Famine in Russia: the hidden horrors of 1921

12-08-2003 Article, Le Temps, by Francis Haller

Original title: "Secours en temps de paix – la famine en Russie" – Press article published in the Swiss daily "Le Temps" on 12 August 2003. How the Red Cross joined forces with governments in a desperate attempt to save millions of lives.

After the killing fields of the First World War, the political upheavals in Russia and elsewhere, and the rampant spread of disease among exhausted communities, came the threat of food shortages that put an estimated 32 million lives at risk in Russia, Ukraine and Georgia. In 1921, on top of the political chaos that caused the breakdown of whatever health services existed, the region experienced a devastating drought, leading to a generalized famine.  

Thousands of villages were abandoned by their wretched inhabitants, who went scavenging for food wherever they could hope to find it. They survived on grass, clumps of earth, domestic animals... and even human flesh. In June 1921 Lenin acknowledged the looming tragedy, and the writer Gorki appealed to the world for help. The l eadership of the Soviet Red Cross sent a message to Geneva underlining the urgency of the situation.

The ICRC and the newly-formed League of Red Cross Societies* had recently created a joint commission to coordinate relief operations in peace-time. In August the commission, conscious that vast resources would be needed, succeeded in convening an international conference that set up a special relief body for Russia, under the direction of the Norwegian diplomat Fridtjof Nansen.

 Within two weeks Nansen had concluded an agreement with the Soviet authorities for the distribution of aid. The accord gave Nansen's commission the right to bring in whatever personnel he needed, and guaranteed freedom of movement and action. Within this coordinated approach, the American Relief Administration was one o f the first groups to get active, arranging a feeding programme for a million children. By November, half a million railway wagons packed with food and medicine had reached the affected region.

Piled up before the local cemetary, hundreds of corpses.  

Piled up before the local cemetary, hundreds of corpses.
© ICRC / hist-01683-09.jpg

Nansen and the ICRC’s President Gustave Ador called on the League of Nations for financial support. At a meeting in Brussels on 6 October some European countries pledged funds – but others hesitated, fearing that such solidarity might be taken as a sign of recognition for the Soviet regime... Frustrated by this foot-dragging, Nansen travelled to the Volga region to get a first-hand impression of the catastrophe, and on his return stated that “ 19 million people were condemned to die ” unless adequate relief were brought immediately. He backed his words with his own photographs, showing scenes of unspeakable horror.   


 The relief operation grew, and started to take effect during 1922: by September Nansen was able to state that millions of lives had been saved. For those who survived, though, the reality was appalling – an ICRC delegate, Georges Dessonnaz, reported that infants at an Odessa nursery had gouged their heels down to the bone, kicking against their rough blankets while screaming for food.
Dessonnaz later wrote that hundreds of thousands of children looked more like living corpses, and went on t o reflect: “ It seems to me that the cause of our inertia is the fact that all these horrors are happening ‘somewhere else’, far away. The cries and pleas of the starving don’t reach European ears and yet these voices are there… they are still ringing in my ears… ”.  
* now the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies  


Article reproduced with kind permission of Le Temps; no reproduction in any form without the prior permission of Le Temps. The article’s editorial content and style are those of Le Temps and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ICRC, which has provided the summary as an informative guide to the article.