The Russian Job tells the story of the American Relief Administration (ARA) and its work in Russia during the country’s famine of 1921–2. Less celebrated at the time than a far smaller European effort headed by the polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, and subsequently shaded out by the Cold War, it has been undeservedly forgotten. In this succinct and readable book, the historian Douglas Smith ‘seeks to right this wrong’.
The famine was the culmination of seven years of turmoil for Russia, starting with its fateful entry into the First World War. By 1917 hunger was widespread, contributing to the February and October revolutions. The winter of 1919–20, the second of the Civil War, saw mass death from starvation and typhus; thereafter drought and Bolshevik persecution of the peasantry tipped the country into outright famine. The areas worst affected were the Volga river basin and the southern Urals. Estimates of the death toll vary wildly, but the number most quoted is five million. At least half the victims were not ethnic Russians but Tatars, Kazakhs and Bashkirs.
Into this dreadful landscape stepped the ARA. Funded through a mixture of public and private money, it had been created by the mining magnate Herbert Hoover, initially to provide food for occupied Belgium. After the war, it extended its work to the rest of Europe, including Germany. In