The Big Show in Bololand

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Bertrand M. Patenaude, The Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).


Of all the European nations in 1914, czarist Russia was by far the most unprepared for war. The nation's industrial capabilities were at least a generation behind that of its more advanced neighbors, and its political structures were dangerously unstable. Yet it marched off to war. By the later phases of World War I, the overtaxed czarist government and antiquated Russian economy simply collapsed. While the Bolsheviks were willing and able to replace the government--after sweeping aside a provisional one in the fall of 1917--the economy persistently failed to respond and/or recover. By 1921, this condition had spawned a famine that would grip the western Soviet Union for more than two years. So desperate was the situation that the Soviet authorities sought international aid. In response, the American Relief Administration (ARA), which had been feeding refugees in Europe since the Great War, mobilized a campaign to assist the Soviets. This relief effort is the subject of Bertrand M. Patenaude's book, The Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921.

There was little reason to expect that such a relief effort would be easy or successful. Communism was seen by many as the greatest threat to Europe sine the Black Death. For this reason few nations, including the United States, had recognized the Soviet government in the years following the end of World War I. The Soviets had been completely excluded from the Paris peace conference that had dominated world attention from the fall of 1918 to late spring 1919.

Even more damaging to Soviet-Allied relations was the military expedition of Allied troops that landed in the Soviet ports of Archangel and Murmansk during the summer of 1918. While the stated purpose of this force was to keep munitions from falling into the hands of the Germans, the Bolsheviks justifiably suspected it was intended as none-too-subtle support for the provisional government. This suspicion, its status as a pariah state, agrarian unrest, the proximity of the Russo-Polish War (1920), and the commencement of the White-Red Russian Civil War made the newly minted Bolshevik government feel vulnerable and therefore wary of letting a external entity deploy in its midst, no matter how benign it claimed to be. But the extent of the famine simply would not be denied, and eventually the ARA was given permission to set up a relief operation.

But how had the famine begun? Patenaude tell us that food shortages in Russia had begun during the First World War as a consequence of peasant unrest, manpower shortages, and diverted resources (particularly horses). According to Patenaude, these factors caused the amount of land under cultivation to decline by 25% during the war. The Soviet government did much to make these shortages worse. By 1921 its attempts at collectivization had inspired peasants to reduce crop yields by as much as 33% in protest, while railroads had declined to a state where only 20% of the existing rolling stock was in service. These conditions created a declining situation that no internal Russian institution could reverse.

This was the situation that the ARA found upon its arrival. The administration had been working throughout Europe for several years under the capable direction of Herbert Hoover. It had established a reputation for employing hard-working American ex-doughboys, whose ability to perform logistical miracles was startling. But the Soviet effort was a horse of a different color. For one thing, it would be larger: Estimates at the time indicated some 11 million persons were in need of some form of relief. Then there were the political implications: Since the United States had not recognized the Soviet Union, there were no official relations between them, which meant the ARA effort would be a test case for future diplomatic overtures.

During the campaign itself, Soviet and ARA officials relations weaved between suspicios and irritation was both sides coped with a series of peeves. Soviet biases included: • a reluctance to admit that their government had been unable to reverse the oncoming famine. • Irritation over ARA workers were projecting an air of superiority in their jurisdiction • A belief that ARA was bound to insinuate a corrupting/insurrectionist influence on the Russian population as relief operations continued. ARA men believed: • The Bolsheviks were ideologically backward rulers of a socially backward country, • That Russia was a dangerous, lawless place • That the only way to improve the community was through coercion.

The ARA efforts were by most measures successful. ARA sponsored improvements to port and rail facilities, which made possible the movement of supplies into the Russian interior, while ARA advance men worked to set up assembly areas where food could be collected and distributed. ARA supplies (including food, medicine, clothing, and planting seed) reached large areas of the stricken country.

Patenaude makes the case that none of these biases would be resolved by the ARA relief effort. Relations between the Soviets and ARA would remain tense throughout the operation. Whether this extent of cooperation would have been possible under normal circumstances is doubtful, but the famine made it not only possible but necessary. In short, the Soviets and ARA were the strange bedfellows of the 1921 famine.

This is made clear by the speed with which ARA workers left the Soviet Union when the famine was over and the pace with which the experience of ARA activity was marginalized and then forgotten in the collective mind of the Soviets. It is hard not to conclude that the Soviets, having survived the famine, sought to forget it and the role of the ARA. Whether this was done as an exercise in group-thinking over an incident in which Communism knelt before capitalism in supplication, or whether the event was simply lost amidst the confusion of Soviet Russia in the 1920s, is a matter for debate rather than conclusion.


Patenaude's overlong work shows all the signs of a project in which the author was bound determined to include every morsel of research whether it contributed to the narrative or not. This demerit not withstanding, the book does an excellent job of relaying the story of the famine, the victims, and the very personal struggle of ARA workers and Soviets officials to overcome their differences just enough to improve the situation in the Volga region and elsewhere.

Patenaude narrowly avoids the presentist sin of claiming that the ARA-Soviet friction caused the Cold War, focusing instead on charactizing the relationship as that of two ships who passed in the night, leaving mild residues that---if unfaded by time---never significantly contributed to later relations. This tone places him amoung the Post-Revisionists with a fine work.

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