In This Review

The Russian Job: The Forgotten Story of How America Saved the Soviet Union From Ruin
The Russian Job: The Forgotten Story of How America Saved the Soviet Union From Ruin
By Douglas Smith
320 pp, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019

By the early 1920s, the Bolsheviks had won an outright victory over their class enemies within Russia. But the devastation caused by the four years of civil war eventually forced them to turn for help to their class enemies abroad. Smith tells the story of how the American Relief Administration rescued Soviet Russia when it was struck by the worst famine Europe had ever known. Based on rich archival materials, his book focuses on a group of young Americans who set off for Russia, lured by the exotic and the unknown, and found themselves in the middle of a horrific tragedy. ARA members and the Soviets they hired operated in a vast territory where whole villages were dying of hunger, corpses were being left unburied along the roads, and reports of cannibalism were not uncommon. Rare photos included in the book lend Smith’s account an eerie vividness. During the two years the ARA spent there, it saved millions of lives in some 28,000 towns and villages by providing food, medical supplies, and disinfectants, as well as restoring hospitals, purifying water, and organizing mass inoculations. The ARA’s head, Herbert Hoover, believed that by rescuing Soviet Russia from hunger, the U.S. government could also rescue it from communism. He left deeply disappointed. But to the young Americans who staffed the ARA, the experience delivered an existential intensity that, once back home, they longed for but could never quite find again.