Victor Serge

Help for Russia

The Reality of the Famine

(8 November 1921)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. I No. 6, 8 November 1921, pp. 51–52.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Famine. – It has been talked of for months – every day. In terms often earnest, stirring, with figures, with theoretical and convincing demonstrations! I have read in the Petit Parisien, which for a long time approved of Pichon of the blockade and of Noulens of Jaroslav [1], that “Lenine and Trotzky have done their work well”. For months the bourgeois press of the universe has been repeating this, which in its imbecility surpasses infamy. For months we have been answering, have fixed the responsibilities, have shown the extent of the cataclysm, have appealed for aid. But every time that I read in any workers’ paper in the world, these four terrible words: “The Famine in Russia”, I cannot help doubting whether they know what these words mean, what heinous, unspeakable, inhuman things they mean. Words are lacking. I fear that the workers, even the comrades, become used to this “heading”. These words are pronounced at table, in the cafés, in a chance conversation as ordinary words. Certain it is that they signify something formidable and painful – one knows that – but something far away and abstract.

Well then, this must no longer be. We must know all the reality, all the truth. Precise pictures are needed, to make hearts bleed, to torment the imagination, to bring forth the will to combat and aid. If the worker of Paris or of Rome, who returns home every evening through lighted streets where wealth and luxury are evident, could see with his own eyes the horror of Samara or only the feeble reflection of it that we have in the large cities of Red Russia – what rage would seize him – and how he would to-morrow become more powerful, more deeply devoted to the work of aid, more hostile to the class enemy, the rich.

Our newspapers are filled with things more frightful than anything Edgar Allan Poe has written. Nightmares haunt us everywhere. You have often read; “Twenty million human beings die of hunger ...” But you don’t know what that means. It is impossible for you to know it; the number and these facts are beyond our imaginative faculties. Three entire Belgiums, half of France in agony. What agony! Do you understand?

Little as it might be, I would want to visualize this reality for you. During a whole winter (1919) when no one spoke of aid for Russia, but when, on the contrary they were making speeches in the Parliaments of Europe, on how to tighten the blockade – I have seen in the streets of Petrograd passers-by, old men and women, shrunken for the most part, stopping suddenly in the snow, at the threshold of some house. They would set down, with a trembling hand, the small receptacle containing some tasteless gray soup, that they were bringing to their homes; they would sit down there, broken in two, the breath short, the eyes moist, seized with dizziness. Lamentable faces, wrinkled, swollen, cadaverous, half dead. Sometimes they would vomit, or else a fainting-fit would suddenly calm their features. They would be carried away. Other passers-by with cadaverous faces, would hasten their pace saying “Golod – the Famine”. The third or fourth time they fell, they would die of slow starvation.

The official statistics very conservatively acknowledge several thousands of these deaths in Petrograd. But the most trifling sickness would usually carry off the famished person before he died of simple starvation – a thing which statistics do not take into account... No matter. The animals also perished. On Nevsky Prospect, or on Tverskaia, coming home in the evening I saw thin horses, lying on the hardened snow, beating the ground weakly with their heads. They would rise a little and with head turned towards some distant lantern they would try to rise at the sound of steps; death was already in their large eyes. And their suffering has often seemed to me so like, so near to the suffering of man.

That was the blockade. M. Clémenceau was giving a moral lesson to the Bolshevik bandits. But that was merely the beginning. I have recently seen fugitives from the Volga arriving at Moscow and at Petrograd. Not far from the bright monastery of Smolny, women in rags passed in the streets, their bare feet covered with a layer of filth and dust – a number of mothers. By what miracle were their infants yet alive? These little saffron-colored faces with reddened eyes, snapping desperately at flabby breasts. The flies tormented them. One of the women on being questioned, said, “The two older ones died.” At her skirt clung a little blond being, of whom one could only see the head – too large for the shrivelled neck – and eyes filled with a vague animal supplication.

Famished ones – more fortunate – arrive by cart, having traveled six hundred to a thousand kilometers, living on the way on the meagre aid which other starving ones, less famished, could offer them. The big cities draw them. They do not know that, at bottom, it is modern civilization which is killing them, and that no one is harder or colder of heart than the petty- bourgeois of the large cities. Their little horses covered with dust can hardly remain standing. A moujik conducts them. He is pensive, and sullen and he looks back from time to time seeking under the cover of the cart the thin faces of several astonished and sad youngsters. Under the cover in the shadow, there is almost always someone lying down – someone sick – often someone dead.

I was told that in entire provinces these carts covered the road as far as the eye could see; and that they surrounded the cities on their passage with an improvised camp, dying, dying in myriads. And they brought the cholera in their wake ...

But that is not all. Let us open these Letters from the Famine-Stricken Regions. [2]

“Men and horses eat grass – it nourishes a little. Or else earth – one dies of it, but with a little less suffering.”

In order not to see them succumb they abandon their children. Samara is at the centre of the devastated territory. When one arrives there the following is what is seen at the railroad station:

“One immense pile of human dirt and excrement. Even near at hand one cannot make out a human form. The flies above form a cloud. The air is suffocating from the bad odor of carrion mingled with the smell of sweat and excretions. Approach and you will see here and there in this heap, a face, eyes ...

“The surroundings of the station, as far as the eye can see, are thus covered by a crowd which has the immobility of death.

“Samara is a dead city. Children in the streets, lying on the sidewalks, thin and mangy dogs, coffins – rags, filth, stench. The horror ...

“These children are abandoned. With their little fingers they search in the dung of horses for the remains of badly digested hay …

“The Soviet takes them in charge. But it has no beds for them, nor place to sleep, nor blankets, nor medicaments. Nothing. For the typhus patients, as for the others, it has nothing but the meager rations of a roll made of hay and a herring. Lice infest the refugees – here where warm water is wanting, on account of lack of wood, lack of horses for transporting the wood ... The glass-panes are broken; with the first cold weather, death will enter by these windows to claim the little ones who might have been saved from the Famine ... But perhaps aid will come in time. Some obscure heroes work on the ground with the Soviet. Right now they are building a bathhouse, truly an exploit.

“Before the coach of the witness (K. Spassky) a graceful young girl about sixteen years old is lying on the ground, her eyes closed – dying. The eyes open for a few moments and look up fixedly. They offer her bread and milk which she refuses with a hardly perceptible movement ... Too late. When they try to carry her away, she fixes on the people a distracted look which no longer understands and begs that they do not trouble her death, already begun ... They leave her. They would like to close her eyes.”

Let us close these letters. Do what one may, one can never tell the thousandth part of the reality. “Twenty millions human beings are dying of hunger” ... Is it not true that on getting a glimpse of things from far, this little phrase acquires a new significance? Now to hear “These twenty million famished are really very dangerous criminals. They belong to the people which has made the first social revolution.” M. Dimitri Merezhkovsky, poet, novelist, philosopher, a highly advanced intellectual – the wretch – has written that “Every grain of wheat sent to the famished will serve Lenine’s cause.” (La Cause Commune, Paris.) Further – the industrial crisis is raging in America. The business world is uneasy. There is too much wheat – prices are falling. There are too many machines and manufactured articles. Merchandise is disposed of too slowly. The canned goods are not sold. The millionaires decide that they have to discharge their workers. The ship-builders do not know what to do to exorcise the crisis in shipping – there are too many ships, you understand. Ten million tons of shipping are lying unused in the world’s ports.

While Chicago, New York and San Francisco overflow with riches which working men have produced and the barren accumulation of which, by an absurd recoil, throws millions of workers out of work, Famine is depopulating the east of Russia. The enormity of this single fact should suffice to condemn present society. But it is not enough to state it. Immediately and with all energy at high tension, the peasants who are dying at the Samara railroad station must be succoured! – And to intensify the effort at relief the the horrible reality of the Famine must be known.

* * *


1. It is to be remembered that the white uprising at Jaroslav in 1918, which ended with the destruction of that city, was started through the instigation of M. Noulens. (Witnesses were Réné Marchand and former members of the French military mission in Russia.)

2. Published by K. Spassky in the Novy Mir, No. 212–213. Thousands of similar descriptions have been published.

Last updated on 5 May 2019