American Experience: The Great Famine

American Experience: The Great Famine remembers that Herbert Hoover was once "the embodiment of an America proud of its newfound sense of itself as an altruistic nation."

American Experience: The Great Famine

Airtime: Various
Cast: Bertrand Patenaude, Anatoly Utkin, Yulia Khmelevskaya, Stephen Shafroth, David Ogden Stiers (narrator)
Network: PBS
Director: Austin Hoyt
Air date: 2011-04-11

Long ago and far away, Herbert Hoover was a hero. As the Secretary of Commerce under Warren Harding and the head of the American Relief Administration (ARA), the 31st president-to-be was energetic and innovative, an engineer committed to efficiency and effects. He was also, reports his biographer George Nash, "responsible for saving more lives than any person who has ever lived."

Known during the early 1920s as "the Master of Emergencies and the Great Humanitarian," Hoover was also, according to American Experience: The Great Famine, "the embodiment of an America proud of its newfound sense of itself as an altruistic nation." This sense emerged at the end of World War I, sort of. While the Treaty of Versailles included the creation of the League of Nations, U.S. efforts to rebuild Europe were largely commercial, and the nation's political tilt, following the failures of Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Movement, was isolationist. Hoover -- for a brief, sometimes forgotten moment -- pitched American know-how and resolve as a means to do good around the world.

One element in his scheme was food. As the head of the U.S. Food Administration during WWI, Hoover came up with an appeal to Americans' patriotism, as citizens adhered to rationing (called "Hooverizing") to ensure soldiers would be fed. After the war, Hoover appealed to a similar ethic as head of the ARA. In 1920, with help from the American Friends Service Committee, Hoover, a Quaker himself, organized shipments of food for starving people in Poland, Finland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Austria, and Serbia.

When the Povolzhye famine struck Russia in 1921, Hoover's ARA was put to an extreme test. Based on Bertrand M. Patenaude's The Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921, The Great Famine recounts that Hoover responded directly to a letter from Maxim Gorky, writing from "country of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Meneleyev," in hopes of "prompt aid for the Russian people." Gorky's omission of Lenin's name in his missive is significant, says historian Ronald Suny, as the famine is partly attributable to the "policies of the Bolsheviks themselves," whose "mass requisitioning of grains kept the peasants from being able to feed themselves or even have enough seeds to carry to next season's planting." Here footage shows government authorities loading sacks of grain onto trucks, followed by vivid images of the results: crowds of starving children, their sunken eyes turned to the camera.

Premiering 11 April on PBS, The Great Famine traces Hoover's efforts to feed millions of people in the Volga River Valley, Crimea, Ukraine, and Armenia. First, he had to convince Congress to authorize some $20 million, though vocal opponents like Henry Cabot Lodge were loathe to help the Bolshevik government, which they perceived as "monstrous and intent on spreading revolution." Patenaude says that Hoover, "a staunch anti-Communist," proposed the humanitarian aid would work against Lenin, that saving people would expose the Soviet government's failures, not to mention American farmers, who were "sitting on huge surpluses" of corn and wheat they could sell to the U.S. government.

In Russia, the situation was surely dire. Survivor Anatoly Utkin recalls that his family and others were eating whatever they could, including their two camels, and then, "cats, dogs, horses, everything." The program notes briefly that some communities resorted to cannibalism: historian Yulia Khmelevskaya says there were "reports of parents eating their own children... Some mothers did that for mercy, some mothers killed them to feed other children, especially very young babies." The Great Famine doesn’t document these reports, but does show more photos of gaunt children.

Headed by Col. William N. Haskell, the Russian operation employed some 300 American workers as well as 120,00 Russians. "Hoover's Boys," idealistic and dynamic, included Will Shafroth, the 29-year-old son of the governor of Colorado, supervised the Samara District. "I have seen piles of corpses half naked and frozen into the most grotesque positions with signs of having been preyed upon by wandering dogs," he wrote. "I have seen these bodies and it is a sight that I can never forget." His son Stephen says his father "served in the ARA in Poland right after the war, but he had never witnessed scenes of horror like this."

As gallant as Shafroth appears in The Great Famine -- pictured in photos and quoted in his letters -- other stories suggest complications, however briefly. One sequence suggests that the Soviets were unable to transport food because their trains were so "dilapidated": here photos show trains in heaps, or fallen off tracks. Another sequence renders an apparently tawdry episode in dark-lit, cheesy reenactment: a woman with red lipstick seduces a man in hard-to-read close-ups. One of Hoover's Boys was an alcoholic, and the Soviets, Khmelevskaya narrates, "used every American weakness to get control of the American supply," hoping to distribute it to their political allies, and not, for instance, the Muslim Bashkirs.

The larger context remains off screen. It's unclear how the U.S. understood or exploited Russia's internal conflicts, or how the famine shaped Russian self-understanding and politics going forward, say, who was blamed and how, who benefited from it or was rewarded in its aftermath, and how. As the series title suggests, The Great Famine is mostly nostalgic for the American experience of 1921, how Americans were regarded as heroes, for a short while anyway, by Russian civilians. "People used to call that food 'America,' so we were handed out 'America.' At home, people cooked soup out of it, fed their children," remembers survivor Zukhra Ibragimova, "My father used to say to me, 'See, the Americans did the right thing: send help.'"

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