100 Years after the Great Russian Famine, We Must Save Children Again | Opinion

It was 100 years ago when America heard cries for help from Russia during the Great Famine of 1921. In August of that year, Americans took action following an appeal from the Russian writer Maxim Gorky, who asked for bread and medicine for starving children.

Herbert Hoover coordinated the relief effort, which soon uncovered the horrifying scope of the famine. Conflict and drought had placed 25 million people in danger of starvation across Russia's Volga Valley and parts of Ukraine. Death was months away as Hoover described in his book An American Epic.

America mobilized quickly using supplies and staff from its hunger relief work in Europe following World War I. The very first delivery of food aid soon reached Russian children in Kazan.

Herbert Pulitzer of the New York World described the malnourished Russian children as "quiet, undemonstrative, stolid seemingly hopeless, unable to realize that the American Relief Administration had come to feed them through the terrible winter."

One child did show emotion, crying when caught trying to sneak some of his food out for later consumption. He could not believe there would be more coming.

"Innocents, taught in the hard school of famine, they knew not whence their next meal was to come," Pulitzer wrote.

Fortunately for Russian children and adults the American Relief Administration (ARA) set up kitchens around the country to feed the starving. Congress passed legislation sending large amounts of corn to Russia. Charities like the National Catholic Welfare Council combined their work with the ARA and set up kitchens in the famine zone. A new charity, called Save the Children, provided relief in Russia as well.

Millions of lives were saved in Russia from American and foreign food aid during the Great Famine.

Now 100 years later there are again cries for help to feed starving children. These pleas are coming from Madagascar, Yemen, Afghanistan, Haiti, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other countries. The U.N. World Food Program (WFP) said 41 million people are at risk of starvation right now. But there is not enough funding for humanitarian aid in these suffering countries.

A boy is tended to
A boy is tended to outside Les Cayes General Hospital after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti on August 15, 2021, in Les Cayes, Haiti. Richard Pierrin/Getty Images

In Afghanistan, a major humanitarian crisis is unfolding following the Taliban's overthrow of the government. Many families have been forced to flee their homes in the violence and chaos. Save the Children reported that in Kabul, displaced kids are "living on the streets, in tarpaulin tents, and going hungry." Drought is also causing food shortages in Afghanistan. Food and other assistance will be crucial in the coming months for Afghan civilians.

The people of Haiti are also desperate for food and shelter following the recent 7.2 magnitude earthquake, the latest in a series of tragedies for the impoverished country. The same area affected by the earthquake was also devastated by Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

Haiti help
Many lives have been lost and infrastructure damaged in Haiti following the recent earthquake. The WFP is helping with logistical support and food aid to survivors. World Food Program

In civil war-torn Yemen, millions of civilians continue to suffer from hunger, many on the brink of famine. Yemeni children are dying from malnutrition as depicted in the documentary Hunger Ward.

Severe drought struck Russia in 1921
Severe drought struck Russia in 1921. Families ran out of food supplies. National Archives

The Central African Republic has about half the population, 2.29 million people, living in hunger according to the WFP. The situation is so desperate the WFP warned "immediate assistance is needed to avert the loss of lives and livelihoods." The country is reeling from conflict and poverty.

A critical program in the Central African Republic is nutrition assistance for infants with Super Cereal Plus and Plumpy'Sup. These foods prevent deadly malnutrition if they can reach children in time. Also, WFP provides school meals in the country. But funding is a major problem as WFP continues to face a shortage putting these and other life-saving programs at risk.

WFP spokesperson Vigno Hounkanli said lack of funding for the Central African Republic is preventing the agency from reaching the over 1 million people it plans to feed.

In Madagascar, severe drought has led to extreme food shortages with deadly malnutrition now threatening children. Yvonne Arunga of Save the Children pleaded, "We are seeing many hungry, dead-eyed young children, scrounging for a scrap to eat. How can the world look away?"

If we take action now, like we did 100 years ago during the Great Russian Famine, we can save lives in these hunger afflicted nations.

Herbert Hoover famine relief
Herbert Hoover (far right) led famine relief efforts for Russia. Hoover had previously coordinated hunger relief during and following World War I for Europe. Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum

Congress can take action by increasing global food aid funding including the Food for Peace and McGovern-Dole programs. The Global Malnutrition Prevention and Treatment Act of 2021 should also be passed. This legislation would increase the nutrition interventions that rescue children from deadly malnutrition.

America's response to the Great Russian Famine of 1921 fortified our spirit to fight hunger anywhere around the globe. We must continue that tradition to save lives from starvation.

William Lambers is an author who partnered with the U.N. World Food Program on the book Ending World Hunger. His writings have been published by The Washington Post, History News Network, Newsweek and many other outlets.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.