Russian famine of 1921

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The famine area in the fall of 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 Russia. The famine, which killed an estimated 6 million, affected mostly the Volga and Ural River region.[1][2][3]

The famine resulted from the combined effect of economic disturbance, which had 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, aided furthermore by rail systems that could not move food around efficiently. One of Russia's intermittent droughts that occurred in 1921 aggravated the situation to the level of the national catastrophe. 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. The famine was the justification offered for the Bolsheviks' 1922 confiscation of Russian Orthodox Church property in Russia.


Help!, a 1921 poster.

Before the famine began, Russia had suffered six and a half years of the First World War and the Civil Wars of 1918–20, many of the conflicts fought inside Russia.[4]

Before the famine, all sides in the Russian Civil Wars of 1918–21 — 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 lives;[5] statistics indicate that most of the grain and the other food supplies passed through the black market.[6][7][8] The Bolsheviks believed peasants were actively trying to undermine the war effort. The Black Book of Communism claims 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[9]. In 1920, Lenin had ordered increased emphasis on food requisitioning from the peasantry.

Aid from outside Russia was initially rejected. The American Relief Administration (ARA), 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 Russian railway network and hand out food impartially to all. Lenin refused this as interference in Russian internal affairs.[4]

Lenin was eventually convinced — by this famine, the Kronstadt rebellion, large scale peasant uprisings such as the Tambov rebellion, and the failure of a German general strike — 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. War relief was no longer required in Western Europe, and the ARA had an organization set up in Poland, relieving the Polish famine which had begun in the winter of 1919–20.

International relief effort[edit]

Victims of the famine in Buzuluk, Volga Region, next to Saratov
Victims of the famine, 1922
Starving Russian girl, 1921
Starving Russian children during the famine, c. 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 Geneva 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 (ICRR) was set up with Dr Fridtjof Nansen as its High Commissioner. Nansen headed to Moscow, where he signed an agreement with Soviet Foreign Minister Georgy Chicherin that left the ICRR 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 main participants in the international relief effort were Hoover's American Relief Administration,[10] 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.[11] Around ten million people were fed, with the bulk coming from the ARA, funded by the US Congress; the European agencies co-ordinated by the ICRR fed two million people a day: the International Save the Children Union were feeding 375,000 in its centres at Saratov at the height of the operation.[12] 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.[13]

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; this seriously endangered Western support for relief, and was one instance of a long-standing Soviet policy of valuing development above the lives of the peasantry. The new Soviet government insisted that if the AYA suspended relief, the ARA arrange a foreign loan for them of about $10,000,000 1923 dollars; the ARA was unable to do this, and continued to ship in food past the grain being sold abroad.[14][15]

Death toll[edit]

As with other large-scale famines, the range of estimates is considerable. An official Soviet publication of the early 1920s concluded that about five million deaths occurred in 1921 from famine and related disease: this number is usually quoted in textbooks.[16] More conservative figures counted not more than a million, while another assessment, based on the ARA's medical division, spoke of two million.[17] On the other side of the scale, some witnesses spoke of ten million lives. According to Betrand M. Patenaude, "such a number hardly seems extravagant after the many tens of millions of victims of war, famine, and terror in the twentieth century".[18]

Political uses[edit]

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.[citation needed] It has, however, been argued by some historians, including Richard Pipes, that the famine was only used as an excuse for the Bolshevik leadership to go after the Orthodox Church, which held significant sway over much of the peasant populace.[19][page needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Marxist Dreams and Soviet Realities", Marxist Dreams and Soviet Realities, AU: Mises Institute .
  2. ^ "Food as a Weapon.", Hoover Digest, Hoover Institution 
  3. ^ "Famine Years", The German Colonies on the Volga River, Volga Germans .
  4. ^ a b Kennan 1961.
  5. ^ "An exchange of letters", Lenin’s Secret Files (documentary), BBC .
  6. ^ Carr, EH, 1966, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917–1923, Part 2, p. 233.
  7. ^ Chase, WJ, 1987, Workers, Society and the Soviet State: Labour and Life in Moscow 1918–1929 pp. 26–7.
  8. ^ Nove, A, 1982, An Economic History of the USSR, p. 62, cited in Flewers, Paul. "War Communism in Retrospect". 
  9. ^ Werth et al. Margolin.
  10. ^ "International news", 442, Newsreel, 1921  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  11. ^ Famine in Russia: the hidden horrors of 1921, ICRC .
  12. ^ Kurusawa, Fuyuki (3 January 2012). "The Making of Humanitarian Visual Icons: On the 1921-1923 Russian Famine as Foundational Event". Iconic Power: Materiality and Meaning in Social Life. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 68. Retrieved 19 July 2014. 
  13. ^ Breen 1994.
  14. ^ Ellman, Michael (June 2007), Stalin and the Soviet Famine of 1932–33 Revisited (PDF), Europe-Asia Studies (Routledge) 59 (4): 663–93, doi:10.1080/09668130701291899  More than one of |number= and |issue= specified (help).
  15. ^ Serbyn, Roman (1986), "The Famine of 1921–22", Famine in the Ukraine, 1932–33, Edmonton, pp. 174–78 .
  16. ^ Norman Lowe. Mastering Twentieth-Century Russian History. Palgrave, 2002. P. 155.
  17. ^ Betrand M. Patenaude. The Big Show in Bololand. The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921. Stanford University Press, 2002. P. 197.
  18. ^ Patenaude, op. cit. p. 197-8.
  19. ^ Pipes 1995.


External links[edit]