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Overview // Pogroms // Famine Relief

Another incentive for emigrating from Russia to the United States and other nations was the terrible famine of 1891-1892.  It covered 900,000 square miles in the central agricultural region of Russia around the Volga River and affected 14-20 million people of whom nearly 400,000 died, primarily of disease caused by malnutrition.  A cycle of unusually bad weather the previous year had led to severe shortages of fodder and crops.  The movement of peasants across the Russian countryside seeking food or employment helped spread disease.  At first, many crops continued to be exported in compliance with existing government economic policies until Czar Alexander III halted the practice in the fall of 1891 after learning of the famine.  The czar’s government undertook a massive relief effort by distributing rations, giving financial aid and credit, and employing peasants in public works projects.  However, the distribution system was inefficient, the aid limited to certain classes, and the public works not established until after the worst of the crisis was over.

The Russian famine made headlines and generated sympathy around the world, with the United States taking the lead among nations in contributing to the relief effort.  An article in the January 23, 1892 issue of Harper’s Weekly detailed the devastating facts of the famine.  The correspondent, Countess Norraikow, blamed the czar’s government for suppressing information about the famine, and then presented a long excerpt taken from a firsthand account intended for private distribution.  It provided a graphic depiction of the illness and misery suffered by the victims of the Russian famine, and a harsh criticism of the government’s neglect and inefficiency.  The letter highlighted the humane efforts made by Count Leo Tolstoi, the famous Russian novelist, on behalf of the starving people.  Countess Norraikow ended the article with a heartfelt plea for financial contributions from “the great heart of that blessed people”—Americans.

Across the country, Americans responded by donating generous amounts of money, foodstuffs, and other needed items.  The Iowa Red Cross shipped a boatload of corn and Pennsylvania millers donated 6 million pounds of flour, to name but two examples.  The March 5, 1892 issue of Harper’s Weekly contained an illustrated article depicting the departure of the relief ship, Indiana, from Philadelphia.  Ceremonies were conducted at the port on George Washington’s birthday, February 22, by Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish clergy, along with the singing of the Russian and American national anthems.  A large crowd attended the festivities and lined the bank for five miles, cheering the ship as it began the journey to Russia.  The cargo included lumber, foodstuffs, candles, and other provisions valued at $79,000 (equal to about 1.5 million in 2001 dollars).  On the last page of the issue, a cartoon in the lower-right corner presented Uncle Sam waving to a ship loaded with flour and grain as “a gift for starving Russia.”

Harper's Weekly References

1)  January 23, 1892, pp. 86, c. 3-4, and 87, c. 1
“The Russian Famine”

2)  March 5, 1892, p. 223, c. 1-2
illustrated article, “Food for Starving Russia”

3)  March 5, 1892, p. 240, c. 2
cartoon, lower-right corner of Uncle Sam & ship

Sources Consulted
Lilly, David P.  “The Russian Famine of 1891-92.”  Loyola University Student History
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Overview // Pogroms // Famine Relief





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