Article Note: R. Gribble, “Cooperation and Conflict between Church and State: The Russian Famine of 1921-1923”

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 16, No. 4, December 2010

Article Note: R. Gribble, “Cooperation and Conflict between Church and State: The Russian Famine of 1921-1923,” Journal of Church and State 51 no. 4 (Autumn 2009): 634-662.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

Richard Gribble’s article describes the unprecedented and unrepeated international and interdenominational efforts made to relieve the severe and widespread famine inRussiain 1921 to 1923. Brought about largely because of the mismanagement and misallocation of food resources by the newly-established Communist regime in theSoviet Union, this famine cost millions of lives. The enforced requisition of food grains from the peasants to feed the Red Army’s soldiers was a political decision which had catastrophic consequences. It was only when Lenin realized that not only his prestige but even the future of his regime was at stake that he accepted offers of help from outsiders. However, it was only on condition that no criticism or disruption of the Communist political control was undertaken. Complications and political difficulties abounded, but by early 1922 the American Relief Administration (ARA) under Herbert Hoover was able to bring in grain supplies to feed the starving population of millions.

Similarly, the Papal Relief Mission gathered up help from Catholic agencies in Europe and, along with the US National Catholic Welfare Council, coordinated its activities with the ARA, establishing numerous feeding centres, especially in the southernUkraineand theCrimea. Both Pope Benedict XV and his successor Pius XI saw this assistance as an opportunity to demonstrate theVatican’s commitment to compassion and charity even in a non-Catholic milieu. Pius XI donated 2 million Lire to the fund.

But none of this changed the Soviet Government’s hostility to Christianity and its clergy. Despite the Orthodox Church’s readiness to help feed the starving people, Communist repression of the church was stepped up. Leading clergy were put on trial. Church wealth was confiscated. The last significant bastions of the old regime were eliminated. The Russian famine did however demonstrate that international cooperation between church and state was possible. Even when the political and logistical circumstances were so adverse, millions of people were saved from certain starvation.