Horror and Moral Splendor: On Douglas Smith’s “The Russian Job: The Forgotten Story of How America Saved the Soviet Union from Ruin”

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IT’S OFTEN SAID that journalism is the first draft of history, but it may be the final one as well. After the historians have sifted through the data and details, dissected the forces at play, and uncovered the patterns and structures beneath the surface of events, it’s time for a clear and straightforward rendition of who did what and why. That’s very much what Douglas Smith is about in The Russian Job: The Forgotten Story of How America Saved the Soviet Union from Ruin, writing for what he calls “a general audience” and, for that reason, even dispensing with footnotes. Annals, not analysis. In spring 1920, after the calamities of war and revolution, Russia was stricken with drought and, consequently, famine. The American Relief Administration (ARA), which had been organized by Herbert Hoover to feed Belgium after World War I, now took upon itself the task of feeding the new Soviet state. At the height of its mission in Russia, the ARA was feeding 10.5 million people a day, some 10 percent of the population and 10 times more than originally envisioned. The ARA was an organization that made a difference — the difference between life and death. Russian peasants and children knelt in adoration of the ARA and shouted its name, making it sound like “Oorah,” the Russian word for “Hurray.” In that era of muscular Christianity, 380 young American men — the mission was considered too dangerous for women — risked all for the adventures of virtue, eluding wolves and bandits to deliver food to remote villages. One wrote home to his mother: “I believe there is a sincerer desire to serve the people on the part of the ruling class of Russia today than there is in America.” Though naïve in many ways, they were canny enough to enlist the secret police in their cause, having quickly learned that they constituted the “one absolutely dependable organization of the government.” These young men come to life in Smith’s book, flickering past like characters in the black-and-white movies of the era. Their heroism and failings, their love of Russia (and Russian women) help humanize a story that could all too easily slip into the grim abstraction of statistics, which touch neither mind nor heart. Despite the epic sweep, the horror and moral splendor of this story, it is essentially unknown to both Russians and Americans; the Russians soon found the aid both a humiliation and a cover for espionage, while the Americans let it slip into the country’s general ahistorical amnesia. This book, Smith says at the outset, “seeks to right this wrong.” It succeeds. Clear, forceful, and compelling, The Russian Job tells us what happened and who made it happen. Herbert Hoover, commonly seen as a fool of Depression-era wishful thinking, here appears as a paragon of the American can-do mentality. After only three months on the job, the ARA was already feeding 570,000 children a day. That would be impressive even in our own age of instant communications and high-tech logistics, but it took place a hundred years ago, in a Russia racked with violent upheaval and long famous for its bad roads. The ARA’s achievement also seems particularly impressive when viewed within the larger context of the times. In 1920–’21, when famine struck, Russia was just emerging from its civil war, which followed on the heels of revolution and World War I. In that earlier conflict, the United States and other allies had actually invaded Russia in order to force it to stay in the fight. Anti-Bolshevik sentiment ran high in the West; the United States was having its first Red Scare, while Winston Churchill called for “strangling Bolshevism in its cradle.” One measure of Soviet Russia’s desperation was that it allowed representatives of the capitalist, imperialist West into their country to move freely about and feed the citizens that the Bolsheviks themselves could not. Hoover had insisted that the ARA be a non-governmental organization, because the use of a government agency could have been construed as official recognition of the Soviet Union, something the United States would not grant for another decade. The US had serious bones to pick with the new government in Moscow, which had disavowed tsarist Russia’s debts and confiscated American property without compensation. Thus, there was ill will on both sides: Russia had been invaded, and the United States had been robbed. And both sides had their ulterior motives. The Bolsheviks’ power base was the urban working class, the proletariat. They had to be fed, whether by requisitioning food from the peasants or by accepting aid from the Americans, who were by their very nature (at least in Marxist terms) communist Russia’s natural enemy. Lenin, Stalin, and all the other Bolsheviks were well aware that their grasp on power was still tenuous, that they could easily be swept away in a country where an entire empire had collapsed only three years earlier. The United States had its own hidden agenda as well. Its intent was to “fight both hunger and Bolshevism.” Of course, there was an effort on the American side to show the superiority of the American way of life, which could produce the abundance that made such humanitarian aid possible. But was there anything more involved? One place where Smith’s account comes up a bit short is the treatment of the ARA as a means of intelligence gathering, deliberate or inadvertent. Espionage is not only, or even often, a matter of pilfering secret documents; it is usually concerned with the most mundane of matters — the price of bread, the mood in the streets, the state of the roads — and with all of that the ARA would be well acquainted. But there’s not much about that here, aside from the fact that some of the destroyers accompanying grain-bearing American ships to Russian ports monitored “Soviet radio communications, including diplomatic traffic, which it recorded and sent along to Washington.” Smith notes that “the Soviet government was aware of this, but there was little they could do to stop it, and they accepted it as a small price to pay for American aid.” Indeed, the Bolsheviks were convinced that the ARA’s actual intent was anything but altruistic. Soviet newspapers called it a Trojan horse, Lenin ordered it infiltrated, and Stalin termed its workers the “most efficient spies of the world bourgeoisie.” One of history’s more perverse ironies is reflected in the book’s subtitle: “The Forgotten Story of How America Saved the Soviet Union from Ruin.” Had the United States been half as devious as Lenin imagined, half as malign as Stalin thought, it would have done what Stalin himself did 10 years later in Ukraine — use famine to eliminate enemies by the clean, cost-free means of starvation. By acting like Stalin, the United States might have spared Russia from Stalin.

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Richard Lourie, for 10 years a columnist for The Moscow Times, is most recently the author of Putin: His Downfall and Russia’s Coming Crash.