The stories began to appear in the Soviet press in the autumn of 1921, each one more gruesome than the last. There was the woman who refused to let go of her dead husband’s body. “We won’t give him up,” she screamed when the authorities came to take it away. “We’ll eat him ourselves, he’s ours!” There was the cemetery where a gang of 12 ravenous men and women dug up the corpse of a recently deceased man and devoured his cold flesh on the spot. There was the man captured by the police after murdering his friend, chopping off his head, and selling the body at a street market to a local restaurant owner to be made into meatballs, cutlets, and hash. And then there was the desperate mother of four starving children, saved only by the death of their sister, aged 13, whom the woman cut up and fed to the family.
The stories seemed too horrific to believe. Few could imagine a hunger capable of driving people to such acts. One man went in search of the truth. Henry Wolfe, a high-school history teacher from Ohio, spent several weeks in the spring of 1922 traveling throughout Samara Province, in southeastern Russia, intent on finding physical evidence of cannibalism. In the district of Melekess, officials told him about a father who had killed and eaten his two little children. He confessed that their flesh had “tasted sweeter than pork.” Wolfe kept on searching, and eventually found the proof he had been looking for.
At first glance, it appears to be an unremarkable photograph of six individuals in winter dress: two women and four men, their expressions blank, betraying no particular emotion. But then our eyes catch sight of the grisly objects laid out across a wooden plank resting unevenly atop a pair of crates. There are two female heads, part of a rib cage, a hand, and what appears to be the skull of a small child. The adult heads have been cracked open, and the skulls pulled back. Along with human flesh, cannibals had feasted upon the brains of their victims.
Wolfe stands second from the right, surrounded by Russian interpreters and Soviet officials. There’s a faint look of satisfaction on his face at having accomplished his goal. Here, at last, was the incontrovertible proof he had set out to find.
An American in Russia
Wolfe may have found the answer he had been seeking, but to us, a century later, the photograph raises a number of questions. What was Wolfe doing in Russia in the first place? What had led this young American to a remote corner of the globe, half a world away, in search of such horrors? And why would the Soviet government, the newly formed socialist state of Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik Party, dedicated to world revolution and the overthrow of the capitalist order, have helped Wolfe to uncover, much less document and publicize, its miserable failure at feeding its own people?
If we look closely, a clue to answering these questions is to be found in the three letters stamped on the box in the center of the frame: “ARA.” Facing one of the worst famines in history, the Soviet government invited the American Relief Administration, the brainchild of Herbert Hoover, future president of the United States, to save Russia from ruin. For two years, the A.R.A. fed over 10 million men, women, and children across a million square miles of territory in what was the largest humanitarian operation in history.
Why would the Soviet government have helped Wolfe to uncover its miserable failure at feeding its own people?
Its efforts prevented a catastrophe of incalculable proportions—the loss of millions of lives, social unrest on a massive scale, and, quite possibly, the collapse of the Soviet state. Having completed their mission by the summer of 1923, the Americans packed up and went home. Before the A.R.A. left, the leaders of the Soviet government showered the organization with expressions of undying gratitude and promises never to forget America’s help.
“An act of humanity and benevolence,” Machiavelli wrote in his Discourses on Livy, “will at all times have more influence over the minds of men than violence and ferocity.” Machiavelli was wrong. The Soviet government quickly began to erase the memory of American charity, and what it could not erase, it sought to distort into something ugly. But it wasn’t just the Russians. Back in the United States, where Americans had followed the work of the A.R.A. with great interest, knowledge of Hoover’s achievement faded. By the time Hoover was voted out of office a decade later, during the Great Depression, the story of this extraordinary humanitarian mission had been forgotten. Now, almost a hundred years later, few people in America or Russia have ever heard of the A.R.A. Here is the story of one of the most horrifying aspects of the famine, and how the Americans sought to document it.
All P.R. Is Good P.R.
During his stay in the Soviet Union, William Garner, the P.R. man for the A.R.A., pushed for information on a subject of particular interest: cannibalism. He said he was hoping to get a chance to sit down with a cannibal for an interview before heading home. This wasn’t just morbid curiosity on his part; rather, he had been directed by his bosses to find solid, incontrovertible evidence of cannibalism. The A.R.A. had received Soviet reports on the problem but wanted its own proof. “We have ’em,” William Kelly, stationed with the A.R.A. in the city of Ufa, told Garner, “but they won’t talk for publication.”
Kelly had heard plenty of stories since arriving in Russia. He was convinced there had been thousands of cases of cannibalism that winter, but it was difficult to get precise details. Few Soviet officials were willing to talk to the Americans about this most horrifying aspect of the famine, largely out of a sense of shame and embarrassment for what they felt it said about their country. Nonetheless, a few had shared with Kelly what they knew, telling him that cannibals were dealt with forcefully when caught—put on trial and punished, some of the guilty even sentenced to death for their crimes.
Once, Kelly saw the trial records of a case, complete with a photograph of the accused and a boiled human head. The official policy of the A.R.A. was to soft-pedal such “horror stuff,” in Kelly’s words, in order to avoid accusations that the Americans had been exaggerating for cheap publicity. In early February, the Moscow office wired London to say that “any implication that the American Relief Administration vouches for the existence of cannibalism should be carefully avoided.”
Garner was hoping to get a chance to sit down with a cannibal for an interview before heading home.
“There are continual rumors about cannibalism around here,” Henry Wolfe, the high-school history teacher from Ohio, wrote from Samara on February 12 to his little brother Eddie, a student at Phillips Academy back in Massachusetts. “It is said there are cases where starving people have been eating dead bodies. I have heard some weird stories, but don’t know whether they are true.” He left soon after for the village of Melekess, a journey of some 250 miles. Wolfe wrote Eddie again from there on March 5, describing his trip: “At nearly every village we visited we heard of cannibalism. The stories were told to me by reliable persons and their accounts were corroborated by everyone in the village.... There is a woman in prison here in this town who ate her child. (Keep this on the quiet.) I’m going to see her today. You can’t imagine the terrible straits the peasants in the famine zone are in.”
Wolfe had traveled to New York in August 1921 to hand in his application in person to join the A.R.A. A member of the staff told him they might be in touch later, but they’d already received 500 applications and couldn’t make any promises. He waited around for several days, hoping to hear something. “The more I think of this Russian proposition the better I like it and the more I hope they will need me,” he wrote to his mother. But nothing came through, so Wolfe headed back to Ohio to prepare for another year of teaching history to the kids in the public schools of Coshocton County.
This was a far cry from his days as a volunteer ambulance driver during the war, first with the American Field Service in France and then the Red Cross in Italy, where he crossed paths with Hemingway and Dos Passos. He sent letter after letter to the A.R.A. that autumn, but still there were no openings for him. Finally, in December, he received word that they could use him if he could be ready to sail from New York on January 7. The office made sure to instruct him to bring heavy underwear, high boots, galoshes, and his sleeping bag.
Bodies of Evidence
When he arrived in Moscow at the end of the month, he was shocked to discover that his war service had not prepared him for Russia. The stench of the railroad station was beyond description, as was the mass of ragged humanity lurking in the darkness. Two days later, on the ride from the station in Samara to the A.R.A. house, he passed two dogs fighting in the street over a partially eaten corpse. Wolfe looked at his driver in horror, but the man paid no heed. Such things had become commonplace. On a short walk after dinner, he counted 14 dead bodies lying in the streets around the personnel house.
Wolfe spent most of his time as the lone American in the town of Melekess (now Dimitrovgrad) in northern Samara Province. Touring the villages in the area, he encountered the same hardships witnessed by other A.R.A. men—the frozen corpses stacked like cordwood in locked warehouses awaiting burial in the spring; the fetid hospitals lacking beds, blankets, aspirin, and soap; the walking dead, their eyes sunken and dull, dragging one heavy foot after the other through the snowy streets before collapsing from exhaustion.
Two dogs fighting in the street over a partially eaten corpse—such things had become commonplace.
Wolfe had a particular curiosity about what he called “the infernal crimes” that hunger could drive people to. In village after village, he met peasants who admitted to eating human flesh, whether corpses they had found or victims they had killed for food. It became something of an obsession for Wolfe, and he spent several weeks “on the trail of the cannibal,” as he wrote in a letter to a fellow A.R.A. man, William Shafroth, in early March, aided by “definitive information concerning cannibals” from local officials. Just to be safe, he made sure to carry a revolver with him on his travels.
Hearing the stories of cannibals was one thing, but to be able to catch them in the act was another. “If it can be seen, perhaps it would be valuable information to the A.R.A.” Not long after this, Wolfe found what he had been looking for, and he posed alongside his Soviet helpers for the photograph with his find, a mission-accomplished look on his face. The A.R.A. had its proof. He sent the photograph on to his superiors in Moscow. Unfortunately, the details of the image—where it was taken, the names of the men and women surrounding Wolfe, and the facts behind the discovery of the body parts—have been lost.
According to official Soviet reports, the first instances of cannibalism appeared in late summer 1921. The government was, not surprisingly, alarmed by the reports; nonetheless, it permitted articles about them to be published in the leading newspapers—Pravda and Izvestiia. By the spring of 1922, however, some officials felt the press had gone too far. In March, People’s Commissar for Public Health Nikolai Semashko complained in the pages of Izvestiia that the press had begun to treat the matter as some sort of “boulevard sensation.” Secondhand stories were being reported as facts, and reporters were increasingly prone to unwarranted speculation and exaggeration.
The medical doctor and amateur poet Lev Vasilevsky was prompted by Semashko’s criticism to conduct his own study of cannibalism. In Vasilevsky’s opinion, the problem was too important to be swept under the rug or left to unscrupulous reporters. The truth needed to be known and the guilty punished or, if proved to be psychologically ill, institutionalized. So he set out to undertake a serious investigation, interviewing medical workers and state and local officials, and consulting the materials that had been collected by the city of Samara’s “Famine Museum,” created by two local academics both to document the horrors of the famine and to educate the public. Among the museum’s collections were a series of gruesome photographs of cannibals, typically shown alongside the body parts that had been found with them at the time of their arrest.
In 1922, Vasilevsky published a brochure based on his research, A Horrifying Chronicle of the Famine: Suicide and Anthropophagy. In sparse, unadorned prose, Vasilevsky compiled a chilling catalogue of murder, violence, insanity, and ineffable suffering. He quoted a Bashkir edition of Izvestiia: “In the cantons are very many cases of people consuming human flesh. Driven wild by hunger, they are cutting up their children and eating them. In the grip of starvation, they are eating the bodies of the dead.” Vasilevsky also quoted a provincial official from the village of Bolshaya Glushitsa, in Pugachëv County, who warned that they were being “threatened with the danger of mass cannibalism.”
According to Vasilevsky, there had been hundreds of cases of cannibalism, and he predicted that the numbers were certain to grow as the famine worsened and the taboo against eating human flesh weakened. Indeed, it was the fear of “psychological infection” that prompted Vasilevsky to publish his research with a warning on the title page stating that this work was not to be distributed within the famine zone: readers, he worried, might draw the wrong conclusions from his work.
The people’s commissar for public health complained that the press had begun to treat the matter as some sort of “boulevard sensation.”
Among the cases recounted in A Horrifying Chronicle was that of a group of three adolescents from Ufa Province. Before they were caught, they had lured little children to a remote hut, strangled them, chopped them up, then boiled and eaten their remains. The authorities never did manage to determine the exact number of their victims. The three youths were sent off to a special facility for juvenile criminal offenders, yet the overseers made certain to separate them, concerned that they might try to continue their crimes from inside the institution.
Vasilevsky spoke to the investigating medical doctor. He found the case particularly disturbing. It turned out that the three inmates had had plenty of food at home and had apparently ventured into this grisly business out of sheer curiosity. In their interrogations, they had appeared normal, quiet, and even respectful, but he had no doubt that their “derangement had reached an extreme stage from which there was no hope of recovery.”
Their case reminded Vasilevsky of something he had read in a Kursk newspaper: “People are no longer people. Human feelings have died out, the beast, devoid of all reason and pity, has awakened.” Although Vasilevsky had to agree, he insisted that this had nothing to do with the Russian character but was quite simply the logical result of years of misery and suffering. In this, Vasilevsky was correct. Acts of cannibalism have been recorded during famines throughout history in other parts of the world, such as Ireland during the Confederate Wars of the 17th century and China during the Great Leap under Mao.
Devil in the Detail
Around the time Vasilevsky’s brochure appeared, the Samara State Publishing House released The Book of the Famine, a much larger work filled with official documents—telegrams, letters, interrogation records, police reports, and photographs—describing in grisly fashion many cases of murder, suicide, and cannibalism.
One of the most complete records concerned a 56-year-old illiterate peasant from the village of Yefimovka, Buzuluk County, by the name of Pyotr Mukhin. On January 12, 1922, he testified before Balter, an investigator for the Samara Province Revolutionary Tribunal, that his family had not had any bread since Easter of the previous year. At first they lived off grass, horsemeat, and then dogs and cats. After that, they were reduced to gathering bones and grinding them into an edible paste. But then this, too, ran out, along with all the animals in the village.
“All over our region and in our own village a great number of corpses lie about in the streets and are piled up in the public warehouse. I, Mukhin, early one evening stole into the warehouse and took the corpse of a boy around the age of seven. I had heard that some people of our village were eating human flesh. I took him home on a sleigh, chopped up the corpse into small pieces, and set about to boil it that same evening. Then we woke the children—Natalya, 16 years old, Fyodor, 12, and Afanasy, 7—and we ate it. We ate the entire body in one day, all that was left were the bones.”
Soon after, a man from the village soviet came and asked Mukhin whether the rumor that they had eaten human flesh was true. Mukhin said yes, it was—many did it in the village, although they hid the fact. The man took him to the soviet for questioning. “We don’t remember what human flesh tasted like, we were in a mad frenzy when we ate it. We never killed somebody to eat them. We’ve got plenty of corpses and so it never crossed our minds to kill someone. There’s nothing more I can tell you …”
That same day, Balter questioned Mukhin’s 28-year-old son-in-law, Prokofy, a former Red Army soldier. He told Balter that, a week before he began eating human flesh, he had had to bury his grandfather, father, and mother in the course of just 10 days. All of them had starved to death. Earlier, in the spring of 1921, he had buried his only son, aged two, also dead from hunger. A week before Christmas, his pregnant wife, Stepanida, brought home some boiled human flesh from her father, Pyotr Mukhin, and they ate this together with Prokofy’s sister Yefrosinya. The three of them were arrested and taken to the village soviet, along with some human flesh found in their home.
They were held for three days with no food, and then conveyed to Buzuluk, a journey of four days. Given nothing to eat along the way, they asked one of the accompanying officials whether they might eat the pieces of flesh. He told them no: it had been entered into the police files as evidence. They ignored him and ate it anyway.
Mukhin, his daughter, and his son-in-law were all held in the Buzuluk House of Forced Labor, where they were examined by a psychiatrist from the faculty of Samara University in the middle of January. It was his judgment that none of them displayed any signs of “delirium, delusion of the emotions (hallucinations or illusions), maniacal agitation, condition of melancholy or similar signs of emotional disturbance.” They were neither mad nor insane, but in their right minds. It was hunger that had made them resort to cannibalism, and they presented no danger of committing violence against the community. “They present as typical normal subjects who have been placed in exceptional circumstances that have forced them to commit acts of an anti-human nature, at odds with the normal expression of human nature.” The subsequent fate of Mukhin, his daughter, and his son-in-law is unknown.
They were neither mad nor insane, but in their right minds. It was hunger that had made them resort to cannibalism.
The matter-of-fact tone in which these flesh-eaters described their actions was typical. According to the report of the A.R.A. inspector in Pugachëv County, a man by the name of Svorikin, once the starving had eaten human flesh, they no longer considered it a crime. The corpse, devoid of any human soul, was food, either for them or for “the worms in the ground.” He noted: “They speak of these things with a curious kind of passiveness and quietness, as if the question were not of eating a person but simply a herring.”
The practice became so common in this district that the peasants approached state officials to request the government to permit it. That this took place in Pugachëv County in Samara Province is not surprising. This part of the Volga region, which included Buzuluk, home of the Mukhins, suffered like nowhere else. By July 1922, the population had fallen from 491,000 to 179,000 in just two years: over 100,000 had perished from starvation and disease, 142,000 had been evacuated by the state and various relief agencies, and roughly 70,000 people had simply vanished without a trace. Pugachëv County was particularly remote: cut off from the rail lines, isolated from the outside world, left to survive on its own. It was precisely in such places that the most desperate victims of the famine resorted to cannibalism.
Once the starving had eaten human flesh, they no longer considered it a crime.
But not all peasants were willing to accept their fate and take to eating the dead. On the morning of December 8, 1921, in the village of Pokrov-Tananyk in Buzuluk County, a group of almost 50 angry peasants dragging the body of a brutally murdered man on a sleigh arrived at the home of Comrade Golovachëv, the county chairman. They pounded on his door until he came out, and demanded he give them food or else they would come back and eat the man instead. They threw the bloody corpse on the doorstep and departed. Golovachëv’s response is not known, nor is it known whether the mob made good on its threat. The policeman who reported this incident added, “Crimes of cannibalism are becoming more and more prevalent.”
Even if the A.R.A. wanted to play down cannibalism in its publicity, the subject was too explosive to keep out of the Western press, which had a tendency to treat it with the same tawdry sensationalism that had so angered Commissar Semashko. In April 1922, Reuters reported that during a riot in Samara a member of the A.R.A. staff had been killed and eaten. That same month, a story appeared in a Parisian newspaper stating that the American boss of the A.R.A. in Samara had been murdered, cooked, and eaten by the locals. A bemused Wolfe wrote to his brother in mid-May to say he was sure Eddie had read of the reports that an American had been killed and eaten in Samara, and that the likely victim had been none other than Henry himself, but there was no cause for alarm: this was an old rumor that had been going around for months, and he was safe and sound.
On May 29, The New York Times carried a story on cannibalism that made reference to an exhibition of gruesome photographs recently set up in the Kremlin, only a few doors down from Lenin’s office. The article questioned the reason for the exhibition, surmising that the terrifying images and stories were part of the government’s strategy to wring more aid out of the West. Many of the photographs had been taken by G.P.U. agents to be used as evidence in criminal cases. Although the article gave a vivid, and horrifying, description of the images, the Times refused to publish some of the details, substituting in brackets the words “Here follow details too revolting for publication.”
By the autumn of 1922, Wolfe had had enough of Russia. On November 9, he wrote a letter to Colonel William Haskell, head of the A.R.A. operation in the Soviet Union, informing him that he was beset by “a depression and nervous tension which make it impossible for me to work as I would.” Given what he had seen, no one could blame him. He had gone to Moscow on leave for a time, hoping this would help his mental state, but as soon as he returned to the famine zone, he felt stricken once again with famine shock. The only thing for him to do was resign and go home. The comfortable normality of his native Ohio had never looked so good.