Evelyn Roy

The Famine in Russia

How the Capitalist States Helped

Source: Communist Review Vol. III, August 1922, No. 4.
Publisher: Communist Party Great Britain
Transcription/HTML: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

IN agonised Russian mother writes to the Moscow newspaper, Pravda, as follows:

“I am a widow with four children, and no one in the world to help me. My oldest child is fourteen, the youngest seven. We have had nothing to eat for days, and I see my children growing weaker and weaker. There is no food to be had. The youngest lay sick in bed, dying. In the night my eldest child came to me and said that we must kill the little one for the sake of the rest, and give them something to eat. I told her it could not be, but then I saw the pinched faces of the three starving little ones, and I thought that in any case, the youngest must die soon, for we had no means to save her. I consented, and in the night my oldest girl and I went quietly while the others slept, and with a knife we killed and cut up the body of my youngest. Now there is food for the other children, but I cannot eat, knowing what it is. I write to you to ask if I have done wrong, and to offer myself for punishment.”

This is but one of a hundred similar instances occurring daily in the famine region of Russia, where for nine months hunger has raged, supplemented by bitter cold and virulent epidemics. Nineteen million people have been affected by this great catastrophe, which will rank among the worst in history. And, to add to the horror of hunger, cold, disease, pestilence and suffering of every description—cannibalism! A civilized people, once the gentlest, most laughter-loving and happiest in the family of nations, has reverted to barbarism. Mothers are secretly killing their children; families are feeding on the flesh of those who have died; human ghouls are digging up the frozen corpses that have been interred, to save themselves from death.

Who is responsible for these horrors?

The thousand-throated enemies of Russia will cry “the Bolsheviks.”

But those who know the truth will reply, “Capitalism.”

Let us not speak here of the causes of the famine. Careful historians will record the fact that seven years of warfare had depleted the labour, livestock and seed-grains of the richest grain-producing region of Russia to such a point that since 1918 crop-scarcities had produced a condition that threatened famine even before the withering drought of 1921 completed the havoc wrought by war and revolution. Let us rather speak of the reason why, in this twentieth century, with all the facilities of science and civilization at the beck and call of mankind; with telegraphs and wireless and railroads and swift ocean greyhounds ready to act as willing servants for transporting help from one world’s end to the other, why is it that nineteen million people anywhere, be they on the banks of the Volga or of the Ganjes, should be reduced to starvation and to cannibalism?

How is it that in the year of grace 1921, with the corn-bins of the most Christian countries full to bursting and with farmers going bankrupt for lack of a market to sell their grain; with the factories of the world lying idle to relieve the glut of overproduction during the war, and as a result of this hundreds of thousands of unemployed men and women walking the streets of all the great metropoli in search of work; with great ships congesting every port and empty trains running across each continent; with Christian preachers thundering the Ten Commandments and proselytizing the heathen to worship their God of Love and Human Kindness—with all this, and more, how is it that starving Russia is not fed and supplied with the essential materials that will enable her next year to help herself? Truly, it is an enigma, since by so doing the paralysis of overproduction and unemployment that cripple the Christian world would find immediate relief.

“But who is to pay?” asks the twentieth century business man, who prays every Sunday in church for forgiveness for the week’s transgressions. “The Bolsheviks are bankrupt; they have abolished private property, and the famine is their punishment. Let them suffer until they change their ideas or their government.”

The capitalist governments consulted together when the call for help went forth a year ago—when there was still enough food to keep the terror-stricken population until relief should arrive; when the hot sun still shone on the blighted fields, and water and railways were open to transport all the help that could be sent. The Supreme Economic Council of the League of Nations deliberated; the Premiers and Presidents of the world’s great powers held weighty conclaves, and the sum total of their decisions was that neither help nor credit could be extended to a Government which repudiated its foreign debts.

Meanwhile, from Samara, the Urals, and the regions of the Volga, a migration of peoples set out blindly, as in ages past, towards north, east, south and west, searching for food. Those who remained were those whose little store of food still held out, or who believed that the promised help would arrive in time to save them before the winter snows. July, August, September dragged out their burning course, and the belated rains began to fall. The pitiful crops that had been garnered were already exhausted. October ushered in an early winter. Yet more people abandoned their homes and set forth in a desperate, instinctive search for regions of plenty. Already one-third of the population of the famine districts had been carried off, either by migrations or deaths from hunger and disease. People had begun to dig in the earth for roots. Those to whom a horse, a cow, dogs, cats or any domestic animal remained, killed them and ate, thankful for this ration. Those who had not hunted mice, rats, pounded the bark of trees, and gnawed at grasses. The weakest—old men and women, little children—sickened and died. Then came the killing frost; thirty degrees below zero, with no wood to warm the skinny bones that each day protruded further beneath the cracked skin of the starving.

Help came—first Russian help, given miraculously by those who themselves had nothing. Towns and villages contributed flour and potatoes; workers gave their labour; soldiers and civilians formed volunteer corps to work in relief stations; the whole population was mobilised by an energetic State to fight the famine, just as it had been previously mobilised to fight foreign invasion, counterrevolution, and the new economic crisis. Fifteen million poods of seed grain were sent immediately to the famine districts for the fall planting to ensure the next year’s harvest. Soup kitchens, hospitals, service trains, children’s homes, receiving stations, were established in the stricken areas, and transportation provided for a part of the homeless and starving to the big cities, where they were cared for in State institutions. All government departments, the army, factories, workshops, and every organised group contributed their quota by maintaining homes for children or adults, by working extra hours in each week, by special contributions of food and clothing. All salaries and rations were taxed to pay a monthly contribution to the famine sufferers. Special days were set aside in industrial centres, in which the whole production went to the famine fund. All the tremendous propaganda and organising apparatus of the Soviet Government was brought to bear on the problem of relief to the stricken provinces, and long before the first train-load of food was sent from abroad the Russian Communist Party had measured the terrible need and had organised all the resources of the country to meet it as best they could.

Then came the Quakers, the Nansen Commission, and the American Relief Administration. The Quakers, who have maintained feeding centres for children ever since the Revolution, were the first in the field after the Russians. Their organisation has grown to such an extent that they are now feeding 83,000 persons, and they have raised a fund of 300,000. Then came the American Relief Administration, and everyone in Russia will remember the thrill of hope that went through the land when the news was published that the agreement had been signed at Riga, and the first American food train had crossed the Russian border twenty-four hours later. With a $15,000,000 fund behind them, and their organisation perfected during war service, they show a record of 1,800,000 children fed up to January 31st, with a promise of 2,000,000 children and 5,000,000 adults by February 1st. The Nansen Commission for international relief work in Russia has raised up to the end of January 1,000,000, with 250,000 adults and children fed. The Committee for Famine Relief of the Far Eastern Republic had delivered, up to February 15th, 600,000 gold roubles and 100,000 poods of foodstuff, this amount including contributions from other Far Eastern countries such as China and Mongolia. The International Federation of Trade Unions (The Amsterdam International) and the Second International together have collected 794,000 gulden (414,000 roubles gold) out of this 75,000 poods foodstuff and 1,000,000 German marks worth of medicaments delivered. The Relief Organisation of the Third International outside Russia has collected and delivered to date 150,000,000 German marks, 200,000 poods foodstuff, besides automobiles, trucks, locomobiles, field kitchens, etc., and 52,100 persons fed up to November 1st. The Friends of Soviet Russia, working in the United States, collected, up to February 1st, $330,000 and $250,000 worth of wearing apparel. The American Mennonites have agreed to send $50,000 and the Dutch Mennonites $75,000, but, so far, nothing has been received.

Various private individuals and organisations of different character have contributed a total of 758,920 gold roubles, up to February 15th, of which the most generous was a fund of 20,000 raised by the Manchester Guardian.[*]

The grand total of contributions to date from the various bourgeois governments, as distinct from individual or organisational donations, consists of 72,444,900 gold roubles and 300,000 poods foodstuff. The itemised list of contributions per government, which may prove of interest, is as follows:—


Far Eastern Republic
American Relief

6,000,000 fr.
(5,000,000 fr. in army stores)
6,000,000 lire
30,000,000 kr.
1,500,000 kr.
750,000 fr.
500,000 kr.
1,000,000 kr.
140,000 poods flour and rice
50,000 poods flour
100,000 poods flour
100,000 fr.
10,000,000 Es. mks.
5,000 pesetas
10,000 roubles gold
20,000,000 dollars
15,000,000 dollars
6,000 roubles gold
100,000 fr.

72,444,900 roubles gold
300,000 poods foodstuff

The total contributions from foreign individuals, organisations and governments to January 31st were:—

120,000,000 gold roubles.
4,500,000 poods foodstuff.

The bulk of this has come from the United States. At first glance the whole amount may seem generous, but when we consider the immense need, coupled with the fact that nine weary months have passed in the collecting of it, and that most of the money is still on paper with the food and essential materials it could buy still undelivered, it is clear why the famine conditions have become worse instead of better. Nineteen million people cannot be fed daily on even their present pitiable ration of ½lb. of foodstuff, with the amount subscribed. Russia has, of course, provided the lion’s share, and it is due chiefly to the herculean efforts of the Russian government and its people that Dr. Nansen was able to report that ten million people have been arranged for in the next three months, leaving nine millions unprovided for unless immediate help is forthcoming. Food is but one item, although a big one, on the long list of necessities, first among which rank seed grains for the fall planting and agricultural- machinery to replace the horses and cattle carried off by the war and scarcity. Medicaments are a first essential in a region where famine has been supplemented by typhus, dysentery, scarletina, diphtheria, cholera, and tuberculosis. The sanitary trains, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, medicines, etc., which have been provided are too few to cope with the tremendous mortality resulting from the weakness and exhaustion of the inhabitants. There is an urgent need for beds, bedding, disinfectants, clothing, instruments, medicainents, medical literature, and cleansing soap. In one district alone on the Volga, out of a population of 350,000 souls, 40,000 died of hunger from June to November.

Who, in the long run, is responsible for the set-back to civilisation that famine and death and cannibalism have brought to the Russian people? Is it the Bolsheviks, who have manfully set their shoulders to the wheel, undaunted by this staggering catastrophe, or is it capitalism, which, upon hearing nine months ago that nineteen million people must die of famine unless immediate help was sent, responded:—

A Government which repudiates its foreign debts cannot expect to receive credit.”


* Up to date the Manchester Guardian has collected 60,000.—(Editor).