In 1921-22 Herbert Hoover, through his famine relief work saved millions of Russians from starving to death. A century later, malnutrition if not famine will result from Russia’s blockading of Ukraine’s grain exports.
History remembers Herbert Hoover as a failed Depression-era US President, not as a great humanitarian who saved millions from starvation.
Hoover was a brilliant engineer and logistics manager whose achievements included providing food relief services to Belgium during WW1. In 1921 he was Secretary of Commerce when word came of an emerging crisis in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.
In 1920, drought in Soviet Russia had led to failed harvests and famine risks. World War One, the Russian revolution and civil war had caused massive disruption. Red Army “war communism” saw peasant surpluses requestioned. State capacity to deal with a famine crisis was limited, and the Soviet Union itself only came into being in 1922.
In mid-1921 calls went out internationally for help. Maxim Gorky published an open letter seeking European and American support. “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.”
Hoover took responsibility and his leadership quickly saw the American Relief Administration (ARA) running 19,000 kitchens in 28,000 towns and villages in Russia. These fed around 11 million of the 16 million threatened by starvation. The ARA also helped with medical services. By 1923 the drought had broken, the ARA had imported seed grain, and the New Economic Policy (NEP) had abolished prodrazvyorstka (forced grain-requisition).
Maxim Gorgy in a personal letter to Hoover wrote that “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”. The Soviet government presented Hoover with a scroll stating that the Russian people “will never forget the help given them.” However, by his death in 1964 the Soviet press was condemning Hoover as “a spy for the bourgeoisie.”
Today, Russia’s blockading of Ukraine’s grain exports through Black Sea ports is inflating food prices for poorer people in less developed countries, and this will lead to malnutrition and perhaps famine.
President Putin has said that the blockage of grain exports will be eased only if sanctions on Russia are removed. He contends that difficulties in supplying grain to international markets resulted from “erroneous economic and financial policies of Western countries”. However, sanctions imposed by the US and allies are not preventing the export of Ukrainian or Russian agricultural products and inputs, including food and fertilizer.
There is no military logic to the blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea pots. Russia would lose nothing and gain much goodwill through ending it.