Skip to main content

Bread Upon The Waters

July 2024
18min read

Twice in one generation we kept Russia from starving; the Kremlin plays it down, but the people we fed remember—and history will not forget

It was a cold January day on Capitol Hill. In the chamber of the House of Representatives, however, the oratory alone was nearly enough to fend off the winter chill, for the topic under debate was American relations with Russia.

“Can we have friendship,” cried a gentleman from West Virginia, “between tyranny and liberty; between Asiatic despotism and modern civilization? … There is no friendship and there can be no friendship between such opposing forces. I hope the hour will come when we can clasp the Russian hand in honest and cordial friendship, but that day should not come until the Tartar has mended his ways; until Poland is free; until persecution for opinion’s and religion’s sake shall have ceased, and until constitutional government shall prevail from the Baltic to Bering Sea.”

This effusion, which with very little editing might have served many a congressman almost any time between the Communist revolution of 1917 and Khrushchev’s disruption of last spring’s summit conference, was actually delivered on January 6, 1892. It represented one vociferous faction in a discussion of whether the government of the United States should appropriate $100,000 to aid several million Russian peasants along the Volga River who were facing the prospect of starvation in a famine which had already assumed terrifying proportions.

In addition to newspaper accounts of the failure of the Russian harvest in the fall of 1891, petitions from agitated constituents had alerted Congress to the disaster, and fo the sympathetic response quickly awakened in many parts of the nation. It had been a bountiful year for America: granaries were overflowing, and ebullient plans were taking shape lor the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which was to celebrate four hundred years of American progress. The widespread reaction to Russia’s need was epitomized for Congress in one petition that called for special attention, since it came from Cassius Marcellns Clay, United States minister to Russia during most of the Civil War.

Clay, whose staunch loyalty to his native Kentucky had been balanced by firm abolitionist beliefs and service as a Union general, was perfectly clear both on American obligations to Russia, and on how they should be fulfilled. He reminded Congress that the Russian dynasty and people had “from the earliest times been on the most friendly terms with this nation,” and that Russia gave America moral support in days of great trouble—he was thinking, no doubt, of the visit of the Czar’s fleet in 1863—“not that she loved the North more than the South (for she did not), but because she loved the nation more than both.” ‣ He went on to say, on the basis of his experience, that “the Russian people are the most hospitable and humane on earth,” and that both civilization and Chrisxianity demanded sympathy and aid. Not content with this diagnosis, he gave a very particular prescription for the remedy Russia needed:

‣ Clay’s belief was quite popularly accepted in America for many years. But as Marshall B. Davidson showed in the June, 1960, issue of A MERICAN H ERITAGE . the visit was in reality “a secret diplomatic maneuver inspired … by Russia’s own problems on the Continent.”

  1. 1. Cornmeal, ground not too fine, made of white grain, having had plenty of sunshine, and kiln-dried to prevent souring, and then sacked, should be shipped by general order at once.
  2. 2. This meal mixed with pure water, when milk can not be had, into a plastic mass, salted and baked well done on iron gridirons or smooth boards, is a wholesome and nutritious and palatable food. I eat it every day …
  3. 3. Southern cooks who are experts should be sent on to form schools to leach the Russians the art of making corn bread. Yellow-corn—extreme northern corn—without sun, oil, or flavor, with condiments, and too finely ground, is the cause of distaste for corn bread.
  4. 4. Money should be donated, to be distributed, under Russian control, for the purchase of seeds, as oats, spring wheat, etc., for next year’s crop.
  5. 5. The Americans are now expending millions on the Columbian Exposition for 1893. This is well enough, but let this pride of display be cut short and the money be given to the starving men, women, and children of Russia. This would be more useful and glorious than anything that can be done at Chicago.

Although some members of the House were doubtless unconvinced that southern corn pone was necessarily the solution to Russia’s troubles, and some certainly had reservations about Russia’s display of alleged friendship during tiie Civil War, General Clay’s petition rallied a good deal of sentiment in favor of help for the hungry masses. The question before the House, however, was not the merits of corn, but how any grain or flour whatever might be transported. Already, in fact, about two million pounds of wheat flour had been donated, under the urgings of a trade journal called The Northwestern Miller , by American producers in the Midwest; the problem was to get it to Russia. Senator William D. Washburn of Minnesota had consulted the Secretary of the Navy, who had suggested the use of the venerable frigate Constellation —A sister ship of “Old Ironsides”—launched in 1797 and still fitfully under sail. No steam vessel of the Navy, the Secretary indicated, was available. One member of Congress, on hearing this, remarked that if the Constellation was to be used, “she would get to Russia … most likely alter the starving people are all dead and gone.” It also turned out that far more flour was on hand than the Constellation could possibly hold. President Harrison recommended chartering an appropriate vessel; and Senator Washburn then introduced a joint resolution authorizing $100,000 to transport the flour to Russia. It easily passed the Senate, but the House soon raised a storm over the question of Russian despotism, as well as on constitutional grounds.

The upshot, after a long hassle, was indefinite postponement of the resolution—tantamount to killing it. A gentleman from Texas, Conslantine B. Kilgore, declared that since Congress had refused to appropriate taxpayers’ money to help “that great state” when it had a famine of its own a lew years earlier, lie would certainly not vote expenditures lor Russia; a gentleman from Lincoln (the youthful William Jennings Bryan) said as much for Nebraska. On the other hand, when a motion was made to refer the resolution to committee, Charles A. Boutelle from Maine said, “Mr. Speaker, the quality of mercy is not strained. There is no necessity in this case for straining it through a committee of the House of Representatives”; and William C. P. Breckinridge of Kentucky asserted that the resolution “is constitutional; it is humane; therefore it is American, and therefore it is Democratic.” Finally, various congressmen spoke warmly and at length against czarist tyranny and the persecution of Jews in Russia; and since an impasse seemed to have been reached, the motion to postpone passed by a rather wide margin.

This was a keen disappointment to the editor of The Northwestern Miller , W. C. Edgar, who had led the drive for Hour donations in the Midwest; but he was not a man to be easily discouraged. Through his professional connections abroad, he had become aware of the vast extent of the Russian famine earlier than most Americans, and he made vigorous plans, in the fall of 1891, to do something about it. An inquiry to the embassy in Washington brought the reply that the Russian government would be grateful to accept any donations of American flour; and Edgar, without losing any time, set afoot a systematic solicitation program.

He found the response most gratifying. Messages to the millers of Minneapolis, where Edgar edited his journal, brought quick pledges of 420,000 pounds of flour, with the name of Charles A. Pillsbury leading all the rest. Governor W. R. Merriam soon took an interest in the cause, appointing a relict commission with Edgar as chairman and issuing a proclamation to the people of Minnesota urging contributions of flour or money. With committees working diligently in every county of the state, the accumulation was rapid. People gave generously, especially in farming areas where they themselves had felt, from time to time, the sting of bad crops and the scourge of such natural afflictions as locust swarms. Nobody at this grass-roots level seemed to be much concerned with the fact that the Czar was a despot: it was the people of Russia they had in mind.

Meanwhile Edgar had really caught the crusader’s spirit, and was wielding his pen with great persuasion in the columns of his maga/ine. “The poorest dog which hangs about the city streets of America,” he told his five thousand subscribers, “can pick up better food than the Russian peasant clamors for. … On the floor of every mill which The Northwestern Miller enters there lies wasting enough flour to lift a starving Russian peasant from misery to joy. … We shudder at the vision we have conjured up from snow-clad Russia, and are prone to dismiss it as a nightmare, unreal and impossible. But it is there. Stretching out its wan hands toward civilization and plenty, it asks for bread.”

By the end of January some three million pounds of flour had been subscribed and were en route to the port of New York. Several governors and metropolitan newspapers had backed the campaign, and gifts flowed eastward from 450 cities and towns in 25 states. The railroads picked up the benevolent contagion, shipping hundreds of carloads without charge; Western Union transmitted over live hundred free telegrams. The farmers of Nebraska offered two trainloads of unground corn: a large mill in Ohio ground and sacked’ it as a contribution to the undertaking, it was not, perhaps, corn meal that would have met General Clay’s southern specifications; nor would he have been likely to approve the directions lor cooking, composed in Chicago and printed in Russian on circulars sewed into each bag; but it was distinctly edible it was distinctly edible.

Despite the cheering success of the famine relief campaign, there were many worrisome problems for Edgar and his commission. Harper’s Weekly printed, in January, an account from a correspondent in St. Petersburg claiming that the Czar’s government was deliberately minimizing the famine; and indeed this had apparently been rellected in certain American papers, which said that the disaster had been greatly exaggerated. This did not help Edgar’s efforts. There were also, of course, the usual clouds of administrative gadflies; Edgar wryly added to a tabulated summary of the commission’s labors the comment: “No statistics have been prepared to show the number of swear words used in pushing the work.” Free Russia , a lofty eastern journal supported by a group including Julia Ward’ Howe, Mark Twain, and William Lloyd Garrison, complained that the millers were not getting their Hour to Russia fast enough to do much good, while The Nation discharged its liberal duty to the cause by observing that when corn meal had been shipped to Ireland to alleviate an earlier lamine, it had given the Irish dysentery.

But the really big problem was still the three thousand miles of cold Atlantic separating the American flour—by February swollen to nearly five million pounds stored in New York warehouses—from its Russian destination. Brushed oil by Congress, Edgar searched hopefully for another patron to supply a ship. During this quest he learned that the citizens of Philadelphia had concurrently conducted a Russian-famine relief campaign of their own, and had been olfered the steamship Indiana , for a voyage at cost, by the International Navigation Company. The Philadelphia group, although more local in its activities than Edgar’s, was sparked by Biddies, Drexels, and Blankenburgs, and had quickly raised enough money to sec the Indiana off to Russia with a cargo of five million pounds of flour on Washington’s Birthday, 1892. While necessarily pleased with this event, Edgar was even more delighted when the Atlantic Transport Line of Baltimore handsomely matched the Philadelphia firm’s gesture by opening the holds of its steamer Missouri to his relief flour absolutely free of charge.

From there on everything went rather well. It seemed that all of New York was anxious to get the ship loaded and out to sea on its errand of mercy. Coal, water, and tugboats were donated; stevedores, shipwrights, and harbor pilots volunteered their services; and in the last days the New York Chamber of Commerce voted $12,000 to round out the cargo with a final purchase of flour. The Missouri sailed on March 16, bound for the Baltic port of Liban with five and a half million pounds of flour and corn; Edgar and E. J. Phelps, a fellow commissioner, followed on the Teutonic the next morning. It was miserable weather for March, with snow flurries blowing gustily in the raw harbor air; but as the culmination of two months of devoted work, the departure must have had its glory for Edgar and his companion.

Having arrived at St. Petersburg, the American adventurers found the city a little disconcerting in view of their charitable mission. Life seemed to be going on at a prosperous clip. Up and down the Nevski Prospekt pranced innumerable horses pulling sleek clroshkies and troikas in which sat well-fed, fur-clad citizens; shops, theaters, and cafés were in full operation, and it was difficult to believe that millions were starving anywhere in the realm of which this was the gay capital. At the same time they heard disturbing stories about the calloused inadequacy of the Czar and the Russian nobility in meeting the famine emergency; it was rumored that for months the emperor had refused to acknowledge the existence of a famine, so that speculators had been allowed to export millions of pounds of grain in the fall of 1891—reserves that could have been used to save thousands of lives.

While this appalling story was confirmed by the American minister, Charles Emory Smith, when Edgar and Phelps called on him shortly after their arrival, they were at least grimly reassured to hear that the famine was no illusion: the shipload of American flour, due at Libau on April 3, would be welcome indeed. In the worst-afflicted areas along the Volga River far to the east, thousands were dying every day of hunger, typhus, and smallpox. The suffering, Smith lold them, was horribly intensified by the rare severity of the winter that still hovered over the frozen steppes: many peasants had sold all their fuel and most of their clothing for food. But Smith also defended the Czar and the nobles, pointing out that eventually the emperor had forbidden further grain exports and earmarked 150,000,000 rubles for relief, while hundreds of the nobility had gone out to the famine districts to work among the starving, sustaining thousands with food purchased from their own pockets. Pre-eminent among these was Count Leo Tolstoi—although his intransigent attitude toward his own class, whom he blamed for the peasants’ misery more than drought and plague, was not emulated by many.

It was the well-born Samaritans working with the peasants in soup kitchens and feeding stations to whom most of the Missouri ’s burden was consigned after being unloaded at Libau early in April. Since the Indiana had preceded the Missouri by several weeks, a system of equitable distribution to the most needy districts had already been worked out, and Edgar and Phelps found they had little to do but enjoy the accolades of their hosts. A series of ceremonies and dinners began even before the harbor lighters had finished unloading: the bursting of rockets from Russian ships at anchor was echoed by the popping of champagne corks ashore, while the American envoys were welcomed with almost embarrassing enthusiasm. It was to be, on a small scale, a counterpart of the dazzling round of entertainment proffered by the New York society to the officers of the Russian fleet in 1863.

When the first trainload of American flour was ready for the interior, its engine decked with Russian and American flags, there was a solemn church ritual, complete with holy water for blessing the sacks, and a bearded male choir. The service over, each of the American and Russian officials hoisted a sack of flour into the last car; the car was sealed; and a military band shifted gracefully from “God Keep the Czar” to “Hail Columbia.” The locomotive puffed ponderously away, and the officers of the local regiment, somewhat transported, tossed the surprised Americans to their shoulders and paraded them up and down to tremendous applause from a crowd of a thousand spectators. There followed teas, receptions, luncheons, and an elaborate dinner, attended by various Russian dignitaries, and the American consul general, at which the band played a Russo-American march composed just lor the occasion: “Fraternity.”

Possibly feeling a little guilty from all this festivity, Edgar arranged a few days later to tour one of the famine districts not far from Moscow. It was not so .sorely afflicted as, for example, Samara, farther cast, where he might have witnessed death keeping its appointments in every village every day, or roving hands of gaunt and homeless children whose parents had died in the typhus epidemic. But it was enough Io convince him that the famine had not been exaggerated, and he tempered his satisfaction at the sight of American flour being made into wholesome loaves at several feeding stations by collecting some gruesome samples of local “hunger bread”—concocted of ground straw, dead grass, bark, weeds—to take back with him.

The Missouri ’s, cargo was the most representative shipment of breadstuff from America to Russia during the great famine of 1891-92, since it was made up of contributions from more than half the states in the Union. There were other ships to come, however—the Conemaugh , Philadelphia’s second, in April; the Tynehead , carrying three thousand tons of corn collected by the women of Iowa, in May; and the Leo , in June, bearing a smaller load of flour gathered under the auspices of The Christian Herald . It cannot be said that the American gifts went far toward averting the total effect of the famine—their value was estimated at around $700,000—yet there is no doubt that thousands of peasants owed their survival to spontaneous American fellow feeling. It was a sympathy widely appreciated among Russians, and when in 1893 two of the Czar’s warships visited New York and Philadelphia in connection with the Columbian Exposition, they brought a message of gratitude from the Czar and richly wrought gifts in silver for those who had led the American famine-relief drives.

It is somehow incredible that only one generation separated the famishing Russian peasants of 1891-92 from those of 1921-22, when American aid again came notably to the rescue. Fantastic changes had enveloped the world in that one generation, and nowhere were they more fantastic than in Russia. Yet the probability is that many of the adult peasants whom American food saved from starvation in 1922 had been saved before, as children, in 1892, for the center of the famine area was again along the Volga basin.

The natural causes of Russia’s distress in 1921-22 were the same as those of thirty years earlier—a blistering drought, followed by an unusually cold winter —but now these were starkly assisted by the aftermath of World War I and the civil war between the Reds and the Whites. The loss of millions of peasant farmers who had gone off to serve and die in the various armies had already reduced grain production by twenty-five per cent, and the Bolsheviks’ ruthless policy of “military communism,” whereby food was forcefully taken from the peasants whenever necessary, further interfered with normal production: there was, in effect, an agricultural strike. Transportation also broke down severely, pestilence swept across the land, and the Communist leaders saw their social experiment threatened by economic paralysis and starvation.

Although loath to ask for aid from the hated capitalist world, the men of the Kremlin suspected that if the Soviet nation was to weather the winter, help must come from outside. They therefore permitted Maxim Gorky, the well-known writer, to issue an appeal through the Western press in July, 1921, describing the famine’s extent and asking “all honest European and American people” for bread and medicine.

Fortunately, America this time had ready for action an extraordinarily efficient volunteer relief organization, designed for just such emergencies and possessed of equipment, experienced personnel, and some funds for current operations in Europe. The American Relief Administration, under Herbert Hoover, was world-famous for its work in Belgium and twenty-two other countries. Hoover, although he took a very dim view of communism, promptly answered with an offer to bring food, clothing, and medicine to a million Russian children. The chief strings attached were that the Soviet authorities must permit impartial distribution of these supplies under the direct supervision of American officials who were to move freely about Russia for that purpose, and that, since the A.R.A. was supported by voluntary contributions from American citizens, about one hundred Americans then held by the Communists must be released. To these conditions the Soviet leaders finally agreed, and within a month after Gorky’s appeal, A.R.A. workers and food were moving toward Russia.

Even more than in 1892, however, there were people back home who balked at the idea of aiding a government so unfriendly to the principles of American democracy. The. great Red scare of 1920 was by no means over, and in thousands of households the word “Bolshevik” conjured up a shocking image of a bearded cutthroat with a smoking bomb in his bloody hand. Yet Hoover’s survey of conditions in Russia now indicated that unless millions of children were to be allowed to die in misery, about fifty million dollars more of American funds would be needed.

It is a considerable trophy for Hoover’s political and administrative record that this large amount was raised in time to save the lives of at least ten million Russians. Where Congress had refused one hundred thousand dollars for Russian relief in 1892, it was adroitly nudged into appropriating twenty million in 1921, despite speeches in the House closely echoing the complaints of the earlier day. Hoover had anticipated congressional opposition and was ready with eyewitness testimony, from investigators of immaculate reputation, as to the state of things in Russia; he also made sure that the advantage to American farmers of twenty million dollars spent on American grain was not underemphasized. At the same time he had his assistants—one of them was Christian A. Herter—look around for ways to supplement this sum. The huge war surplus of medical supplies in the hands of the Army and Navy beckoned, and Congress authorized the use of four million dollars’ worth for Russia. About twenty-five million dollars more was contributed by private American citizens through charitable organizations, to be used by the A.R.A.

The speed with which Hoover’s organization moved into Russia and began operations astonished the Soviet officials assigned to co-operate with it. The first cargo—seven hundred tons of flour, rice, sugar, and milk—reached Petrograd on September 1, 1921; and from then to the end of the work in 1923, a steady procession of ships arrived at Russian ports, bringing all told more than half a million tons of American gifts in food, medicine, and clothing to destitute Soviet citizens. It was distributed over an enormous area by a field staff of two hundred Americans, with the aid of eighty thousand Russians who worked under them in local committees usually headed by a doctor or school teacher; co-operation was excellent.

It is not to be imagined, however, that this vast relief project, in a violently disrupted country, was accomplished without formidable troubles. The halfruined Russian railroads proved incapable for months of handling the influx of American food fast enough, and whole shiploads piled up maddeningly in Russian ports while A.R.A. directors in the famine areas pleaded for them. Again and again entire trains of food were lost for weeks at a time, shunted aside in some forsaken railway yard along the route because of desperate bottlenecks. Frightful conditions of congestion, starvation, disease, filth, and civil disorder were met everywhere; and of course the A.R.A. workers were not immune. All were overworked; many fell sick; one died of typhus; one simply disappeared.

But the most constant and exasperating obstacle was the Soviet government. Devoted to the Marxist dogma that there could be nothing but enmity between capitalist and Communist, and knowing of Hoover’s outspoken distaste for their regime, most of the Kremlin leaders were never quite convinced that the A.R.A. was not an organization bent upon subverting the revolution. “Food is a weapon” was one of the favorite Communist maxims of the time, one which Soviet leaders themselves had not been reluctant to act on. For a long time the Russians who provided liaison between the A.R.A. and the central government were hardly more than a branch of the Cheka (secret police), continually harassing, obstructing, and intimidating in an effort to control the distribution of supplies. Luckily Colonel William Haskell, A.R.A. chief in Russia, stood up to this bedevilment unflinchingly, demanding—and eventually getting—full adherence from the Soviet leaders to the original agreement. An ironic index of his success was that in the early days of the program, the Cheka concentrated on Russians working for the A.R.A. when they embarked on an orgy of arrests; later they were inclined to verify that a man was not working for the Americans before carting him off to jail.

Not all the top-echelon Communists, it should be added, were unfriendly. L. B. Kamenev, a member of the original inner circle around Lenin and Trotsky, strongly supported Haskell whenever a real showdown loomed; and he was the very antithesis of the cartoonist’s Bolshevik. A.R.A. officials found him urbane, courteous, and efficient—a kind of prototype of the hero in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon —and his close co-operation with the Americans probably stood him in poor stead when Stalin had him shot in 1936.

The American relief to Russia in 1921-22 dwarfed that of 1892 in everything except empathy. Not only in magnitude but in scope, it was a far more ambitious undertaking, since it included very extensive medical and sanitary assistance under the direction of American doctors: complete re-equipping of scores of hospitals, for example, and an inoculation campaign that reached eight million Russians. Statistics, picked almost at random, are impressive: America shipped in forty tons of chloroform and ether, fifty-seven tons of castor oil, fifteen tons of aspirin, thirteen hundred sets of surgical instruments, eight million bandages, etc.

It was above all the condition of Soviet children that moved American workers to push their program. “There are 81 children,” read an early A.R.A. report of a visit to an emergency refuge for waifs, “of whom 20 have had typhus and of whom 10 are now ill with it. There are 21 beds, 20 blankets, no bed linen or body linen, no warm clothing, no footwear, and some of the children, although they had been a month in the institution, were literally half-naked.” To see these sick and emaciated youngsters—“ghastly caricatures of childhood” one American called them—recover some measure of health and begin to put on weight at feeding stations was a heartening experience. “More than once,” an A.R.A. man remembered later, “wearied by a discussion with the government representative more futile than usual, I would drop everything and wander out to the nearest A.R.A. kitchen just to look at the children and get back my confidence that it was worth while trying to help them after all.”

Russian gratitude for America’s help during the crisis of the early twenties has been largely snowed under by the cold war, which makes it difficult for the Communist mind to admit such a tremendous obligation. For there is little doubt that American aid did substantially tide over the shaky Soviet state to a condition and time when it could begin to become viable and self-sufficient—an ironic result for Herbert Hoover, who admittedly had hoped that a Russian people restored to a minimum of health and order would turn toward democracy and free enterprise when the inevitable (as he thought) collapse of the Communist regime occurred. At any rate, there was frank recognition of the Soviet debt at the close of the A.R.A. operations in 1923. Kamenev, speaking at a farewell dinner in Moscow for Haskell and his staff, avowed that “millions of people of all ages were saved from death, and whole villages and even cities were saved from the terrible catastrophe that was threatening them. … The people populating the Union of Soviet Socialistic Republics will never forget the help given by the American people through the A.R.A., seeing in that a pledge for the future friendship of both peoples.”

Whatever the vicissitudes of official relations between the United States and the U.S.S.R., there is a certain comfort in the reflection that today, in the towns and villages along the mighty Volga, there are many thousands of ordinary Russian citizens who must remember with deep feeling the days of their youth when American bread brought them life and hope. And there must even be a few, amazingly enough —old men and women in chimney corners—who can tell how the American ships came not once, but twice within their memory, to offer the kind of help that takes no cognizance of creeds or systems.

“Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shall find it after many days.”

—Ecclesiastes 11:1

Herbert Hoover: the Making of a Villain

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.