Famine in Paradise: The Soviet Famine of 1921-22

Postcard from Fridjoft Nansen’s campaign to raise awareness about the tragedy in Russia, 1922

At the end of February 1921, and a few days after the opening of the tenth congress of the Communist Party of Russia, the situation for Lenin and his companions could hardly be more unfavorable: despite the all-important victory achieved a few months ago against the white armies in the Civil War (1918-1920), with which the Bolshevik regime secured the sum of internal political power and the slow path to international recognition (slow, to a great extent, by the decision of January 1918 to repudiate the debt that Russia maintained with Western countries), popular discontent only grew.

The main victims were the peasants, who were systematically and periodically seized all the surplus of their production, since the large landowners and rich peasants, who were those who normally provided most of the cereals for export and consumption in the big cities, they no longer existed, and the exchange of manufactured goods for agricultural products could not be achieved on a barter basis (as proposed by some of the Bolshevik theorists, with a view to the absolute elimination of money), since there was nothing to exchange, such It was the collapse of the productive system in the country, hit, first by the First World War, then by two revolutions (February and October 1917), by the Civil War, the fighting between the Red Army and the parties of peasants in arms and by the measures that, partly due to adaptation to exceptional circumstances, and partly due to ideological conviction, led to a stagnation productive growth and in a dangerous reduction of the cultivation area. These measures (baptized as “War Communism”, to justify their implementation, but which in fact began earlier and continued after the Civil War ended) constituted an attempt to centralize all economic activity in the state, through the nationalization of the means of production, the destruction of private commerce, the abolition of money and the subjection of all economic factors to a single plan. This last aspect implied that no one could even eat outside of what was established in their ration card, under pain of incurring, in the eyes of the authorities, in a kind of “speculation.” In the absence of a market that would come to the city, it was the inhabitants of these (especially those of the most important urban centers, Moscow and Petrograd) who began to look for the possibility of supplying themselves in the nearest villages, or in the as necessary, sometimes having to travel long distances in crowded trains, handing over their last belongings in exchange for food. Normally the authorities turned a blind eye, but it was nothing more than the beginning of a wave of confiscations from these “speculators” that the disenchantment of the working masses of Moscow and Petrograd did not take long to make itself felt, and that spark soon spread to the sailors of the Kronstadt naval base, headquarters of the Baltic fleet, which took up the banner of the rebellion of the proletarians against the dictatorship of the proletariat. The demands that the Petropavlosk crew voted on in the resolution of February 28, 1921, illustrate in a succinct and exemplary way the distancing that the Bolshevik party was showing at that time from the problems that afflicted the vast majority of the Russian people:

Immediate reelection of the Soviets by free and secret vote
Freedom of the press and expression for all parties
Freedom of association and union formation
Release of all political prisoners
Abolition of the privileges of the Communist Party
Abolition of food confiscation detachments
Economic freedom for peasants
Equal food rations for all [1]

Orphan Children’s Shelter, Tsaritsyn District

But dissent, to Lenin’s dismay, was not only found outside, but within the very ranks of the Party, incarnated during the tenth congress in the so-called “factions” of the “workers opposition” and the “democratic centralists”, the that, far from constituting separate platforms, were essentially consistent with the Party leadership, but had different views on some particularly controversial points related to the internal conduct of affairs. Thus, the “workers opposition” (led by Alexander Shliapnikov, one of the few Bolshevik leaders of workers’ origin, who would be executed during Stalin’s Great Terror in 1937, and by Alexandra Kollontai) raised the delicate issue of the role of the unions in a socialist government, and the need for union leaders to be actually elected by the workers and not simply “nominated” by the Party authorities. The “democratic centralists”, for their part, were concerned about the growing trend towards excessive centralization and authoritarianism coming from the top of the organization. Both “heresies” were promptly condemned in respective resolutions of the aforementioned congress and, although the value of pluralism of ideas as the driving force behind the Party was still formally emphasized, this unequivocal condemnation set a precedent that, even for many of those who at that time supported, it would mean in the long run humiliation, torture and death, with future Stalinist purges as the apotheosis of a Party enthroned in the most absolute power, based on a logic of unconditional submission to the dictates of the center, whose successive comings and goings turns were confused with what each moment had to be captured as the revealed truth. In Radek’s words: “By voting this resolution, I feel that it could also be used against us, and yet I support it… That the Central Committee in a moment of danger take the most severe measures against the best comrades, if so considers it necessary … even if the Central Committee is wrong! That is less dangerous than the indecision that is beginning to be observed ”. [2]

Child victim of famine

Both the peasant uprisings and the Kronstadt rebellion were drowned in blood, but the problems that gave rise to them required more than fire and rhetoric to make it possible to maintain the Bolshevik regime in power. Thus, Lenin, always with his sights set on the main objective ─the communist society─, but with the great tactical ability to remake himself (and back down), modifying his scheme to adapt to the prevailing circumstances, decides to turn in the opposite direction of march: suspension of food confiscations and replacement of them by a tax in kind, resumption of private industrial and commercial activity, freedom for peasants to sell their surpluses in the market and abandonment of the utopian idea of ​​abolishing the money for the implementation of monetary policy measures. In short, a return to the hated “capitalism.” These measures, dubbed the “New Economic Policy”, constituted a kind of “pact” with the largest class of the Russian people: the peasantry. And, by the late 1920s, its effect would be that of a spectacular recovery in Soviet agriculture, reaching and surpassing pre-World War I levels.

One of the many cases of human cannibalism during the famine

But, in the immediate term, the new economic measures came too late: two successive droughts put some 30 million people on the brink of hunger, there was no surplus left (since everything had been confiscated), and the cultivated area was already severely diminished. The area most affected was precisely the one that in normal times generated the largest crops, the region of the Volga black lands, which included the provinces of Kazan, Ufa, Orenburg and Samara. In July 1921, the situation was so catastrophic that the Kremlin had no choice but to acknowledge what was happening, although initially it did so through a private actor, the writer Máximo Gorki, who, on July 13, issued a communicated to the international community, requesting help with food and medicine. On the 23rd, the United States Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, responded to Gorki’s request, offering the assistance of the American Relief Administration (ARA), which he himself created, in order to provide aid to the European countries of the postwar. Such assistance was offered under two conditions: that ARA organizations could operate independently in the affected areas and that American citizens held in Soviet prisons were released. Both conditions were accepted by Lenin, who, privately, called Hoover “a liar and impertinent”, worthy of being “slapped”. During the maximum extension of its effort, the ARA (together with other organizations, such as the Red Cross, represented by the Norwegian philanthropist Fridtjof Nansen) came to feed 10 million people daily, totaling an aid of 61.6 million dollars (more than 900 million dollars today) for the entire period of his performance. In June 1923, relations between the ARA and the Bolsheviks became practically unsustainable, due to mutual mistrust and rumors that by then the Soviet government was exporting part of its own cereal production, which made a new campaign difficult. obtaining funds to continue humanitarian aid. The following month the ARA was no longer operating on Soviet soil.

ARA personnel and vehicle

The famine of 1921-22 was the worst calamity to hit Russia up to that time, since the time of the great medieval plagues. Despite the fact that famines occurred with some regularity in Russian territory, they had never reached such an extreme of horror or lethality: the last great famine, that of 1891-92, had claimed some 400 thousand victims; those for 1921-22 are estimated at several million, although the exact figure will never be known because simply no one was keeping track (the Soviet Central Statistical Office estimated the population deficit between 1920 and 1922 at 5.1 million people). And those who suffered the worst were (as they would also be 10 years later, in the famine of 1932-33) the peasants, who, despite new appearances, were still seen by the regime as the detested seed from which it tended. always to sprout capitalism, unless they were forcibly prevented from supplying and acting for themselves, as Stalin would try during the collectivization of agriculture. As for Lenin (whose keen sense of tactical timing has already been emphasized), the famine was for him nothing more than an occasion to subdue one of the few remaining enemies of the regime: the Orthodox Church. Just as he had shown no compassion for the starving men of 1891-92, he did not show it now, undaunted in his obsession with displacing any possible obstacle in his race to absolute power:

… ”It is precisely now and only now, when in famine-stricken regions people are eating human flesh and hundreds, if not thousands, of corpses crowd the roads, that we can (and therefore must) carry out the confiscation of Church valuables with the most savage and ruthless energy, while still crushing any kind of resistance. It is just now and only now that the vast majority of the peasantry will be for us, or at least will not be in a position to support in any meaningful way the handful of clergymen of the black centuries or the reactionary petty bourgeois in the cities, who want and they can come to violently resist the Soviet authority ”… [3]

Children’s bodies removed from an orphanage

By Guillermo W. Cedrez.
[1] Schapiro, Leonard, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Vintage, New York, 1971, p. 206.

[2] Ibid., Pp. 215 and 216.

[3] Secret letter from Lenin to Molotov for members of the Politburo, March 19, 1922, RTsKhIDNI, F.2, op. I, d. 22,947, quoted in Pipes, Richard, The Unknown Lenin, From the Secret Archive, Yale UP, New Haven, 1998, p.252.