Every so often, a journalist stumbles upon a great, untold story during routine research or interviews. And other times, a mammoth TV organization, such as PBS, stuffs a press release and DVD into your hand and urges you to cover it.
The latter case is how I found out about the terrible Russian famine of 1921-23 – and the American charity that alleviated it, marking perhaps the first time a large-scale relief was extended to an enemy. Historian Bertrand Patenaude tells how Herbert Hoover saved more lives than any person who has ever lived. Yes, I know, hard to believe, but apparently true. (I wrote about it here.)
It’s at once a grim, inspiring, and astonishing story – the American Experience broadcast, The Great Famine, airs nationwide on Monday, April 11, on PBS.
The world barely remembers the terrible famine in the Soviet Russia – why?
Bert Patenaude, author of The Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921, told me that he was a Stanford graduate student writing the last chapters on his dissertation about early Bolshevik food policy when, as he explains it, “I’m seeing what wasn’t such a simple story from the communist side.”
“This was a huge famine could have brought the whole country down. And Americans were bringing in food supplies and relief,” he said. “I couldn’t figure out why nobody talked about it – I resolved at that point to write a book.” (The Stanford University Press book received the 2003 Marshall Shulman Book Prize.)
Of course, a decade later there would be a Stalin-engineered Ukrainian famine that is now considered genocide. That famine, which killed 5 million Ukrainians, has become well known – perhaps, as Bert suggests, because it is “associated with the evil figure of Stalin.” Nevertheless, “this earlier famine was out right out there in the open.”
Author Maxim Gorky wrote to Hoover on behalf of the Soviet government to praise the relief efforts in 1922: “Your help will enter history as a unique, gigantic achievement, worthy of the greatest glory, which will long remain in the memory of millions of Russians whom you have saved from death,” he wrote.
It didn’t happen. The Soviet government had a strong interest in forgetting. In any case, 1921 was a pivotal year for the new market economy, said Bert. That new economic policy (NEP) received the thunder – and the death of perhaps 10 million helpless Russians was quietly erased from the history books.
“As students in history in the 1970s, we did the same thing,” said Bert. “We would never talk about this famine. We would talk about NEP.”
When I was writing the story about his research and the PBS show, I hesitated … I couldn’t say that Bert had actually rescued the tale from oblivion. I was sure to get at least five angry scholars writing to me to complain that they had known about it. Yet Bert admits that the reaction to the story, typically, is “Why didn’t I know anything about this?”
Bert had the perfect Solomonic suggestion: he has retrieved the tale from archival oblivion. With the PBS film, it will no longer be something buried in the Hoover Archives, or a footnote at scholarly conferences – but it will enter the public consciousness, where it deserves to be. Even Gorky said so.