Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Russian Job: The Forgotten Story of How America Saved the Soviet Union from Ruin

by Douglas Smith
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019
Ron Drees, Reviewer

An American-Russian Group Examines Evidence of Starvation and Cannibalism 
in the Soviet Union, 1921

The Russian Job begins in the spring of 1920, perhaps 16 months after the end of the Great War, with a drought in the Volga River Basin resulting in crop failures and famine affecting tens of thousands of square miles occupied by millions of peasants. This calamity aggravated the earlier seizure by the Communist government of almost all grain from previous harvests. The results were over 100,000 peasants left their homes in search of food, while parents and others committed murder and then cannibalized the victims. Guesstimates, literally educated guesses, placed the final death toll in excess of six million. As to the role of the United States, that is the story that Smith tells.

While the U. S. government chipped in $20 million, it was a private organization, the American Relief Administration, headed by a former and bored mining engineer, Herbert Hoover, along with several hundred Americans, who organized and administered the relief efforts. Hoover was already famous for fighting hunger in Belgium. To overcome the famine in the Ukraine and elsewhere, the ARA had to fight the nonstop paranoia of Communist authorities who suspected them of plotting to overthrow the government, a decrepit railroad system, intransigent bureaucracy, unbelievably brutal winters, disease, and the lawlessness of many Soviet cities and towns.

The ARA succeeded, feeding perhaps ten million adults and children between 1921 and 1923 while also delivering large scale medical and clothing relief, and saving the Communist revolution, which denied American assistance. But there were casualties. Several Americans disappeared into the abyss of starving Russian towns. Several love affairs were unrequited, one way or the other. Several of those who returned to the U.S. were never satisfied with anything they ever did in normality, compared to the challenges and satisfaction of feeding a starving nation. One even placed an ad in the ARA alumni publication, looking for a starving nation or some natural disaster needing long-term assistance. Hoover went on to organize assistance to victims of the 1927 Mississippi River flooding (another forgotten chapter in American history) and, unfortunately for him, was elected president.

Smith's book has only one map, but that was sufficient to diagram the vastness of the disaster. The book is well illustrated with photographs of the victims, ARA volunteers, and Russian authorities. We are all familiar with wartime photos of suffering, but these of the starved children are worse. Smith should have spent more text in explaining how ARA set up and ran kitchens to feed the starving. Read this book to learn what a great nation does and what makes a nation great, helping those who cannot help themselves.

Ron Drees


  1. Good review, Ron. The story of Russia at this time is horrific and we can only be glad that the USA was able to put such a considerable dent in the results of the horror.

  2. Good subject matter. I look forward to reading it. Excellent review. Cheers