In 1921, in a desperate act reminiscent of a shipwrecked man tossing a message in a bottle out to sea, Russian author Maxim Gorky wrote to newspapers in Europe and the US pleading for help. A deepening famine spread across the young Soviet Union after World War I and the Russian Revolution. Herbert Hoover, who had managed American relief work during and after World War I in Europe, was Secretary of Commerce and headed the American Relief Administration (ARA). Hoover did read Gorky's letter in a newspaper, and by the summer of 1922, 300 American ARA workers were managing 19,000 kitchens and feeding eleven million Soviets, adults as well as children.
"The Great Famine" premieres on PBS next Monday, April 11 at 9 p.m. The hour-long documentary is based on Bertrand Patenaude's "The Big Show in Bololand" (2002). Patenaude appears in the film and seems sober enough for the subject matter - "the worst natural disaster in Europe since the Black Plague of the Middle Ages" - but his publisher apparently relied on a catchy, off-beat presentation to sell books. "Bololand" was disparaging slang for the Soviet Union (a take-off on "Bolshevik"), and the book's cover features an unfortunately exotic picture of a camel pulling a sleigh through a snow storm. There were indeed camels in the Ural Mountains at the western edge of Siberia who pulled wagons, as the film's excellent archival footage shows us, but the film avoids the book cover's hype.
"The Great Famine" structures the story on profiles of two relief workers, employing archival film and photos, interview clips with historians and descendants of the principal relief workers and famine survivors, and re-enacted scenes with actors. Will Shafroth was the son of Colorado's governor and managed a district on the Volga River. And, from Syracuse, Walter Bell was a former National Guardsman who managed an area about the size of France, the Ufa-Urals District near Siberia.