Accounts of Cannibalism in the 1921 Famine

Russia found itself in difficult circumstances during the 1921 famine. Eventually, American aid was accepted, but this humanitarian generosity was partly motivated by disturbing accounts of cannibalism among the starving and desperate.

A relief agent cited a telegram that was received by the Geneva Bureau of the International Committee in 1921 making specific claims to cannibalism in the Orenburg district of Russia.

Three cases were mentioned from a village named Tuliakovna
  • A man named Tuhvatulla Hallin ate the corpse of his brother.1
  • A woman named Housna ate two of her children1
  • A man named Absam devoured his daughter1

Such cases are hard to support since their report was sufficient to get a reaction and their validity was not challenged at the time of allegation. The propaganda alone was needed to pull a response from the world and result in some sorely needed aid.

An American Relief worker, after touring the Volga region in February of 1922:

  • Claimed that there were about twelve cases of cannibalism and he feared the practice would become more common as the famine continued.
  • He attempts to explain the anthropophagic was committed by the mad or mentally deficient and confirmed that there were an unusual number of deficient[s] in Russian villages.2
  • Used accounts of children to bring attention to the problem without having the lingering unease one would have with adults making the same choices.
  • A fourteen year old girl who is found wandering as an outcast who was believed to have eaten her twelve year old sister
  • Seven siblings who range in age from eight to fourteen years who are being taken to the district capital and charged with having killed and eaten their little brothe[r], aged four.

In either scenario the shock value for the American public to which he was appealing was enough to get attention and aid to those in desperate need.

Movement of ARA supplies 1921 to 1922
Map of Movement of ARA supplies, 1921 to 1922

In a special cable to The New York Times a correspondent claims that he has seen a series of photographs depicting lurid scenes of plain cannibalistic behavior. He says that the Cheka3 had been collecting these pictures in an effort to verify some of the stories that had been circulating about potential cannibals in order to prosecute them.

  • One woman was cooking meat while beside her rested a previous victim who had been half-eaten.
  • Three women are at a table with the meal before them consisting of two shin bones that were plainly distinguishable4 and still had flesh on them.
  • A middle aged woman is wielding an axe on a body at her feet in another, with three more dead lying at the feet of her five family members standing off to the side.

There are two photos included in Bertrand Patenaude's The Big Show in Bololand, which are not undeniable cases of cannibalism, but the sincerity of the "meat cuts" displayed in the foreground of both photographs will at least provide ample belief to the viewer that these people had fallen on extremely difficult times.

  • Photo 1 shows a group of nine people sitting in an orchestrated picture with the remains of a partially consumed body lying in the foreground.
  • Photo 2 shows three women standing behind the remains of several bodies, with three buckets containing bones and innards.

Photo 1Cannibalism Still Prevails in Volga Famine Districts - Photo 1 Photo 2Cannibalism Still Prevails in Volga Famine Districts - Photo 2

Paul Erio, a French journalist who was in Moscow at the time, In Russia...Everybody knows, too, that mothers strangle their children in order to eat them and families designate who shall be killed first to nourish the others...13 This claim loses credibility by the time the information reaches The New York Times it has already been interpreted and corrupted by three sources. He relates the following accounts:

  • A restaurant in Pongstcher, in the Province of Samara, at which was sold only dishes of human meat.
  • A nurse witnesses five people sitting around a pot of boiled flesh from a little girl.
  • A man by the name of Chaperoff in Otachiva Station was found to have killed his father and his ten year old nephew and consumed them both. At the man's apartment they found bones that were analyzed and showed signs of having been cooked as well as a woman's hand that was boiled and then put into a bottle of alcohol from which flesh had been eaten13.

He went on to allege that there were fifty more such claims made by people who had come from the famine areas. He says that, [He] will not repeat them, firstly, because of their horror; secondly, because [he] should probably not convince anybody,13 he further weakens the credibility of his claims by making no effort to prove them.

This exhibition of photos and documents had been displayed for the public in what had been the Law Courts, very close to Lenin's apartments. The purpose of it can be seen in words that were hung on the wall.

  • These people are not cannibals who eat their dead because they are hungry: but those are cannibals who do not give of their surplus to the hungry.13

The government was not to blame for a situation that may have resulted in cannibalism, it was the fault of the people for not embracing communism fast enough. Measures might have already been in effect to collect and redistribute the goods of the country, thereby eliminating the results of the famine.

Thierry Brun with a body of other scholars, part of l'Unite de Recherche en Nutrition et Alimentation INSERM, offered a response to Robert Dirk's, Social Responses During Severe Food Shortages and Famine, where he made reference to this earliest documented case:

Une situation d'extrême famine se développe dans la région de la Volga à partir du printemps 1921 et s'intensifiant jusqu'en décembre de la même année. Après avoir épuisé leurs céréales et tubercules, mangé les animaux domestiques, les paysans se nourrissent de chiens, de mulots, de souris, d'herbe d'argile blanche, de charogne, de harnais et de pelisses bouillies. Pillage, lynchage, abandon et meurtre d'enfants se multiplient. Au cours de l'hiver la nécrophagie apparaît : on déterre les morts pour les manger. Certains assassinent pour consommer leur victime.5

The severe famine starting in the spring of 1921 caused the peasants of the Volga region to go through every edible resource they could find, the last of which were grass with white clay, harnesses, carrion, and animal hides. By that winter cannibalism was in practice and some had resorted to either digging up the graves of the dead or killing to eat their victims.

This account is more credible, because the evidence that Brun and these scholars use have actually been stated and analyzed using clinical observation to support their hypothesis.

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This web page is a creation of Sarah Duryea for course LIS 650 (created April 2011), LIU-Palmer School of Library Science based on a paper written during undergraduate studies at the State University of New York at New Paltz in 2005.

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