How a Post-War Famine in Russia and Ukraine Shaped a Century

s Russia’s war on Ukraine continues, experts around the world are drawing attention to the conflict’s potentially devastating impact on the global food supply. Together, Ukraine and Russia supply a third of the world’s global wheat and barley exports, according to the Associated Press. While corn can be planted and winter wheat will be harvested soon, some Ukrainian farmers are still fighting. Checkpoints also hold fuel and fertilizer shipment.

The extent to which the disruption of the food supply chain is likely will remain to be determined. Ukraine’s deputy minister of agrarian policy and food, Taras Vysotsky, told local media that the country has enough food reserves—including five years of sunflower oil, two years of corn, and a year-and-a-half of sugar. Other countries, however, that depend on Ukrainian food imports, are at the same risk.

“We are particularly concerned about countries like Lebanon, Pakistan, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, and Morocco, which rely heavily on Ukrainian imports to feed their population,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, said on Mar. 30 at U.N. Security Council

It would not be the first time that war has contributed to world hunger. It is possible for conflict to block trade between countries and drive farmers from their farms, creating disruptions that last long after the peace process has ended. In fact, one of modern history’s most noted examples of this situation took place almost exactly a century ago and closely involved Russia and Ukraine, as the former came to rely on the latter to endure one of the worst famines in history—a disaster the response to which helped reshape global roles in ways that are still playing out today.

In the expansion of efforts similar to those launched during World War I, the United States played an important role in relief in the region. And at the helm was an unlikely hero: Herbert Hoover, the man who would go on to be known as one of American history’s worst Presidents, but who historians say ran one of the country’s best humanitarian relief programs.

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Hoover’s career as a food-relief coordinator began in the fall of 1914, shortly after the Germans occupied Belgium. Due to dependence on external sources, the country of seven million was vulnerable to starvation.

“This was also the time of the harvest, and so the production of food was incredibly disrupted by the war,” says Doran Cart, Senior Curator at the National WWI Museum and Memorial.

While working as a mining engineer in London, Hoover was tapped to run the Commission for Relief in Belgium, an international effort delivering food—especially flour—and soap to the Belgians and, to a smaller extent, Belgian refugees living in northern France.

“What Hoover did was unprecedented because we did not have a world full of NGOs with specialized operations in 1914,” says George H. Nash, a historian and author of Herbert Hoover, Master of Emergencies: The Life and Times of Herbert Hoover.

Hoover headed the United States Food Administration when the U.S. entered war in 1917. It was responsible for managing food supplies to Allies as well as domestic consumption.

“By that point, Hoover’s an international hero,” says Nash.

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The slogan for this campaign became known as “Food Will Win the War.” To send food over to European Allies, Americans began to “Hooverize” or ration their food, eating more peanut butter and participating in “Meatless Mondays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays.” But in the era of submarine warfare, it was a risky operation to ferry food shipments across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, so not everything that was saved made it to its destination. “Many of these relief ships were sunk,” according to Cart.

And the end of the fighting in 1919 didn’t mean the world was in the clear when it came to food security. Soviet Russia experienced drought in 1920. It led to an unsustainable harvest that resulted in famine in summer 1921. Peasants didn’t have surpluses to lean on because they had to hand them over to the Bolsheviks. Approximately 5 million Russians may have died from starvation. Crisis was made worse by disruptions and displacements caused in part by World War I and Russian Revolution. Despite Ukraine not being immune, the Soviet leadership asked for help from people in Ukraine to assist Russians in other areas. (The USSR absorbed Ukraine into its fold in 1922.

“[The Soviets] are encouraging the famishing people in southern Ukraine to send food to the Volga,” says Bertrand M. Patenaude, author of Bololand’s Big Show: The American Relief Expedition in Soviet Russia during the Famine in 1921.

Hoover maintained the same work from the war and ran an agency called American Relief Administration. It was involved in fighting the Great Famine of 1919. Hoover arranged that the Soviets could also buy wheat and corn seed from the American Midwest.

“The American seed saved the harvest of 1922; it was a very good harvest,” says Patenaude.

Patenaude reports that by the summer of 1922 American efforts had provided food for 11 million Soviet citizens per day. Food relief was also a form of soft power, to show the Russians “what capitalist benevolence” looks like, as he puts it.

Hoover’s humble background meant that he was most attached to the child-feeding programs.

“He was an orphan before he was 10 years old, and he always had a special affinity to little children in the sense of when he saw them suffering, it just moved him so,” says Nash. “It was Hoover who originally had the idea of setting up UNICEF.”

Hoover’s food relief programs provided a model for the United States’ role in a humanitarian emergency. Today, more U.S. humanitarian assistance is provided to Ukraine than any country.

World War I represented a major turning point for the U.S. in expanding its leadership role in international humanitarian aid. It’s a role that remains an important part of the global dynamic, even as people around the world continue to debate how and whether the U.S. lives up to it. “This assumption has developed for a long time that if there is a disaster in the world, Americans—whether in private capacity or governmental capacity—will be there,” says Nash. “And I think a lot of that expectation is traceable to the efforts that Hoover made”

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