The Russian Job

Douglas Smith | 12 mins



THE RAINS DIDN’T COME IN THE SPRING OF 1920. It was unusually hot, and by planting season the ground had been baked hard. The dry weather carried on throughout the summer and into the autumn. The harvests proved small. That winter saw scant snow covering the land, followed by a second parched spring. The worst drought in thirty years gripped much of Soviet Russia in its deadly grasp: nearly the entire length of the Volga River Basin, from Nizhny-Novgorod in the north all the way to the Caspian Sea in the south, and from Ukraine in the west to the edge of the Ural Mountains in Asia. Villages were starving. Over a hundred thousand peasants left their homes in search of food. Russia was facing a catastrophe.

Life for the Russian peasant had never been easy, even after the end of serfdom in 1861. The peasants eked out a meager existence not much beyond subsistence levels. Farming methods were primitive, the land was overcrowded, taxes were heavy. In the late 1880s, the Russian state began a massive program of industrialization, to be financed by the sale of grain abroad. Ne doedim, no vyvezem—we may not eat enough, but we’ll export—became the motto of the effort to bring tsarist Russia up to the modern lifestyle of the West. Tax collectors were sent out into the countryside to redouble their efforts; peasant farmers were forced to hand over an ever larger share of their rye, wheat, and barley. Between 1881 and 1890, the average yearly export of major grains almost doubled.

And then, in the late summer of 1891, the crops failed following a horrendous drought. Peasants ran out of food and survived on what they called goly khleb, hunger bread: an odious loaf made from a small dose of flour mixed with some sort of food substitute, usually lebeda—saltbush or orache—that when consumed for any length of time causes serious illness. By December, the Ministry of the Interior estimated more than ten million people would need government relief. Leo Tolstoy, the conscience of the nation, publicized the extent of the famine and organized relief, thus helping to let the world know of the full scale of the disaster. America was among the countries to come to Russia’s aid. A group of Minnesotans sent a ship full of Midwestern grain that was greeted by fireworks and a jubilant crowd when it arrived at the Baltic port of Libau in March 1892. In the end, the people of Minnesota donated over 5.4 million pounds of flour and $26,000 worth of supplies to combat the famine on the other side of the globe. The generosity of the Americans was commemorated by the artist Ivan Aivazovsky, the great master of Romantic seascapes, in two paintings that he himself delivered to America in 1893 along with other gifts of thanks from Tsar Alexander III. The paintings hung for decades in the Corcoran Gallery until First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy saw them and had them moved to the White House.

The Russian government mounted its own relief effort, which, though bedeviled by setbacks and inefficiencies, at its peak provided more than eleven million people with supplemental food. The state was joined in its efforts by a great many in educated society. Moved by the plight of the hungry masses, Anna Ulyanova, a twenty-seven-year-old nobleman’s daughter from the town of Simbirsk on the Volga River, distributed food and medicine to the needy, like so many others of her background. Her brother Vladimir, however, was an exception. Not only did he refuse to aid the suffering, he welcomed the famine, since he believed it would help destroy the people’s faith in God and the tsar. Revolution, not charity, would save the peasants, he said. “The overthrow of the tsarist monarchy, this bulwark of the landowners, is their only hope for some sort of decent life, for an escape from hunger, from unending poverty.” Vladimir, better known as Lenin, his revolutionary nom de guerre, understood even as a young man the connection between food and power.


Vladimir Lenin

Russia in 1921 was confronting more than a drought. Indeed, the lack of rain played only a secondary role in the famine. Much more important had been seven years of war and revolution. By the end of 1916, after two years of brutal fighting in the First World War, Russia was experiencing grain shortages and bread riots in major cities. In February 1917, factory women protesting the high cost and lack of bread in the capital of Petrograd sparked the revolution that led to the fall of the tsarist regime the next month. The food crisis and the state’s inability to address it had been directly responsible for the death of the three-hundred-year-old Romanov dynasty.

After overthrowing the interim Provisional Government in October, the Bolsheviks set about establishing a monopoly of power, arresting and killing their political opponents. Their actions plunged Russia into a civil war of unspeakable barbarism that would last several years. Foreign forces—including the British, French, Americans, and Japanese—landed on Russian territory, first in the hope of keeping Russia in the war against Germany, and then offering nominal support to the White armies fighting against the Bolshevik Red Army. Complicating matters still further, Great Britain’s Royal Navy established a blockade in the Baltic Sea that isolated the new Soviet government from the West for many months.

The Bolsheviks knew from the start that bread was crucial to their survival. If they didn’t solve the food problem, the revolution would fail. Leon Trotsky, the great revolutionary and prominent Soviet official who, among other things, was then head of the Extraordinary Commission for Food and Transport, told the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets in April 1918: “I say it quite openly; we are now at war, and it is only with guns that we will get the grain we need. Our only choice now is civil war. Civil war is the struggle for bread [. . .] Long live the civil war!” A key tactic in the effort to seize the grain was to stoke class warfare in the villages. The Bolsheviks created Committees of Poor Peasants (Kombedy) to confiscate the grain of the wealthier peasants, the so-called kulaks, and hand it over to the state. Often composed of outsiders, the Kombedy terrorized the local population, stealing their personal property, making summary arrests, and further destabilizing rural life, an effort Lenin endorsed as part of a larger goal of destroying age-old and, in his eyes, backward peasant culture. A Provisioning Army (Prodovol’stvennaya armiya or Prodarmiya), consisting largely of unemployed Petrograd workers, was also created and sent out into the countryside, both to spread Bolshevik propaganda and to help in the requisitioning of grain. Fyodor Dan, a leader of the Menshevik Party, called it “a crusade against the peasantry.”

Lenin, however, was only getting started. In August 1918, he ordered that wealthy peasants be taken hostage and executed should the requisition targets not be met. He sent this directive to the Penza Soviet:

The kulak uprising in your five districts must be crushed without pity [. . .] You must make an example of these people. (1) Hang (I mean hang publicly, so that people see it) at least 100 kulaks, rich bastards, and known bloodsuckers. (2) Publish their names. (3) Seize all their grain. (4) Single out the hostages per my instructions [. . .] Do all this so that for miles around people see it all, understand it, tremble.

Even fellow Bolsheviks were aghast at what was being done to the peasants. “The measures of extraction are reminiscent of a medieval inquisition,” commented one official after witnessing a requisition brigade at work in southern Russia. “They make the peasants strip and kneel on the ground, whip or beat them, sometimes kill them.” In June 1918, Joseph Stalin traveled to Tsaritsyn with two armored trains carrying 450 Red Army soldiers to secure food for the capital. His initial success was not enough for Lenin, who felt Stalin had been soft and ordered him to “be merciless” toward their enemies in the hunt for food. “Be assured our hand will not tremble,” Stalin replied. “We won’t show mercy to anyone [. . .] We will bring you bread.”

The grain quota established by the central government grew ever higher. By 1920, it had risen from eighteen to twenty-seven million poods. The peasants called that year’s requisition campaign “The Iron Broom,” for it swept the villages clean of practically every last kernel of grain, leaving the peasants with almost nothing. Local authorities could not believe what they were seeing and sent back reports to their bosses in Moscow that such actions were “senseless and futile.” Even though the war against the White armies had largely ended with the defeat of General Pyotr Wrangel’s forces in late 1920, still the campaigns against the peasants raged on.

Peasants responded to the brutal policies of the Bolsheviks in a number of ways. One was to hide their grain, be it under the floor, down the well, stuffed in thatched roofs, or behind fake walls and secret compartments in their huts. The men of the Prodarmiya soon caught on to the peasants’ tricks and became relentless in ferreting out their hidden stores, regardless of the damage they caused. A second response was to reduce the land under cultivation and grow only the bare minimum necessary for their own survival, thus denying any surplus for the state. Between 1917 and 1921, as much as a third of the arable land in the main agricultural regions of Russia was removed from production. The harvest of 1920 was just barely over half that of 1913.

And some peasants decided to fight back. Revolts against grain requisitioning first erupted in the summer of 1918 and grew as time went on. The uprisings turned into an actual war in the summer of 1920, when a former factory worker and schoolteacher by the name of Alexander Antonov organized the Partisan Army of the Tambov region. Eventually growing to some fifty thousand men, many of them Red Army deserters, Antonov’s peasant army swept out of Tambov and soon spread into the lower Volga region—Samara, Saratov, Tsaritsyn, and Astrakhan—and even into western Siberia. “Banditry has overwhelmed the whole province,” wrote terrified Bolshevik leaders in Saratov in a telegram to Moscow. “The peasants have seized all the stocks—3 million poods—from the grain stores. They are heavily armed, thanks to all the rifles from the deserters. Whole units of the Red Army have simply vanished.” The fire of revolt seemed unstoppable, and the Soviet government was losing control over ever more territory.

Toward the end of 1920, the Cheka—the Soviet political police, precursor to the KGB—admitted that, except for areas around Moscow, Petrograd, and the Russian north, the entire country was convulsed with unrest. The situation grew worse in early 1921. The chairman of the Samara Province Cheka wrote to his superiors in Moscow in a top-secret memorandum: “The masses now have a hostile attitude to the communists [. . .] Cholera and scurvy are raging [. . .] Desertions from the garrison are growing.” Lenin was beside himself. The peasant war, he warned his colleagues, was “far more dangerous to us than all the Denikins, Kolchaks, and Yudeniches put together.” The key to the fate of the Soviet government, in other words, lay with the country’s rebellious peasants.

And it wasn’t just the peasants. The Bolsheviks began to lose support in the cities, too, among workers and soldiers, once their most devoted followers. In January 1921, bread rations were cut by as much as 30 percent in a number of cities. Angry and hungry, the workers of Petrograd went on strike. Demonstrations quickly devolved into riots. Cheka detachments had to be dispatched to restore order; martial law was declared in late February 1921. The following month, the sailors at the Kronstadt naval base rebelled against what they called the “Communist autocracy,” characterizing the country’s rulers as “worse than [Tsar] Nicholas” and issuing a call for their own “third revolution.” Lenin saw to it that the mutiny was crushed. Over two thousand men were sentenced to death, more than six thousand sent off to prison.

To save the regime, Lenin announced at the Tenth Party Congress in March a strategic retreat from the extremist policies of the past. “War Communism,” as the initial phase of the revolution came to be known, was to be replaced by the New Economic Policy (NEP), a concession to capitalism and market forces that allowed for private property and ownership of retail trade and small industry. Most important, NEP ended the forced grain requisitions in favor of a tax in kind (i.e., grain or other agricultural products). Henceforth, peasants would know exactly what their obligation to the state was, thus giving them the incentive to grow as much as possible, keeping any surplus for themselves.

Meanwhile, the war against Antonov’s peasant army raged on into the summer of 1921. An army of one hundred thousand led by General Mikhail Tukhachevsky mounted a campaign of ruthless terror that included the use of heavy artillery and airplanes against what the state called “bandits.” Soldiers were given orders to shoot on sight any person who refused to give his name. Families guilty of harboring bandits were to be arrested and deported from the province. Their property was to be seized, and their eldest son executed forthwith. Tukhachevsky’s army took thousands of hostages and interned them in kontsentratsionnye lageria—concentration camps. By August, ten camps in Tambov Province alone held over thirteen thousand prisoners. Lenin ordered his general to suffocate the enemy: “The forests where the bandits are hiding must be cleared with poison gas. Careful calculations must be made to ensure that the cloud of asphyxiating gas spreads throughout the forest and exterminates everything hidden there.”

Eventually, the Red Army gained the upper hand. Although Antonov would not be caught—and killed—until June 1922, the last of the rebels were being mopped up by the autumn of 1921.

The Bolsheviks, however, had vanquished one foe only to face another, much more dangerous one. In terms of sheer numbers, the famine of 1921 was the worst Europe had ever known. The Soviet government estimated that some thirty million people were facing death. The concessions to the peasants made in March at the party congress had come too late to alter the situation. Lenin had said then: “If there is a harvest, then everybody will hunger a little, and the government will be saved. Otherwise, since we cannot take anything from people who do not have the means of satisfying their own hunger, the government will perish.” Two years of drought, and several more of war and senseless cruelty, meant whatever harvest there might be would never come close to feeding a hungry Russia.

THE GOVERNMENT HAD been receiving reports of the growing crisis since the beginning of 1921. One Cheka report from January described the famine sweeping over Tambov Province, which it attributed to the “orgy” of requisitioning in 1920. The waves of refugees fleeing hunger throughout the Volga Basin became too large to ignore.

Yet that is just what the government did. Any official mention of the famine was forbidden until July 2, 1921, when the newspaper Pravda published the following notice on the back page: “This year the grain harvest will be lower than the average for the last decade.” It went on to add that there had been “a feeding problem on the agricultural front.” Orwellian language if ever there was. Ten days later, Pravda printed a fuller and more honest story that characterized the famine as “a catastrophe for all of Russia that is having an influence on every aspect of the country’s economic and political life.” It instructed readers in the famine zone to stay where they were and not to add to the “wave of refugees” or give in to the panic and rumors that represented such a “very large danger” to the country at present. The bourgeois West had been informed of the famine, Pravda went on, but it cautioned readers against placing any hope in the “capitalist predators,” who would not only be overjoyed to see the working people of Russia starve, but would use their suffering as a opportunity to organize a counterrevolution against the Soviet government.


A family of refugees in search of food

The West had indeed been made aware of the catastrophe early that month, in two separate appeals for help. One had been issued by Tikhon, patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, addressed to the pope, the archbishop of Canterbury, and other world religious leaders. The other had

been made by the writer Maxim Gorky. Apparently, the idea had not belonged to Gorky, who was no great champion of the peasantry. (He even published a book the following year called The Russian Peasant in which he wrote of “the half-savage, stupid, and heavy people of the Russian villages” and expressed the hope that they would die out and be replaced by “a new tribe” of “literate, sensible, hearty people.”) Friends of the writer convinced him to use his considerable moral authority to speak with the Kremlin about issuing an open appeal to the world. Lenin, it seems, did not take much convincing.

In “To All Honest People,” dated July 13, Gorky wrote: “Gloomy days have come for the land of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Mendeleev, Pavlov, Mussorgsky, Glinka and other world-prized men [. . .] Russia’s misfortunes offer humanitarians a splendid opportunity to demonstrate the vitality of humanitarianism [. . .] I ask all honest European and American people for prompt aid to the Russian people. Give bread and medicine.” He included mention of the unprecedented drought afflicting his country, but said nothing about capitalist predators or counterrevolutionaries. Gorky sent the appeal initially to Fridtjof Nansen, the famous Norwegian explorer, scientist, and humanitarian, but Nansen replied that the Russians would be better advised to concentrate their efforts on the Americans, for they alone had the resources to help.

On July 22, 1921, a copy of Gorky’s appeal published in the American press landed on the desk of Herbert Hoover, the U.S. secretary of commerce. As soon as he had read it, Hoover knew what had to be done.