The Great Famine of 1921

great famine

A poster depicting the great famine in the Volga River basin in the early 1920s

The Russian famine of 1921-22 was one of the worst human disasters of the 20th century. Triggered by a combination of natural and human causes, most notably seven years of constant war, the famine left millions of Russians without adequate food. The consequent malnutrition, starvation and epidemics killed so many people that neither the Bolshevik state or foreign observers could accurately record the death toll. The consensus is that at least five million Russians died of starvation and disease during the Great Famine, though the figure could be as high as eight million. The Soviet government became aware of the disaster almost immediately but had no means of dealing with it. The situation became so desperate that in 1921 the Bolsheviks accepted famine relief from foreign charities, most notably the American Relief Association.

The Russian people were no strangers to famine. Russia was a nation of vast land reserves, however because most farming was done by hand, with little machinery or infrastructure, agricultural productivity was very low. The success of Russian harvests also hinged on favourable weather conditions. Russian farmers experienced droughts every five to seven years, each leading to crop failures and food shortages. These droughts were a significant causal factor of the Great Famine. In the Samara region, for example, the average May rainfall was 38.8 millimetres – but in 1921 the region received just 0.3 millimetres of rain. The drought took a severe toll on the Ukraine, the black soil region that produced more than one third of Russia’s grain and cereal crops. Russia’s total crop yield in 1921 was about half that of 1913. Approximately one quarter of all grain and cereal crops died in the ground before harvest. In some regions there was almost total crop failure. Bolshevik policies only exacerbated the disaster. Most of Russia’s peasants prepared for crop failures by storing a year’s grain in reserve, however most of their granaries were empty after years of war, drained by the constant requisitioning of war communism.

great famine

Suspected cannibals are photographed with body parts found in their home

As the famine worsened, thousands of Russian peasants fled the countryside and migrated to the cities, seeking employment in the factories and better access to food. They found the situation little better. Foreign aid workers arriving in 1921 found the streets of Moscow and Kiev littered with dozens of corpses and others near death from starvation. The situation was even more grim in rural villages, according to aid workers. Many had fled to the cities or other regions, leaving entire families dead in their homes. Those who survived lived off whatever they could find: seeds, acorns, weeds, tree bark, even the corpses of dead animals. Government officials in one town advised starving residents to dig up the dried bones of animals, grind them into flour and bake a “bread substitute [that has] a nutritive value of 25 per cent more than rye bread, in spite of its unpleasant smell and taste”. The consumption of these ersatz foods killed many, as did epidemics of diseases like typhus, typhoid fever, smallpox, influenza, dysentery, cholera, even bubonic plague. The movement of desperate and starving people helped transport these diseases around Russia.

The famine also gave rise to wild tales of murder, cannibalism and a blackmarket trade in human flesh. The true extent of cannibalism in the Great Famine is unknown. Historians have verified some accounts but many stories remain apocryphal and were possibly exaggerated by the foreign press. Some Russian academics researched and catalogued examples of cannibalism and corpse eating, while American relief workers also observed these behaviours. Cannibalism was most common along the Volga River basin, in areas where the famine was most severe. Starving peasants were observed digging up recently buried corpses for their flesh. Accounts of murder or euthanasia – followed by butchery and feasting – were reported. One woman refused to give over the body of her dead husband because she was using it for meat. Parents and siblings ate the bodies of dead children. As the death toll increased, an illegal trade in human flesh also emerged. Quantities of nondescript meat appeared in markets in Russian towns and cities, some of it undoubtedly human.  An aid worker wrote of the situation in late 1921:

“Families were killing and devouring fathers, grandfathers and children. Ghastly rumours about sausages prepared with human corpses (the technical expression was ‘ground to sausages’) though officially contradicted, were common. In the market, among rough huckstresses swearing at each other, one heard threats to make sausages of a person.”

The involvement of the American Relief Administration (ARA) helped ease the crisis, though it did not solve it. The ARA employed 300 Americans and more than 120,000 Russians, imported over a million tons of grain and fed in excess of 10 million people per day. American relief efforts in Russia were never formally accepted or acknowledged by the Bolsheviks (Lenin had approved of ARA involvement through an intermediary). By 1923 the famine was over: the drought had broken, grain seed had been imported by the ARA, the Bolsheviks had relaxed requisitioning through the NEP.

1. The Great Famine reached its peak in 1921 and killed five million, perhaps has many as eight million Russians.
2. The famine was chiefly a natural disaster, in the form of a severe drought, however it was worsened by years of war and forced grain requisitioning.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, John Rae and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Great Famine of 1921” at Alpha History,, 2014, accessed [date of last access].