Victor Serge

Relief for Russia

Face to Face with the Famine

(21 February 1922)


From International Press Correspondence, Vol. II No. 14, 21 February 1922, pp. 103–104.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.


The reality of the war was an indescribable nightmare. But one is almost led to ask if the famine is not worse. Nothing can give an idea of what is taking place now and what will continue to take place for months and months, if not for years – in the immense provinces of revolutionary Russia. The enormity of the figures disconcert and trouble the mind – they surpass the frightful figures to which the imperialist slaughter accustomed us before, in four years of international massacre, according to official statistics, there were 30,000,000 victims, of whom one-third were killed. The famine threatens with death a greater number of men, women and children in only one country and in a shorter time. Dr. Nansen has just made a estimate of the work of succor, and with all the combined forces active at present, safety is assured for only nine to ten million famine-stricken. But ten million remain who are absolutely doomed if the civilized governments do not intervene (for these governments are the only ones who have not yet done anything). Ten millions, the total of the dead in the great war! I still hear Gorky repeat: “Whatever may be done, whatever may be the effort made to succour them, I certainly believe that several millions of them will be sacrificed.” Last Summer Gorky was haunted by this nightmare. And all the horror which he foresaw, took place.

The great emotion evident at the time the Russian famine was announced has calmed down. A sort of indifference to the situation has set in. It is always the same ones who give without seeming to succor the moujiks over there who die outside of the boundaries of selfish and heedless Europe; it is always the same ones who talk about it. The others are silent and live, and often enough they live accustomed to this idea that every day the children of this revolutionary people are dying b the hundreds. “I can’t do anything about it.” And the maize which is not sold is burned (in Argentina), and empty ships fill the world’s ports, causing great losses to the shipbuilders who lose their dividends, and preparations are made to indulge in wars.

Now there are new reports. Why are they not published? I really don’t know. The satyrs, the ministers and the calumniators of the Russian revolution monopolize almost all the space in almost all the newspapers. And then one is hardened to the situation. All these Russian names are too difficult to pronounce or to write, finally, a vague remorse does seize you on reading these things, no matter if one prefers not to read them, and the newspapers prefer not to print them. But here they are: –

“In the region of Zaporozhye (Ukraine) the population dies with complete indifference. They eat earth and drink dirty water. People have become skeletons and are covered with rags ...”

“In the region of Ekatermoslav 100,000 children and 300,000 adults are victims, of the famine.”

“The relief trains going from Penza to Ufa can hardly make their way, because it is necessary to clear from the way the corpses of the famished, and the personnel of the trains is not equal to the work ...”

“There isn’t enough time to bury the dead of Samara ...”

“In the district of Pugachovsk 7,220 men have died of hunger, 32.521 are sick, and 75% of the children died in the shelter-homes ... We have seen sufferers who had lost the power of speech. We have seen others who became insane. In the village of Orlovsk we found a woman dead who had just given birth ... In February not more than 5% of the population will have survived in a number of the country- places in Samara ... Women have been found dead who were pressing in their arms children still alive ... Elsewhere mothers kill their children ... There is no longer morality, no longer affection, no more bonds, there is nothing But suffering, despair, death, and sometime instinctive revolt against death ...”

And over all this nameless horror the snow stretches its shroud – the winter gives the misericordia to the dying. I have picked out by chance from among a bundle of similar documents two telegrams from the Ukraine. Because it it a mistake to have gotten into the habit of speaking of the famine of the Volga. The famine rages in a number of places in the Ukraine, in the Crimea, in the neighbourhood of Kherson, in the Kuban, in the Bashkir region, on the Kama ... Wherever the counter-revolution passed – before the drought – the counter-revolution financed and recognized by Mm. Poincaré and Clemenceau, who were in agreement on this point! These things are known, recognized. But what is done? What are people doing to fight against the famine?

The governments, the powerful governments, armed, policed, civilized, who by turns make war, peace, laws, after having wished the famine for Russia, fought the revolution with the blockade – the death of the weak, of children, old men, savants, artists – speculate on the famine, ally of reaction, which intends to overwhelm the Red Republic or to impose upon it rhe hardest of conditions. Let us not be indignant, however. They are in their proper role.

As for the enlightened bourgeois – what are they doing? Nothing! They life! [sic!] They trustify petroleum and manufacture cannon. They deliberately aim at the bankruptcy and future famine of Germany. And then they go to the theater, they gourmandize and amuse themselves. Amidst the sinister misery of Vienna and Constantinople they display their luxury and their debauchery. However, let us not be indignant. At bottom they are also within their role, and so much the worse for them ...

But what are the elite of mankind doing? – they whose knowledge and thought are almost privilege of caste? It would seem that they have a different role. Formerly during the course of history they were the bearers of the spiritual life of the peoples in times of great calamities. The first Christian bishops protected their cities against the barbarians, fought against plague and leprosy. Bishops and mandarins of today, university men, academicians, poets have bigger hearts and more sensitive nerves and ought to feel a little of the human pain of the Russian peasants. These could have done a great deal, because their prestige has remained high even after the shame of the war. They do nothing. They say nothing. Outside of an Anatole France, who is gained over to all the great causes, is there a single one among the forty immortals of the French academy who has made one move for the thirty million who are suffering and dying over there? No. What are the universities doing? The University of Oxford, for example, persecutes Communists.

Then there is Socialism also, and there is also official Trade Unionism – Amsterdam, Vienna, London. Three “Workers’” Internationals, all three invoking the future and the new society [1], they have done nothing – or almost nothing. In any case they have done less for the rescue of of the famine-stricken in Russia, than for combatting the Russian revolution. And one can read every day their miserable polemics, the most sordid competition of interests, unheeding of the obvious interest of the future of humanity, of the proletariat, of the revolution in one word, of life.

In entire modern society, outside of revolutionary advance-guards, led by Communists, and workers who have answered their appeal, only a few admirable individuals have understood, have acted ... A great explorer in whom the soul of an apostle has shown itself – Nansen ... the Quakers and the doctors of a few German and Swedish Red Cross associations (many died of typhus at the task amidst those whom they went to succor). How few men there are among humanity today. This miserable capitalist humanity has permitted, one after another the war, the blockade, the famine – triple trial of which the latest means a serious natural calamity. If within one month and at the latest, two months, Russia is not enabled to carry through its spring sowing, the famine will come again – and it will be for a long time a redoubtable obstacle in the way of every attempt at the economic reconstruction of Europe – and no one can as yet foretell what terrible international economic repercussions may result from the depopulation and the transformation into a desert of a grain-producing country of Europe.

* * *

Footnote by MIA

1. In the printed version “so-case”, but this obviously makes no sense.


Last updated on 5 May 2019