic animals had been reduced by these successive operations, plus the drought, more seriously than anywhere in Russia. For Ukraine, as a whole, this reduction probably reached 50 per cent.; in the five Governments of the famine area the peasants had less than 25 percent of their normal number of animals. But, whatever the causes may be and whatever the exact figures, it appears to be a fact that in the Ukrainian famine area (except in Ekaterinoslav) there had been far less Autumn planting or Autumn plowing for Spring planting than anywhere on the Volga.

In the non-famine area, several of the Governments, especially Kharkov, Poltava, Krementschug and Lviev, complain of a shortage of food supplies, but it seemed probable to some that these claims were made for political purposes. Volhynia and Podolia admit a considerable surplus. Supplies other than food, such as medical and hospital equipment and clothing, were lacking there, as elsewhere, in Ukraine and Russia. There was less enidemic disease among the native population, but they all had a serious problem in the refugees in large numbers, and some of the Governments, notably Podolia and Volhynia, were handling it in admirable fashion. They stated that they could, and would, willingly, double or treble the number they are caring for if they had the necessary equipment of medicines and drugs, clothing and bedclothes. They already have the hosiptals, beds and food.

It was the panics, the 'migration of peoples' that began in June 1921. At that moment the last ray of hope of getting good crops this year was lost, wells and lakes had dried up, fields and meadows transformed themselves into continuous sunburnt yellow steppes, and whole herds of cattle had begun to die. As early as the end of June, 1921, the streets and squares of Kazan, as well as the strip of land 4% miles long between the city and the pier, were packed by the starving crowd. The police gave up all attempts to disperse them, and indeed there was no place where they could go. Starving people were literally lying everywhere with their children and their sick: they could be shot but not removed. They lay prostrate for days, nay, for weeks. After having eaten up all they had brought with them and sold out everything they possessed, they besieged the Bolshevist institutions, begging for food and permits to go further. After a while some of them died in the same places, on the street. The remaining ones gradually disappeared, nobody knew where. New crowds were pouring into the town, taking their places in the streets, lying down, or dying, or going away in their turn. A human corpse on the streets of Kazan became a familiar appearance and it no longer frightened any one.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:15:58 ZULU