The Russian Job

Douglas Smith

Barnes and Noble

After decades of the Cold War and renewed tensions, in the wake of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, cooperation between the United States and Russia seems impossible to imagine—and yet, as Douglas Smith reveals, it has a forgotten but astonishing historical precedent. In 1921, facing one of the worst famines in history, the new Soviet government under Vladimir Lenin invited the American Relief Administration, Herbert Hoover’s brainchild, to save communist Russia from ruin. For two years, a small, daring band of Americans fed more than ten million men, women, and children across a million square miles of territory. It was the largest humanitarian operation in history—preventing the loss of countless lives, social unrest on a massive scale, and, quite possibly, the collapse of the communist state. Now, almost a hundred years later, few in either America or Russia have heard of the ARA. The Soviet government quickly began to erase the memory of American charity. In America, fanatical anti-communism would eclipse this historic cooperation with the Soviet Union. In The Russian Job, Douglas Smith resurrects the American relief mission from obscurity, taking the reader on an unforgettable journey from the heights of human altruism to the depths of human depravity.

Late one afternoon in July during the sweltering summer of 1921, two young American men sat whiling away the day at the Café du Commerce in the small French town of Château-Thierry. Charles Veil—fighter pilot for the Lafayette Flying Corps in the war, turned playboy-adventurer in peacetime—was reading the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune when he looked up at his friend and casually remarked: “There’s a famine in Russia and an appeal has been made to America for aid. It seems the American Relief Administration may go in.” J. Rives Childs took the paper and read Gorky’s appeal. In an instant, Childs was seized with the idea of signing up and heading off to Russia. “If the deal goes through, there will be big news,” a grinning Childs told Veil. “Right now Russia is a closed book.”

Childs was a son of the South, born in Lynchburg in 1893 to an old Virginia family. His father had served as a messenger for General Lee in the Civil War and then went on to a career in business that ended badly, in a bank failure. His mother was the stronger, more influential of his parents. A college graduate, she was the first white woman in Lynchburg to teach in a school for black children, much to the displeasure of the local white superintendent. She made sure her son got an education, sending him to the Virginia Military Institute, then Randolph-Macon College, and finally on to Harvard College for a master’s degree in English. Young Childs had dreams of becoming a writer. One day, the radical journalist John Reed came and spoke to the class about his dangerous experiences on the Eastern Front. Childs’s head was filled with the allure of foreign adventures.

Soon after, in the summer of 1915, he and a friend volunteered for the American Ambulance Corps and sailed for Europe. For several months, he ferried wounded French soldiers under the distant rumble of heavy guns from Compiègne to the College of Juilly, not far outside Paris. After the United States joined the war, Childs was commissioned as a second lieutenant and sent to intelligence school, then served with the American Expeditionary Force in the Bureau of Enemy Ciphers in Chaumont, France. In December 1918, he was assigned to the American delegation to the Paris Peace Conference as a radio intelligence officer. There he watched his hero, President Wilson, parade down the Champs-Élysées amid wildly cheering crowds. Wilson’s idealism, his progressive political agenda, and his vision of a new world order based on democracy and national self-determination inspired Childs and would become signposts in his life. As Wilson rode past, Childs was so overcome with emotion he had to walk away from the crowd and try to collect himself in private.

Childs fell in love with Europe, and when his job in Paris ended, he began looking about for anything that would keep him from having to return to the States. He heard about the newly established American Relief Administration and was hired on to help feed hungry children in Yugoslavia. It was just the posting he had been looking for. “The Balkans were remote and romantic,” he later recalled. The job ran until the autumn of 1919, when he reluctantly returned home. His disappointment was somewhat lessened after he won a job as the White House correspondent for the Associated Press. He met his idol on a few occasions, but then was nearly crushed with despair at the 1920 election of the Republican Warren G. Harding, whom he characterized as “a ponderous piece of flesh” and “a great tragedy for the American people.” Childs’s choice for president had been Eugene V. Debs of the Socialist Party of America. He was now more eager than ever to get back to Europe. In the spring of 1921, Childs managed to land a writing assignment that would take him to France for several months. He jumped at the opportunity.

• • •

On August 1, Childs made his way to the American Express Office at 11 rue Scribe in Paris. In the Visitors’ Writing Room, he wrote a letter to Walter Lyman Brown in London, reminding Brown how the two had met back in 1919, before Childs shipped off for Yugoslavia, and offering his services for the job the ARA was preparing to undertake in Russia. He told Brown that serving with the ARA had been a great honor and no other work in his life had given him such satisfaction. He was prepared to come to London at a moment’s notice to discuss with him in person the chance of going to Russia. He closed his letter by remarking that he already possessed a fair conversational knowledge of the Russian language. This was a lie, but, then, Childs was willing to do just about anything to return to the ARA.

Two days later, Brown cabled Childs, inviting him to come to London. Childs was overjoyed. He immediately wrote his mother: “There seems to be the prospect of a spirited adventure in Russia and you may be sure that if it is possible I shall be heading that way before returning home.” He made no mention of the famine, or of communism, or of potential business opportunities, only that a job with the ARA would provide him with “some interesting material for stories.” Childs’s motivation for heading off to Russia—the prospect of adventure, the lure of the exotic and the unknown, a motivation shared by many, if not most, of the young Americans who signed up for the ARA mission—never once crossed the minds of Soviet officials. After three revolutions and three wars in two decades, the Russians had had plenty of “adventures,” more than most nations experience in the course of a century or two. They could not even conceive of a country where life was so steady that its young men sought out the world’s troubled spots merely in the hopes of quickening their pulse. A cloud of misunderstanding obscured the Americans from the Russians, and it never lifted, not even after years of close work together in the fight against the famine. Childs was in Vienna on the 20th when he received a wire informing him an agreement had been made with the Soviet government and instructing him to head to Riga by the shortest possible route. He nearly burst with excitement. “It will be a tremendously big job and one which any man should be proud to have a hand in. To be among the first expedition I consider a boon sent directly from Heaven,” he wrote his mother. He had a sense based on his previous work for Hoover that they’d be engaged in more than just famine relief. Hoover’s true aim, he seemed certain, was “the ultimate economic reconstruction of the country.” Childs hadn’t felt so alive since his days in Yugoslavia. “The old fever to be among stirring scenes and a part of great events is once more about to be satisfied.”

They could not even conceive of a country where life was so steady that its young men sought out the world’s troubled spots merely in the hopes of quickening their pulse.

Armed with a Russian dictionary, Childs set off for Riga by way of Berlin. He asked his mother to send him his wool socks, three suits of heavy underwear, and a carton of Camel cigarettes. On the 27th, he reached Riga. There he met Emmett Kilpatrick, a friend from his Paris days. Kilpatrick had been taken prisoner by the Red Army while serving with the Red Cross in southern Russia and spent nearly a year in Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison, much of it in solitary confinement. Childs seemed shocked that his old pal was no longer the fun-loving prankster of former days. Over lunch, Kilpatrick told him of the horrors he had gone through in prison—the filth, the lice, the cold, hunger, and brutality. He had stayed sane by repeating the famous lines of Richard Lovelace’s “To Althea, from Prison”—“Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.” Childs noticed how his “eyes roved restlessly about him like those of a hunted animal.” Late on the night of the 29th, Childs left for the station and boarded his train for Moscow. At last, he was on his way into what he called “that strange, mysterious world” of Soviet Russia.

Among the small party of Americans with Childs was a middle-aged professor of Russian history from Stanford. Frank Golder had been born in Odessa and immigrated to America as a boy with his family, most likely soon after the bloody pogroms of the early 1880s. As Jews, the Golders hoped for a better life across the ocean, but getting by in New Jersey proved a struggle. Frank’s father, a Talmudic scholar, made little money, and Frank was forced to sell household wares on the street to support the family. One day, he met a Baptist minister who was so impressed by the boy’s work ethic that he persuaded the Golder family to let him give them money to allow Frank to go to school.

As a teenager, Golder studied philosophy at Bucknell University and then went on to Harvard, from which he graduated in 1903, before enrolling in graduate studies in Russian history. After earning his doctorate in history in 1909, he took a position at Washington State College, in the town of Pullman, amid the rolling hills of the Palouse. Golder dreamed of working in Russia’s archives, and he managed to travel to St. Petersburg in the summer of 1914, just as war was breaking out across Europe. He was back again in March 1917, and witnessed the collapse of the Romanov dynasty with his own eyes. Like many, he greeted the February Revolution as a necessary step toward a freer, more just Russia, only to be disillusioned at the chaos and violence that soon followed. He could not believe how quickly a country could go to pieces.

In 1920, Golder was hired by the new Hoover War Collection (later the Hoover War Library and now the Hoover Institution Library and Archives) at Leland Stanford Junior University to help build a collection of documents on the history of the Great War. Stanford would become his home for the rest of Golder’s life, both as a professor and as director of the Hoover Library. Golder traveled all over Europe, buying up manuscripts, libraries, and ephemera for Hoover. Everywhere he went, he was met with open arms. Modest, soft-spoken, a good listener who never tried to impose his views on others, Golder developed an enormous network of contacts among the continent’s intellectual elite, including in Russia. Few if any Americans in 1921 could boast of a more thorough knowledge of Russia—its history, culture, and politics— than Frank Golder, and it was for this reason that his employer, Herbert Hoover, sent him back to Russia that summer, to continue his collecting and to assess the famine as a special investigator for the ARA. “Doc” Golder, as he was affectionately called by the ARA men—all a good deal younger, and almost all a good deal less educated than he—would cover more ground over the next two years than any other American in his search to discover the full extent of the famine.

The electricity on the train had gone out, so the men rode through the night by candlelight. When they crossed the frontier, Childs was shocked to see that everyone was dressed in rags. The faces of the Russians seemed to betray a dull-wittedness the likes of which he had never seen before in Europe. Trains loaded with refugees from Moscow passed them along the way. Their locomotive was so underpowered that it failed to summit a few small hills along the route. Twice the engineer had to back up the train a good ways and give it all she had to get over the gentle inclines. After a forty-hour trip, the train finally pulled into Moscow on the afternoon of August 31; here they were met by Philip Carroll.

A palpable sense of excitement, mixed with foreboding, had filled their car as they crossed the border. They were entering a strange new land and had little idea what lay ahead.

The first group of ARA men had “gone in,” as one called it then, several days earlier. Russia had been almost completely cut off from the rest of the world for over three years. A palpable sense of excitement, mixed with foreboding, had filled their car as they crossed the border. They were entering a strange new land and had little idea what lay ahead. A man from Universal News came along to film their progress behind the Red Curtain. There were seven of them, led by Carroll, acting chief of the Russian mission, a longtime ARA man from Hood River, Oregon. He’d been sent in with no specific instructions from either the New York office or Hoover. As would be the case in much of the mission to come, the men on the ground had to make it up as they went along. The Soviet officials meeting them at the station were shocked: they’d been told to expect only three men and had no idea where they were going to put up an extra four. It seemed a bad omen. With a bit of work, Carroll managed to secure a large gray stone mansion at 30 Spiridonovka, just blocks from Patriarch’s Ponds, later made famous by Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Once the luxurious, state-of-the-art residence of a wealthy Armenian sugar baron, its thirty rooms had been reduced, in Carroll’s words, to “an absolute state of filthiness.” The central heating was kaput, the electricity dead, and the plumbing, one ARA man put it, “only a memory.” No one bothered to remove their heavy coats or gloves after moving in. Fifty portable oil-burner heaters were immediately ordered from London.

At the station, Carroll picked up Childs, Golder, and four others on the team in one of the ARA’s freshly painted Cadillacs. Childs noticed how the Muscovites stared as they drove through the city. When they pulled up at their new home, Childs thought Spiridonovka had the look of a dark and massive prison. Carroll seems to have read Childs’s mind, commenting as they went in, “It should be able to withstand a long siege.”

The next day, Childs went out to explore. “I wish that I might give a faithful picture of my impressions of this strange unreal city of Moscow,” he wrote his mother, “but for the difficult portrayal the extraordinary emotions which it awakens there is demanded the morbidly-minded genius of a Poe or E. T. Hoffmann. It is like some great city upon which a pestilence has settled and in which the population moves in hourly expectation of death.” Everywhere were signs of artillery and machine-gun fire, craters where once had been buildings, formerly exquisite shops all now boarded up and cobwebbed. Several years’ worth of trash lay in the streets, and the ground floors of the abandoned structures served as public toilets. Yet more striking than the physical image of the city was the sight of its inhabitants. Childs could not get over “the apparent absence of a heart and soul with which one is struck so forcibly and pathetically. I think that perhaps the briefest and most just characterization of Moscow would be to say that it is a city without love.” Nowhere did he encounter a laugh, or even a smile, as he walked along. There was “rust and corrosion upon the heart and a pall of fear upon the soul.”

The Americans got to work straightaway. On September 1, the SS Phoenix arrived in Petrograd from Hamburg, bearing seven hundred tons of ARA rations. Five days later, the first ARA food kitchen opened, in School No. 27, on Moika Street. The first kitchen in Moscow opened on the 10th, in the former Hermitage Restaurant, a beloved establishment for the city’s wealthy in the days before the revolution. Given the great distance food had to be shipped, the meals consisted of products that could be easily packaged and stored and offered lots of calories, usually corn grits, rice, white bread, lard, sugar, condensed milk, and cocoa.

Golder had spent the first two days running around to meetings with Soviet officials in order to make arrangements for a trip to the heart of the famine on the Volga River. No one on the Soviet side seemed to be in charge, and he was having a devil of a time getting any concrete answers about exactly when preparations would be ready for him to depart. Finally, late on September 1, he was told to go to the station for a train leaving at midnight. With Golder were his fellow ARA men John Gregg and William Shafroth, as well as a Soviet liaison officer, two Russian porters, and a driver for the Ford camionette they’d be taking along with them on the train.

They awoke to heavy rain the next morning. Golder noted that the landscape reminded him of northern Idaho, although the desperate, hungry faces at the stations they passed through left him no doubt he was in Russia. Late on the morning of the 3rd, they pulled into the city of Kazan, the old Tatar capital on the Volga, some 450 hundred miles east of Moscow. The men were now inside the famine zone. Hungry refugees from the outlying villages thronged the station, all “huddled together in compact masses like a seal colony, mothers and young close together,” in Golder’s words. The children were surviving on a bit of soup and one small piece of bread from the public kitchens. The city itself was a ruin. In the streets they encountered “pitiful-looking figures dressed in rags and begging for a piece of bread in the name of Christ.”

They went to the offices of the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic to introduce themselves to the local authorities. The Tatars received them with an air of suspicion, as if they’d been warned to be on guard. When they learned, however, that Golder was a teacher, as the Tatar officials themselves had been before the revolution, and spoke perfect Russian, their caution melted away. Together the men went off to tour the local hospital. The conditions were abysmal: filthy and lacking the most basic of medicines, the rooms overcrowded with persons afflicted with tuberculosis, scurvy, typhus, and dysentery. Upon returning to their railcar, they found it was besieged by begging children and their wailing parents—a pitiful sight that made it impossible for the men to eat or rest. On the 5th, Gregg sent a wire to headquarters in Moscow: “The need for relief in this country is beyond anything I have ever seen. Speed is of utmost repeat utmost importance as without exaggeration children dying [of] actual starvation every day.” The situation was much worse than anyone had imagined.

That month, Golder traveled throughout the famine region. Everywhere he went, he encountered the same scenes of hunger and despair. At one small station on the way to Simbirsk, two militiamen told him they had not been paid in months and received nothing from the government but one bowl of watery soup a day. They had taken to making a bread substitute out of grass and acorns, which Golder mistook for horse manure.

When they were a few days out of Kazan, their train stopped because of a wreck up the line. Golder went out to have a look and found the flatbed conveying the ARA Ford crowded with peasant women who had climbed on. They told him they had left home in search of potatoes, and shared their stories. Desperate mothers had abandoned children they could no longer feed in the Simbirsk marketplace, in the hope that the state would take the children in. Others had even killed their offspring and then taken their own lives. Everyone they met seemed resigned to their fate. Only the subject of the Soviet government agitated the women: they blamed it for their misfortunes. Golder noted that life had been hard under the tsars as well, but they rejected the comparison. Yes, the tsar’s officials had stolen and robbed, they admitted, but back then they all had so much they didn’t really notice. Now it was different. All the Soviets knew how to do was take—an attitude Golder encountered often during his trip. He gave them each a bit of chocolate cake, which they carefully wrapped up and put in their pockets, saving it for their children back home. Finally, the line was cleared, and the train started up again. As they rode along, Golder looked out and saw sparks pouring out of the stack; they landed on the peasants and set their raggedy clothes ablaze.

Golder and his party stopped at the wharf near the village of Khrashchevka. The villagers, who had come down to the river to beg for food from passing boats, told them how the Communist Party had sent workers from the cities to crush a peasant revolt there in 1918. Golder had heard similar tales as they passed through villages along the way. All about them were pitiful scenes. Golder was especially moved by the sight of an old woman crawling in the mud on all fours, fighting with several pigs over bits of pumpkin rind. They happened upon a local dentist, and she told them there was not a single toothbrush in the entire village. The peasants, having eaten up all the remaining dandelions, wild mustard, and onions, had come down with scurvy, and she could do nothing but watch their teeth fall out.

On the 14th, they reached the city of Samara. “Dirt and ruins are everywhere,” Golder wrote in his diary. “Windows are smashed; streets torn up and littered with rubbish and dead animals. Hotels, which at one time compared well with the best of Europe, are today empty shells; church steeples are turned into wireless stations and palatial homes into barracks. In brief, the city is a wreck, a shadow of its former self.” The people were surviving on rinds, potato peelings, and bones. The rail station was crowded with people trying to flee to Siberia, where they’d heard there was plenty of food. Others crowded the beach, hoping to escape by boat to Ukraine. The authorities, however, were doing everything in their power to keep people from leaving and spreading panic and disease as they went. Weakened by hunger, the people lay about and slept and waited; their little remaining strength they devoted to searching the bodies of their loved ones for lice. “I shall never forget the sights I saw in September, in Samara,” Shafroth later wrote.

The scenes in the hospitals and orphanages were particularly disturbing. Typical was one children’s home built for 30 that now held 450. The men mistook the stinking rags on the floor for discarded clothing, only to realize that they concealed, in Golder’s words, the “cadaverous bodies of young children with such old, shriveled faces that they look like mummies.”

It was by now obvious that although the ARA had not provided medical relief in its other operations, it would need to do so in Russia. The most basic supplies were lacking: aspirin, chloroform, ether. Old newspaper had replaced bandages for wrapping wounds and surgical incisions. Before the month was out, the ARA made an agreement with the American Red Cross for $3.6 million worth of medicines and supplies. The scope of the medical relief would grow during the mission and become a large part of the ARA’s work in Russia.

On the last day of the month, Golder headed back to Moscow. The train was covered with refugees who were trying to flee the area. They rode on the roofs of the cars, on the steps, the bumpers; many even clung to the undercarriages, their bodies just inches above the rails. Golder remarked that it looked as if the train were covered with insects. When one sicklylooking man got too close to their compartment, the Soviet liaison officer pulled his gun and threatened to shoot. “Shoot!” the poor man screamed. “Do you think it makes any difference to me whether I am shot or die of hunger?” The train stopped at the bridge over the Volga, and the militia pulled all the refugees off. But no sooner had the train crossed to the other side when another mass of refugees, “waiting, shouting, swearing, and pushing,” lunged at the train and climbed on before it could get back up to speed.

From Moscow, Golder wrote to a colleague back in the history department at Stanford:

The famine is bad beyond all imagination, it is the most heart breaking situation that I have ever seen. Millions of people are doomed to die and they are looking it calmly in the face. Next year millions more will die [. . .] To see Russia makes one wish that he were dead. One asks in vain where are the healthy men, the beautiful women, the cultural life. It is all gone and in place of it we have starving, ragged, undersized men and women who are thinking of only one thing, where the next piece of bread is coming from [. . .] In all these wanderings and through all the discomforts there is one blessed thought: that I have another land to go to.

When news of the horrors on the Volga reached Moscow, Carroll decided to send a team to begin operations in Kazan as soon as possible. The plan was to prepare a train with fourteen cars loaded with enough food to feed thirty thousand children for a month. In addition, there would be a large flatcar to carry two ARA trucks and a Cadillac touring car, a railcar with kitchen, and two saloon cars for the ARA men, their interpreters, chauffeurs, and cook, and a group of American newspaper reporters. The train was scheduled to leave Moscow on Wednesday, September 14.

As would soon become clear to the Americans, setting a schedule and sticking to it were two very different things in Soviet Russia. First, there was a series of unexplained delays in finding the required railroad cars. Finally, when several did appear at the station, they were too filthy and broken-down to be of any use. It was at this point that the Americans learned a crucial lesson about working in Russia: the Cheka could be a friend as well as an enemy. The Cheka agent Bublikov, according to Childs a sinewy figure with “superabundant nervous energy” and “the cold penetrating eye of one devoid of the instinct of mercy,” picked up the phone and demanded that the necessary cars be delivered to the station within two hours or those responsible for the delay would be arrested. Sure enough, the cars arrived on time; late on the afternoon of the 15th, the train set out for Kazan.

Besides Childs, the ARA men included Vernon Kellogg, Ivar Wahren, and Elmer Burland. The press was represented by Walter Duranty of The New York Times, Ralph Pulitzer of New York’s The World, Floyd Gibbons of the Chicago Tribune, and Bessie Beatty, the noted journalist who had witnessed and reported on the Russian Revolution firsthand. Also on the train was the Australian-born adventurer and onetime British member of Parliament Arthur Alfred Lynch. By the next day, their train was already passing through small railroad stations crowded with refugees. Childs noticed how the people outside his window, so weakened and hopelesslooking, showed “scarcely any vestige of human expression.” The little boys and girls with grotesquely bloated stomachs made him think of hideous freaks of the kind one might see displayed in a museum.

Once, without thinking, Childs carelessly tossed some apple peelings out his window; a pack of children set upon them as if they represented a great treasure. Lynch, however, seemed strangely untouched by the misery. Childs noticed how he would leap from the train at each stop and shout, “Long live the Soviets!” One wonders what the poor, starved Russians made of this spectacle.

They arrived in Kazan in a cold drizzle the night of the 17th. Looking about, Childs could see nothing but mud and misery. He was reminded of a line from Thomas Moore’s “Oft, in the Stilly Night”—“I feel like one / Who treads alone / Some banquet-hall deserted.” In the gloom of the station, he caught sight of a young boy struggling to pull a cart bearing a coffin. The next day, Childs and Wahren went to meet Rauf Sabirov, chairman of the Tatar Central Executive Committee, and Kashaf Mukhtarov, chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Tatar Republic.

The meetings went well, and the men immediately established an easy rapport. That very day, less than twenty-four hours after arriving in Kazan, the ARA began feeding children in a makeshift location. A few days later, they set up a full feeding operation capable of handling a thousand young people.

On the 20th, Wahren left Kazan with a boatload of relief supplies for villages out in the countryside, followed by Burland and Kellogg the next day. Childs stayed behind to set up their offices and housing. The days were long, but Childs was excited to finally be at it. He wrote his mother that it filled him with pride to be involved in a large effort aimed at saving lives—not taking them, as had been his mission during the war. One of his first days at his desk, with paperhangers scurrying about and office furniture and supplies being delivered, the Cheka showed up and arrested Childs’s interpreter. No explanation was given, and he never saw the man again. That afternoon, a smart-looking young man in a Red Army uniform marched into the office, saluted, clicked his heals, and introduced himself as William Simson, Childs’s new interpreter. Born in Estonia, Simson had been educated in England and worked as a valet in London’s Savoy Hotel, where he perhaps anglicized his name, before returning to Russia to join the Red Army. He had been arrested and sentenced to death as a counterrevolutionary spy more than once before being exiled to Kazan. His English was flawless. Childs naturally, and certainly correctly, assumed that the Cheka had sent Simson both to interpret for and to spy on Childs, but this didn’t bother him in the least: in his estimation, he and the ARA had nothing to hide. What’s more, with the others gone, Childs was terribly lonely. He hugged Simson and begged him to join him for dinner. The two men soon formed a close bond and were rarely apart. Later, Childs would even save Simson’s life.

Most of Childs’s time in the first days was spent trying to put together the personnel vital to the ARA mission. The total number of Americans in Russia never surpassed more than two hundred at a time, and so the great bulk of the work had to be done by the local population. The ARA office in Kazan was inundated with applications, but only a few of the applicants possessed the requisite skills. Among those to beat a path to their door was the granddaughter of Generalissimo Alexander Suvorov, famed field marshal under Catherine the Great and one of Russia’s greatest military commanders, along with her son and daughter. They were dressed in rags, and their gaunt faces bore all the signs of prolonged hunger. He hired the daughter, since she spoke English and French and could type, but had no use for the other two. The poor mother, who at one time had been received at the tsarist court, pleaded through her tears with Childs to hire her. She refused to leave, and for the rest of the day haunted the office with her presence. Childs didn’t know what to do, never having encountered before persons whose nerves were so “hopelessly disordered.”

Accompanying the Russians’ desperate wish to be hired by the ARA was an almost equally strong fear that working for the Americans would lead to future trouble with the Cheka. There was talk in the city that the ARA would be around for only a few months, and that once it pulled out the secret police would arrest individuals who had had anything to do with the Americans. Everyone was convinced the Cheka had planted agents throughout the organization and was keeping close tabs on its operations and personnel. Childs, dangerously naïve in such matters, called these fears unfounded. When he brought the matter up with local officials, they assured him that such concerns about retribution were baseless. (Some of these same officials would themselves later be arrested and shot as counterrevolutionaries under Stalin.) The Latvia-born John de Jacobs, hired on in Kazan as another interpreter, later commented that the Russian staff was riddled with Cheka informers. They even proposed to Childs the idea of putting some of their desks in his private office, which the unwitting Childs happily accepted.

The strain was enormous, and at times he thought he was about to break under the pressure.

Working eighteen-hour days, Childs had built up a staff of fifty by the end of September. Even though he was solely responsible for their training, he still managed to find time to expand the feeding operation to fifteen thousand children. The strain was enormous, and at times he thought he was about to break under the pressure. He felt horrible having to turn away so many seeking jobs, for he knew that, without the money and rations provided to ARA workers, many would perish in the coming winter. Moreover, reports from the provinces made it clear that the operation would have to expand to include the feeding of adults. The famine was much worse than they had ever imagined, a fact that he feared the ARA bosses back in London and New York did not understand. Childs did his best to raise the alarm. “I cannot permit part of the responsibility for the death of thousands to rest on my head,” he recorded in his diary. A bit of relief came with the arrival of two Americans: John H. Boyd, a tall and lanky Southerner with considerable experience in aid relief in the Near East, and, a bit older and more sedate than Boyd, Van Arsdale Turner, a preacher’s son who had come to Russia in search of adventure. Childs noted that Turner “had the language of romance on his tongue,” and was an “impractical, idealistic type for whom America has no corner to which to turn.” Boyd took charge of transport and supply for the Kazan district; Turner and Childs divided the children’s feeding operations between them.

Douglas Smith is an award-winning historian and translator and the author of Rasputin and Former People, which was a bestseller in the U.K. His books have been translated into a dozen languages. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, he has written for The New York Times and Wall Street Journal and has appeared in documentaries with the BBC, National Geographic, and Netflix. Before becoming a historian, he worked for the U.S. State Department in the Soviet Union and as a Russian affairs analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He lives with his family in Seattle.