American Descriptions of the Volga Famine

J. P. Goodrich, Letter to Herbert Hoover. November 1921


{Letter of J. P. Goodrich}

November 1, 1921. HERBERT HOOVER, ESQ.,
The honorable the Secretary of Commerce,
United States Department of Commerce,
Washington, D.C.

DEAR MR. HOOVER: On reaching Moscow on the 8th of October I found Col. Haskell had gone to Samara, and in accordance with your request that I make a rapid survey of the famine district. I at once arranged to leave Moscow and on the 10th started, going first to Samara. I am now, as you requested, sending you a preliminary report…

In every commune I was in I saw them, in some fields by hand and in others by machine, gathering seeds which grow in profusion on fallow ground and which they call famine seeds because used only in famine years. These they haul to their communes and place in barns and stacks ready for use when all else fails. They did this in 1891 and tell me that while their live stock will not eat it until all else is exhausted, they will eat it when very hungry and it will keep them alive until spring.

I saw on every hand evidences of the greatest care that nothing having any food value be wasted. Cabbage leaves, melon rinds, and articles of this kind ordinarily thrown away are now utilized.

In one commune, Baro in Saratov, I did not notice a single dog, a rather unusual condition for Russia, and on inquiry the local secretary of the commune told me that they had butchered about all of them and made them into bologna and sausage for use this winter.

Following the custom of this people and its tendency to migrate in famine years from the stricken districts to where there is said to be food in plenty, I found many thousands going in all directions, a few toward Moscow and north Russia, many more to Siberia and others down the Volga River and to the Ukraine.

The population of the city of Samara has decreased over 50,000 and the county communes in my opinion, and from the data obtained in the three communes I visited far more than that. The same thing is true of Saratov. In the German communes alone where the most accurate records are kept, the decrease has been 19 1/2 per cent by migration, cholera, typhus, and starvation, and I am sure it is equally true through the entire famine district. While I am not, as you know, intimately acquainted with the Russian character, this being my first visit. I am very much impressed by the ability of the people to adapt themselves to the very trying situation that confronts them and to a very considerable extent discount the facts as disclosed by the official figures. While all this is true and while the ridiculous so-called human interest stories sent out by sensational newspaper correspondents grossly exaggerate the situation, yet going into the situation as carefully as I could in the limited time at my disposal I am certain that the situation is such that if immediate relief is not given. with the assurance of continued aid until July I hundreds of thousands of people, men, women. and children, will perish in the famine district who otherwise might live.

In making my hurried investigation I did not trust to Government statistics, to appearances in the bazaars or on the cities’ streets, nor in the provincial homes in the large cities, where the children whose parents have died or abandoned them are collected together, dirty, half naked, lousy, half starved, mere skeletons with helpless, hopeless, hunted looks in their eyes, but I went down to these communes. distant from the cities and the railroads, slept in their homes, and ate their bread, selecting for this purpose communes which fairly would represent the average condition throughout the Volga for famine district. I went over their communal records, always well kept, examined their warehouses, the feeding kitchens, their hospitals, and went into the poorer sections of each commune, going into the houses to see for myself the conditions that existed. I am very certain that what I saw there is typical of the conditions that obtain in the Volga Valley from Kazan to the lower Volga, 50 miles below Saratov, which was the limit of my investigation.

The situation is bad at Kazan but worse in Simbirsk, Samara, and Saratov. I am satisfied that as the valley descends below the sea level as it passes through Astrakhan that the situation will grow worse as the low level of the lower Volga. surrounded as it is with lands of much higher elevation. reduces the amount of rainfall.

If I am not able to get the official statistics brought down in October I to you in this letter, I will send them out by next courier, but I will here give you the statistics from two communes, one Russian, the other German, that will give you some idea of the situation that confronts some of the worst of the communes. I visited the commune of Schilling, about 40 versts south of Saratov. It has 3,798 people and 4,467 desiatins of land, 3,595 desiatins of which is plow land and the Test pasture, hay, and willow land …

You will notice that while in 1919 and 1920 they produced capita, this year they produced but one pood per capita. They have been selling their live stock and everything they could spare to buy food. They are gathering weeds and making every preparation possible in this commune, but they say one-half at least must starve unless they have help, and the facts seem fully to justify the statement.

They have sowed 330 desiatins of rye, over half a crop, with seed furnished by the Government and have plowed and are prepared to sow 800 desiatins of wheat if they can secure the seed. They have 1,146 children under 15 years of age and 800 must have help or die. Eighteen orphans without any parents are being cared for by the commune. Deaths from unusual causes since January 1; Cholera, 25; typhus, 30; starvation, 45.

I examined all their communal warehouses and found a small amount of grain in one house, the others empty. They say they can get along until January I if they have the assurance of help after that time. They say the Government has promised help but they are afraid it can not give much relief …

At Norga, admitted to be the richest commune in the Volga Valley for in the years of plenty they purchased 5,000 desiatins and paid for diem out of their communal earnings … A strong sturdy well-fed looking lot of men met us at the communal hall and presented to us the seriousness of the situation and the amount of food in hands. I examined their warehouses and found them as represented. They told me that entire families had died of starvation and that on one day they had buried eight. I counted as I went out more than 100 new-made graves.

I said to them “Will you tell me why it is in this commune that while the majority of you have enough to eat and a surplus to carry you for at least four months that you allow your neighbors to die of starvation?” There was a tense silence for a few moments as the interpreter put the question; finally one strong-faced peasant slowly said “You Americans, living in a land of plenty. don’t understand. It can not be helped; there is not enough to feed us all; it is necessary that some should die that others might live.”

I could tell you stories of want, suffering, and death due to underfeeding and starvation. Of an old peasant found at Kazan last week along the roadside dead with a little dead child in his arms. Of another father at the same place without food, seeking, with three children, to enter a boat to go down the river, where he might find help, and when told but two of the children could go promptly threw the youngest in the river and boarded the boat, saying “if I can not go, all three must die; it is better that one should die and the others live,” and they let him go his way. Of two young peasant girls we found an the outskirts of Barn, their parents dead of cholera four days before, and they with nothing to eat for four days but cabbage leaves and carrots eaten raw, poor, hungry looking. frightfully emaciated, half naked waifs shivering in the cold raw wind, and I could tell you of these things until you would be sick at heart, as I have been. but that does not help to solve the situation.

The Government records, the general condition as I found it, the typical communes I visited, and the facts I have been able to gather from every source show famine conditions far worse than in 1891, when over 200,000 perished, because this one follows six years of foreign and civil war–a condition that demands immediate and effective action if the saving of human life is worth while.

The work the American Relief Association is doing under Col. Haskell is wonderfully fine and efficient. He rapidly is perfecting a highly effective organization under very difficult conditions. This work will save the lives of many thousands of children and will not be forgotten by the people of Russia. If possible, the rations should be increased from 1,200,000 to at least 1,500,000. and this will by no means reach all.

Adult feeding should go hand in hand with it. if at all possible, and to that end the Soviet Government should be required to lay their cards on the table and tell you frankly what they can do, so that whatever outside help is given will only be to supplement theirs. Hospitals all over Russia are in great need, and Col. Haskell advises me that the American Relief Association is in a position to supply that need.

I had a long talk with Dr. Dagnov, of the Renza Hospital, of 800 beds. He has but two thermometers in the hospital and is without the drugs so necessary to treat typhus and cholera, both of which are prevalent. He tells me 75 per cent of his patients die when, with proper treatment, less than 50 per should die. His best physician, underpaid and underfed, unable in his condition to stand the work. committed suicide the day before. There is a shortage of 40 per cent of doctors in Russia. At Kazan the hospitals are crowded with patient% who are really hungry cases, need food and not medicine. and should be at a feeding station and not a hospital, but the American Relief Association is not now in a position to feed adults outside of hospitals. I was present at the conference with the officials and those in charge of the hospital at Kazan. and they were greatly pleased with the assurance that Col. Haskell gave them at that time that several carloads of supplies were on the way to relieve their distress.

Finally, our Government, through the Grain Corporation or some other organization, should furnish Russia enough hard spring wheat to enable them to sow the millions of desiatins of land already plowed and ready for sowing in the spring. If this is done, then Russia’s immediate famine question is settled for this year and next, and the American Relief Association and all other charitable organizations could and should withdraw from Russia not later than August, next year.

In every commune I visited I asked them the question, “Can you Lake care of yours, elf after next July?” and without the slightest hesitation they all answered “Yes.” The governors of Kazan, Samara, Saratov, and Markstadt all confirmed this.

I am sending to you, under separate cover. some comments on the political situation, and also send you herewith a rather rough translation of an article that appeared in a Kazan paper the day we were there, and later on this week will forward to you some statistics concerning the famine situation.

J. P. Goodrich.

Source: Russia Relief: hearings before the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, Sixty-seventh Congress, second session, on H.R. 9459 and H.R. 9548 for the relief of the distressed and starving people of Russia, December 13 and 14, 1921 (Washington : Govt. Print. Off., 1921), pp. 24-30, 33-35.

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