American Experience: The Great Famine on WXXI-TV

American Experience: The Great Famine on WXXI-TV

Mon, 04/11/2011 - 9:00pm

Pictured: Priests stand outside awaiting food ration in Ufa, Russia.

Credit: Courtesy of ©Jim Mynes

The story of the Soviet Russian famine and the American relief workers who led the way to feed 11 million people.

When a devastating famine descended on Soviet Russia in 1921, it was the worst natural disaster in Europe since the Black Plague in the Middle Ages. Half a world away, Americans responded with a massive two-year relief campaign championed by Herbert Hoover, who was chairman of the American Relief Administration (ARA), as well as the newly-appointed Secretary of Commerce. The ARA’s nearly 300 American relief workers, known as “Hoover’s boys,” would be tested by a railroad system in disarray, a forbidding climate, and—being among the first group of outsiders to break through Russia's isolation following the Bolshevik Revolution—a ruthless government suspicious of their motives. By the summer of 1922, Americans were feeding nearly 11-million Soviet citizens a day in 19,000 kitchens. Airing Monday, April 11 at 9 p.m. on WXXI-TV/HD (DT21.1/cable 1011 and 11), The Great Famine tells this riveting story of America’s engagement with a distant and desperate people—an operation hailed for its efficiency, grit and generosity—within the larger story of the Russian Revolution and the roots of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry that would dominate the second half of the 20th century.

Known as “the Great Humanitarian” for his relief work during and after World War One, Herbert Hoover is said to have saved more lives than any person in history. Hoover was president during the Great Depression a decade later and, when Americans went hungry, their memory of all the others he had fed began to fade.

The Great Famine focuses on two relief workers, Will Shafroth, 29, son of the governor of Colorado, who supervised the Samara District on the Volga, and Walter Bell, 47, a former National Guardsman from Syracuse, who supervised the Ufa-Urals District.

Shafroth served with the ARA in Poland after World War I, his son Stephen remembers, “but he had never witnessed scenes of horror like this.”  Shafroth’s Samara district was divided into eight regions each with at least one warehouse. Every village had a committee of local citizens who decided who got fed. Shafroth would supervise 16,000 Russians in 900 kitchens. Known as “the Volga famine,” the worst of it was in Samara. Walter Bell’s district grew to be the largest. It spanned the Ural Mountains from Ufa in the west beyond Ekaterinburg in the east to the edge of Siberia, an area larger than France.

Based on The Big Show in Bololand by Bertrand M. Patenaude, The Great Famine is told through film and photographs from American and Russian archives, interviews with survivors and with the most knowledgeable Russian and American historians, and the writings of the relief workers. Some scenes were filmed in the foothills of the Ural Mountains outside Ufa, Bashkortostan, where some of the worst of the famine occurred.