American Relief Expedition & The Great Soviet Famine

"The typical American reaction to this jaw-dropping moment of history is: How come I've never heard about this? . . .

[Soviet Russia] had a transportation system in chaos, a hostile climate, a mistrustful Bolshevik government that spied on the U.S. relief workers [of The American Relief Administration] 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. . .

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.

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. . . .'
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 author Bertrand M. 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.' " More. Patenaude was fortunate to have available H.H. Fisher's 1927 book on the event, The Famine in Soviet Russia, 1919-1923: The Operations of the American Relief Administration.

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