The Great Famine that ravaged Russia in 1921 and early 1922 was one of the worst human disasters of the 20th century. Triggered by natural causes but magnified by human policies and actions, this famine left millions of Russians malnourished, starving and at risk from epidemics sweeping the country.
Uncertain death toll
The ensuing famine killed so many people that neither the Soviet state nor foreign observers could accurately gauge the death toll. Russia’s vast size and the disruption of the Civil War made accurate record-keeping difficult.
The consensus among historians is that at least five million Russians died of starvation and disease. That figure could be as high as eight million.
The Soviet government became aware of this disaster almost immediately but had no means of dealing with it. The situation became so desperate that in 1921, the government allowed famine relief from foreign charities, most notably the American Relief Association.
Causes of the Great Famine
The Russian people were no strangers to famine. Russia was a nation of vast land reserves – but because most farming was done by hand, with little machinery or infrastructure, productivity was very low and many peasants lived hand to mouth.
The success of Russian harvests often hinged on favourable weather conditions. Russian farmers experienced droughts every five to seven years, each producing crop failures, drops in yield 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 also took a severe toll on 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, the last year of peace.
Across Russia, 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 peasants prepared for crop failures by storing a year’s grain in reserve – but Russian granaries were empty, drained by years of low yields and the constant requisitioning of war communism.
As the famine worsened, thousands of Russian peasants fled the countryside to the cities, seeking employment in the factories and hoping for better access to food. They found the situation no 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 grimmer 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, grass, 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 horrific tales of murder and cannibalism, as well as a black-market trade in human flesh.
The true extent of cannibalism during the Great Famine is unknown. Historians have verified some accounts but many stories remain apocryphal and were possibly exaggerated by anti-Bolsheviks or the hostile foreign press.
Some Russian academics researched and catalogued examples of cannibalism and corpse-eating. American relief workers also observed these behaviours. Cannibalism was most common along the Volga River basin, in areas where the famine was most severe.
Murder and ‘corpse-eating’
Starving peasants were observed digging up recently buried corpses for their flesh. Accounts of murder or euthanasia, followed by butchery and feasting, were also 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, 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.”
American food relief
The involvement of the American Relief Administration (ARA) helped ease the crisis – but 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 drought had broken, seed grain had been imported by the ARA and the Bolsheviks had relaxed requisitioning by introducing the New Economic Policy (NEP).
1. The Great Famine reached its peak in 1921 and killed five million, perhaps as many as eight million Russians.
2. The famine was chiefly a natural disaster, in the form of a severe drought, but it was worsened by years of war and forced grain requisitioning.
3. Catastrophic drought in 1921 decimated agricultural production in Ukraine and southern Russia, where production fell to half the levels of 1913.
4. Shortages of food saw thousands of Russian peasants flee the countryside for cities like Moscow and Kiev, where they found no relief.
5. Some survived by eating substitutes like weeds, bark, acorns or the flesh of dead animals. There were also many reports of cannibalism and murder.