July 23, 2021

Lifting Lenin


As improbable as it may seem to us today, the United States saved the Soviet Union twice: the first time was in 1921, during Lenin’s rule when famine struck Russia and thousands were perishing from hunger; the second time came during Stalin’s tenure, when the Soviet Union was desperate for American military assistance. Let’s look at the first instance.

At the end of World War I, the Russian people were suffering. War with Germany, civil war, crop failures and the misrule of the Bolsheviks had wreaked havoc. Famine was ravaging the land.

On July 13, 1921, the celebrated Russian writer Maxim Gorky penned an open letter to Western nations pleading for assistance. “Gloomy days,” Gorky wrote, “have come to 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.”

The letter reached Herbert Hoover, then serving in President Warren G. Harding’s administration as secretary of commerce. Years earlier, Mr. Hoover, director of the American Relief Administration (ARA), had earned an international reputation as the man most responsible for saving the people of Belgium from starvation during World War I.

The story of how Mr. Hoover and the American people responded to Maxim Gorky’s plea is related in “The Russian Job: The Forgotten Story of How America Saved the Soviet Union From Ruin,” a book authored by American historian Douglas Smith, and in “Herbert Hoover: A Life,” by Glen Jeansonne.

A copy of Gorky’s appeal landed on Mr. Hoover’s desk on July 22. “As soon as he read it,” writes Douglas Smith, “Hoover knew what has to be done.”

Mr. Hoover despised the gangster government of the Bolsheviks, but he abhorred the thought of starving people, especially children, even more. The ARA would once again be called upon to assist.

Talks with the Soviets began in Riga, Latvia, in August. The United States had three major demands: the immediate release of all Americans languishing in Soviet prisons; free movement of ARA officials in Soviet territory; and “all warehouses, offices, vehicles, trains and kitchens be clearly marked as belonging to the ‘American Relief Administration.’ If the ARA was going to go to the considerable trouble of aiding the people of Russia, it was going to make certain everyone knew who was helping them,” Mr. Smith wrote.

With the blessing of President Harding, Mr. Hoover floated the idea to the American people. Criticism exploded from the right (“why are we aiding a regime that wants to destroy us?”), and the left (“there is no question that Mr. Hoover plans to use the ARA for political purposes”). The latter commentary added to the Soviet’s worst fears about the ARA.

Mr. Hoover selected Col. William N. Haskell, a West Point graduate who had once directed relief in Armenia. Mr. Jeansonne wrote that “Haskell was shocked by his findings on a tour of the Volga Valley and reported that 10 million peasants faced starvation in Ukraine.”

“A Russian university professor reported in November 1922: ‘Families were killing and devouring fathers, grandfathers and children,’” Mr. Jeansonne wrote.

Although the Soviets distrusted the ARA, Lenin himself came to believe that the ARA could be an avenue to diplomatic recognition and trade with the U.S. “In a note to a Kremlin colleague, Lenin observed, ‘Hoover is a real plus,’” Mr. Jeansonne wrote.

According to Mr. Smith, one of the most amazing men associated with the ARA at this time was Frank Golder, sent to Russia by Mr. Hoover himself to reconnoiter the situation. Born in Odesa, it was Mr. Golder who decided to visit Ukraine even though the ARA mission was restricted to Russia by the Riga agreement. “There is a cry for help from Ukraine,” he wrote, “the inhabitants are suffering from hunger and the terror of bandit raids.” Sadly, the ARA could do little to help.

Still determined to obtain hard currency to build their industry, the Soviets informed Mr. Haskell on November 6, 1922, that they planned to export $50 million worth of grain in the coming months. Mr. Hoover was furious. It was time to cut bait.

So how much help did the ARA provide in lifting Lenin from calamity?

“According to the Soviet press,” Mr. Smith wrote, “it had fed 11 million people – almost a tenth of the population – in 28,000 towns and villages and distributed over 1.25 million food parcels. It had restored 15,000 hospitals serving 80 million patients and inoculated 10 million people against a variety of epidemic diseases.”

Wrote Mr. Jeansonne: The ARA “distributed $8 million in medical supplies and $1.5 million in clothing, and it provided seed for the 1923 crop. By the summer of 1923, the corner had been turned.”

Were the Soviets grateful for Mr. Hoover’s herculean efforts? Some were. The Soviet government itself presented Mr. Hoover with a scroll proclaiming that the Russian people “will never forget the help given them.” Maxim Gorgy composed a personal letter to Mr. Hoover stating that “your help will be inscribed in history as a unique memory of millions of Russians who you saved from death.”

The Soviets, or course, did forget. By the time of Hoover’s death in 1964, the Soviet press was condemning the man as “a spy for the bourgeoisie.”

The American people also forgot. This is unfortunate. At a time when too many in our nation are pushing the narrative that we are a self-centered, uncaring, greedy populace, we need to recall those heroes of our past who once walked on the international stage and made a difference in the lives of so many. Maxim Gorky was looking for “humanitarians.” He found them in Herbert Hoover and the American people.

In the next chapter we will learn how the United States of America saved Stalin. Stay tuned.

Myron Kuropas’s e-mail address is kuropas@comcast.net.