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AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: The Great Famine

Airs Monday, April 11, 2011 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Five famine victims from Buzuluk, Russia. 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.

Herbert Hoover, chairman of the American Relief Administration, 1921
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Above: Herbert Hoover, chairman of the American Relief Administration, 1921

American Relief Administration truck, Samara Region, Russia
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Above: American Relief Administration truck, Samara Region, Russia

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 a new secretary of commerce, “the Great Humanitarian” Herbert Hoover.

The nearly 300 American relief workers, “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.

"The Great Famine" from producer Austin Hoyt ("American Experience: George H. W. Bush") 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.

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Preview: American Experience: The Great Famine

Above: 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. Americans responded with a massive two-year relief campaign, championed by a new Secretary of Commerce, "the Great Humanitarian" Herbert Hoover. "The Great Famine" from producer Austin Hoyt 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 twentieth century.

Video

Bonus Video: America's Gift to Famine Stricken Russia

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

Above: A 1923 American Relief Administration film, “America’s Gift to Famine Stricken Russia,” tracks the path of food aid to the Soviet Union, where citizens were suffering a third year of severe drought. In these selected film clips, the ARA introduces important members of its staff and shows the variety of creative ways they delivered rice, lard, corn, grits, milk, sugar and cocoa to hundreds of villages. Carrying supplies by ship, train, horse, camel and on people’s own backs, the ARA fed up to 11 million people daily.