Starvation in Soviet Russia:
The social, political, and economic aspects of great famine of 1921
by Jennifer Kao and John McCrory
This paper was written in 1999 in a workshop with author, historian and urban theorist Mike Davis at York University, Toronto. In revisiting our work in 2015, I discovered to my shock that my co-author, Jennifer Kao, took her own life in May of this year (2015). Jennifer and I were graduate students in the Urban Planning program at Pratt Institute when we joined Mike’s workshop, which helped inform the research he was then doing for his 2002 book Late Victorian Holocausts. It was one of the most challenging and thrilling academic experiences I’ve ever had. I was incredibly fortunate to have Jennifer as a collaborator as we researched the Russian famine and wrote this paper together. I republish it now in Jennifer’s honor, terribly saddened at her tragic passing.
In the spring of 1921, in the Volga river valley of Russia’s Chernozem belt, peasant farmers who worked the famously rich “Black Earth” carried on their labor under clear skies. When light winter snows retreated, hot weather arrived close behind. By the time they went to the fields for plowing and sowing, they could read the cracks in the dry mud as easily as a gypsy sees the future in tea leaves. But they plowed and sowed anyway, and perhaps at night appealed to Elias the Prophet to bring them rain. The middle aged and older members of the commune would have easily recalled the great drought of forty years before. 1921 and 1922 would turn out to be an even worse catastrophe.
In this paper we examine the circumstances of the Russian Famine that began in 1921 and ended in the summer of 1923. It is estimated that anywhere from 2 to 10 million Russians perished from starvation and disease during this period — many more than the 400,000 excess deaths of the previous major famine of 1891-1892. The droughts of 1921 and 1922 extended over a larger area of Russia than those of the previous event, yet that alone does not explain this famine’s ferociousness. As we shall see, a combination of internal conflicts in the ecological, economic, and political environments worked to exacerbate the effects of a two-year drought.
THE MYTH OF RUSSIA AS THE “GRANARY OF EUROPE”
During 1922, the second year of the drought, a group of Russian economic and agricultural experts produced a report outlining a plan for re-establishing Russia’s growing regions as the greatest agricultural producer in the world. Near the beginning, the authors admit one of the challenges to Russian agriculture without recognizing its significance. Pointing out that crop failures in some areas of Russia were regarded as a chance phenomenon, they state that drought was a common occurrence in other districts, “recurring with the regularity of a natural law, at times so extreme that the whole agriculture of the region concerned is involved in a catastrophe.
Such a statement appears to conflict with Russia’s image of its growing regions as the “granary of Europe.” The “black earth,” or Chernozem region, was famous for being so fertile it did not require fertilizing. The soil generally contains a very high percentage of humus — 3% to 13% — at depths sometimes exceeding 40 inches. During the Second World War, occupying German soldiers loaded huge squares of prized Chernozem onto emptied supply trains and shipped it back to the Vaterland.
Stretching from Northeast Ukraine in a gentle northeasterly path across Southern Russia and into Siberia, the belt varies in width between 100 miles and 500 miles. Its northern half is described as patchy woodland among scattered open spaces, while its southern half “consists of open steppes, without a grove of trees to relieve the monotony.”
Yet despite its soil’s fertility, the Chernozem region is typically dry and prone to drought. In good years, the average annual rainfalls range from 20-21 inches in the North and West of the region, and 14-15 inches in the South and East — barely enough to raise a decent harvest. But, good years cannot be counted on in this region. As one Russian agricultural expert put it, “no other part of Russia is more liable to failures of crops and famines.”
The extraordinary fertility of the chernozem results from a long buildup of “decayed roots and feather grass foliage, sedges, and other lowering herbs” that produces humus on a parent base of loess. Because rainfall is light, nutrients are not leached out of the soil, and the precipitation that does occur evaporates quickly in the hot, dry winds known as sukhoveis. Sukhoveis are very dry air masses that form over the northern part of Middle Asia near the Aral Sea, and tear westward across the steppes of the Chernozem region in July and August, frequently ruining crops along the way.
In other words, the ecological factors that contribute to the chernozem’s special fertility — moderate rainfall and hot sukhoveis — also make it an undependable region as far as agriculture is concerned.
Since the days of the Czar, Russians have imagined the Chernozem as their great strength, a limitless expanse whose bounty would propel Russia into the ranks of the great world powers. For Russia’s peasants, the contradiction of the Chernozem was felt in the stomach, as summed up in Ivan Bunin’s description of a typical village in the region:
Lord, God, what a country! Black loam soil over three feet deep! But what of that? Never did five years pass without famine. The town was famous throughout all Russia as a grain mart — but not more than a hundred persons in the whole town ate their fill of the grain.
A HISTORY OF FAMINE IN RUSSIA PRIOR TO 1920
Droughts and famines large and small have historically been regular occurrences in Russia, with notable examples in recorded chronicles as far back as the 8th century.
The famine of 1601 to 1604 is especially remembered in Russian history. Widespread floods followed by three years of drought resulted in a vast failure of the harvest. The starving turned to eating grass and mice; “dead bodies were found with hay in their mouths and human flesh was sold in pies in the markets.”
The Big Hunger of 1891-1892 would have been vividly remembered throughout the world 1921. Also centered on the Volga River Valley, it was smaller in geographical size, but 15 to 30 million people were affected. The initial response of the Czar was to continue tax collections and grain exports and to suppress news of the famine in the cities by forbidding newspapers to use the word. However, newspapers published reports of peasants eating “hunger bread” made of substitutes such as straw, leaves, bark, goosefoot weed, and ground acorns. Organized famine relief efforts by many intellectuals, particularly Tolstoy, finally succeeded in getting the government to acknowledge the disaster.
In August 1891, the Czar finally prohibited exports of any cereals, including the rye most Russians lived on. At the time, Russia was the world’s second largest exporter of wheat. (The ban lasted until June of 1892.) Taxes were cancelled for famine-stricken areas. The Czar also spent 196 million rubles on famine relief, organized a public works program to boost employment, and reorganized the administrative structure of the railroads to improve transport of food. The Czar’s efforts were followed by a range of relief programs from other nations, especially England and the United States. Partly as a result of these measures, the Russian drought-famine of 1891-1892 resulted in only about 400,000 “excess deaths,” a relatively low number.
AGRICULTURAL STRUCTURE OF RUSSIA PRIOR TO 1920
The Russian system of agriculture in the early 20th century was primarily subsistence-level peasant farming on small land holdings, with a small few possessing the large concentrations of land needed to produce the surplus both needed by urban populaces and relied on by the Russian government for export.
The low-yields of peasant farmers had long conflicted with the Russian government’s desire to expand the surplus available for export in order to finance industrialization. Under both the Czar and the Communists, Russia’s push for industrialization placed the burden almost entirely on the shoulders of the agrarian sector. Several contradictions in the structure of its agricultural system, however, as well as mis-steps by the new Communist regime, prevented Russia from maximizing its agricultural output.
The structure of landholdings, with a large concentration of land among the peasant elite, created tensions between the poor peasantry and well-to-do farmers. Social tensions in the countryside were further aggravated by the rapid growth of the population, particularly in rural areas, which rose from 56 million in 1867 to 81.7 million in 1897 to 103.2 million in 1913. The increase was particularly marked in the black-earth region. Here, the amount of allotment land available per household shrank dramatically, forcing peasants to lease land from proprietors at rents higher than they could afford.
Moreover, the small scale of peasant farming prevented the necessary intensification of agricultural production. Except for the upper stratum of wealthy peasantry, individual peasants did not have enough land to profit from investing in agricultural equipment or for adopting intensive livestock breeding.
Beginning with the so-called “Revolution of 1905” poor peasants began seizing the lands of the more prosperous farmers. These takings escalated sharply in 1917 and were endorsed and encouraged by the Communists following the October Revolution. Yet, despite redistribution of land, from 1905 to 1918, the allotment of arable land per rural peasant only grew from 1¼ to 1½ desyatinas, and subsistence levels persisted.
As with the ecological conditions, the agriculture structure of the republic at the time of the Revolution suggests there were large challenges to Russia’s “granary of Europe.”
IMPACTS OF WAR ON RUSSIAN/SOVIET AGRICULTURE
Communist Agrarian Revolution, 1917 to 1918
Beginning in February 1917, under the pressure of strikes, lockouts, and a steadily worsening food shortage, angry housewives, strikers, and unemployed workmen in increasing numbers began to seize bread, threaten violence, and damage private and state property. By the end of month, General Khabalov, the commander of the Petrograd garrison, was forced to send out troops to put an end to activities which were paralyzing the normal life of the city. And when soldiers refused to fire upon the unruly crowds, the strikes and food riots of the “February days” became a revolution.
Although the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 initially drew its support from the cities rather than from the villages, the agrarian question presented a complicated problem. Ownership of the land was divided between the estates of the landed gentry, lands of the State and Crown appanages, estates belonging to the convents and monasteries, estates belonging to industrial and mercantile capitalists, and small peasant farmers privately owning land, with all this property still scattered in the sea of communal land used by the majority of the agricultural population.
The majority of the agricultural population worked on plots of land which provided them only with a very low standard of living, and considerable numbers of them (the poor peasants) did not even receive sufficient income from their lands to provide their families with basic necessities. The poor peasants were thus forced to work as laborers or seasonal workers on the large estates and on farms of the well-to-do peasants or do any kind of work that was available. They tilled their land with horses and agricultural machinery hired from richer peasant holdings or even leased all or part of their land to the richer peasants. These poor peasants looked with envy and a sense of grievance at the estates in the neighborhood of their own poor holdings. They lived with the idea that the day would come when the land of those estates would be repartitioned among themselves in the same way as they used to repartition their ‘communal’ land. Every political party, seeking the support of the peasantry, had to satisfy this eternal, elemental aspiration of the majority of the peasantry of pre-revolutionary Russia.
Violence had been in the air ever since the spring of 1917, and the peasants proceeded with increasing frequency to inventory and sequester the property of those who did not belong to the village community. This property comprised various categories of land (forest, pasture and meadow, arable), livestock and agricultural implements, crops in the field or in the barn, farm and residential buildings, and finally all manner of household and personal possessions. Weakened by depredations of this kind, its residents were frightened into acquiescence:
Throughout the country land is being seized. The private proprietors are first placed in a situation that makes it impossible for them to carry on farming, and then the land communities, referring to the general interests of the state, ordain that these lands should be transferred to the peasants.
Moreover, alarmed by depleting urban supplies of food, the Bolsheviks began accusing agrarian producers of holding back grain needed in the cities and began sending armed squads out into the countryside to confiscate food for urban consumption, leading to a further deterioration in agricultural production. Deprived of peacetime incentives to market their crop, peasants began producing even less output, confining production to that which they needed.
Impacts of World War I and the Civil War
After the revolution, farming in the country deteriorated even more. Gravely affected by the world war, it was then still more gravely injured by the civil war, and by the economic blockade of Russia. While the revolution had resulted in victory for the Bolsheviks, it had to be defended against enemies in three long years of war. For a considerable period, the country was the area of fierce struggles between the Red Army and counter-revolutionaries. Peasant farming unraveled with the fighting as many peasants began devoting their energies into fighting the war, significantly draining labor available for peasant farming. The discontinuance of the importation of agricultural implements and machinery which was a result of the blockade made the restoration of peasant farming even more difficult. The disrepair of farming implements and machinery reached catastrophic proportions–between as high as 50 to 70 percent. The army authorities also seemed to have an insatiable appetite for horses. No fewer than 2.6 million had been requisitioned by February 1917, over ten percent of the total number of horses aged four years or more. The loss of horses reduced the number of horses available for horse traction while requisitions and excess slaughtering also took a high toll on cattle. By 1921, the number of draught beasts was reduced to 46 percent of its pre-war levels, while the number of cows to 30 percent. Together, these caused a decline in the amount of land sown, which, by 1921, had also been reduced to 37 percent of its pre-war levels.
THE DROUGHT AND FAMINE OF 1921-1922
Background and Causes
Such were the conditions in the Russian rural economy when the terrible blow of the drought and the subsequent crop failure followed. The disturbances created by civil war, the World War, and boycott had already weakened the state of Russian agriculture considerably. In 1921, the country harvested half the amount of grain it had harvested in 1913, putting Russia “over the top.”
The harvest failures of 1920 and 1921 occurred across a considerable area of south-eastern Russia and also part of the eastern provinces — concentrated mainly in the regions of chernozem soil. Its essential cause, according to a government report, was the “peculiar meteorological conditions in the matter of dryness and temperature which prevailed in these areas.” In other words, the rains did not come. Table 2 shows the comparison of “average” rainfalls in the most important spring months with those of 1921 in Samara Gubernia, one of the hardest hit areas.
PRECIPITATION, SAMARA GUBERNIA, RUSSIA
Crop failures in the northern provinces were attributed to “the lack of humidity in the upper strata of the soil, the unusual dryness of the atmosphere, and the backwardness of agricultural technique.”
What distinguishes the impacts of this draught from previous draughts, however, was the extent of the impacts which had previously been restricted to more localized regions of the country, but especially the lack of reserves. As a League of Nations report stated:
A more drastic reduction of agricultural output would have had comparatively little effect if it had occurred for one year in Russia only fifty years ago, for it was the custom for the peasantry to insure against the variations of nature by hoarding at least a year’s supply of grain.
The absence of any reserves transformed extensive droughts into hitherto unprecedented mass famine covering vast areas of the country.
Impacts of the Famine
As happens elsewhere, the rural population deserted famine-ridden districts and migrated elsewhere to seek food. By June of 1921, peasants were flooding the cities, taking up residence in the railway stations. If the broken lines of communication had thus far prevented urbanites from realizing a calamity of great scale was taking place, it was now obvious to them.
In late June, The Soviet Government officially declared much the 800 mile stretch between Vyatka in the North and Astrakhan on the Caspian to be famine stricken. Only later did they realize the drought and famine extended to Ukraine and Siberia, affecting a total of 35 million people.
Though newspapers around the world had shocked their readers with graphic stories of hunger, murder, and cannibalism during the Big Hunger of 1891-92, the dispatches of 1921, while fewer in number, conveyed no less vivid and moving a picture of human suffering. Americans who served in the American Relief Administration (A.R.A.) effort to distribute relief to Russians saw this particular famine firsthand, providing written accounts in a vacuum of official Russian information.
Though there were certainly people dying in the Russian cities, A.R.A. workers discoverd the situation most desperate in the villages. Typically, as many as half the houses were boarded up, and the village clerk — if still alive — had given up recording the names of the dead. The few survivors subsisted by “mixing grain with chaff or ground weeds and acorns.” Those with no grain “made nauseating, poisonous concoctions of weeds, treebark, and even clay and manure.” The most desperate dug up the dead animals that had died early in the famine. The diet itself killed many who hadn’t succumbed to starvation, particularly children.
A.R.A. workers heard stories of murders — some from insanity, some from mercy, some from guilt, and some simply to make one less mouth to feed. They also heard stories of cannibalism. “To the peasant crazed with hunger, who had come to eating the flesh of animals dug up from the ground, the practice of eating human flesh was not such a long step.”
In the cities of Eastern Russia, the A.R.A. workers found conditions as bad as the villages of Western Russia. In Orenburg, a 9 o’clock curfew had been imposed by authorities faced with mounting crimes and murders, but:
In spite of the official precautions, the bodies of persons who had been murdered and stripped of their clothing were frequently found in the streets. One case, where only the head of the victim had been found, led an investigation to the market, where it was discovered the murderer had cut up the body of his victim and sold the flesh to a Persian, who in turn had sold it in the bazaar. This case resulted in the issuance of an order by the city authorities forbidding the sale of meatballs, cutlets, and all forms of hashed meats. The Board of Health of the city published a notice recommending that the bones of animals be ground up and mixed with flour as a… bread substitute [that] had a nutritive value of 25 per cent more than rye bread, and in spite of its unpleasant smell and taste, it really looked like good bread.
Contemporary estimates of deaths from starvation varied between 1.25 million 3 million. Yet, starvation is usually less deadly than the diseases that spread in its wake. Troop movements had given diseases effective transport since the beginning of World War I; in 1921, demobilized soldiers and famine refugees cris-crossing the country made already epidemic conditions immeasurably worse. Under this reasoning, a later writer suggested the death toll was probably much higher, “at least twice as numerous, and… it may well be that 10 millions perished. The lice-borne diseases, typhus and relapsing fever, with scurvy, and with cholera in summer, were the chief agents of destruction.
The czarist empire had always been a playground for epidemics. Small-pox, typhus, relapsing fever, typhoid fever, and dysentery were endemic diseases in Russia. Cholera and plague also visited the population at regular intervals. Health conditions were so constant a menace to the West that it was said that Russia “was looked upon with dread by the rest of Europe, as a permanent source of infection.”
Although health conditions were bad enough before 1914, they became infinitely worse during the wars that followed. The 14 million soldiers who were mobilized and the millions of refugees who migrated from war zones to inner parts of the country, created ideal conditions for the spread of epidemic diseases. In the autumn of 1918 there was a major attack of typhus which took a firm hold of the country and spread over a great deal of the territory with devastating effects. When the Civil War subsided in 1921, it was followed by the great famine and various epidemics which made a combined attack upon the hard hit population. Conditions developed as the Western world had not seen since the Middle Ages.
The chief culprit was typhus, a foe well known to the Russians. In the twenty years before the Revolution the country had had an average of 82,447 registered cases annually. Whenever there was a famine or a crop failure, the morbidity more than doubled. During the war the disease spread slowly but steadily. The great pandemic started, as mentioned above, toward the end of 1918 and invaded the country from three centers: Petrograd, the Roumanian front, and the Volga region. It reached its climax in 1920, declined in 1921, and flared up again in 1922, chiefly in the Volga region which was the center of the famine district. After 1923, however, the incidence of typhus declined steadily.
It is very difficult to give accurate figures because the registration of diseases broke down with the war. Tarasevitch, a Russian epidemiologist, assumed that during the four years from 1918 to 1922, 30 million cases of typhus occurred. While this estimate is presumed to be high, there is little doubt that the typhus pandemic was one of the most terrible the world had ever seen. The mortality amounted to about 10 percent. It had been difficult to fight the disease because of the serious shortage of the two most necessary commodities, soap for cleanliness and fuel for disinfection. People lived in crowded habitations, undernourished, and exhausted by Civil War.
Epidemics were not confined to typhus, moreover. Epidemics of cholera also broke out during wartime, following not water routes as had been customary but railroad lines. The epidemic reached its peak in July 1921, in the lower Volga region, resulting in 204,228 cases that year. War also facilitated the spread of malaria throughout the country. Troops from infected regions carried the disease with them wherever they went and created new foci of contagion. More than two million cases were registered in 1922, and more than four million in 1923. It has been estimated, however, that the actual number was at least four times as high. The disease, which had previously been localized in the sub-tropical regions, spread to the North and even into the Arctic. Indeed, it is easy to understand why health became a priority issue among Soviet authorities and how Russia came to be the first nation to create a central body to direct the country’s entire health work with the establishment of the People’s Commissariat of Health in 1918.
After the Famine
Starting in the Spring of 1921, the new government began instituting a new series of economic reforms to ameliorate the situation in the country. Recognizing the need to reinvigorate the battered agricultural sector, the New Economic Policy (NEP) re-established free trade outside the cities and allowed farmers once again to pay taxes in kind and ended war-time requisitions. Since the revolution, peasants had also begun to adopt progressive farming methods while socialist forms of economy took the lead in opening up virgin lands — one of the most pressing tasks of agricultural development during the NEP. The sown area of arable land, having declined by one quarter to 27 million hectares in 1922, already exceeded the 1913 level by 5.3 million hectares in 1926, amounting to 110.3 million hectares. The cultivation of crops recovered rapidly after 1922 after which point the gross grain harvest rose annually by approximately 60 to 70 million centners. By 1925 it exceeded the average 1909-13 level, while the 1926 harvest was greater than that of 1913, the biggest ever harvest prior to the revolution. The recovery of animal husbandry, which began in 1923, was also very rapid. Within two years the head of large and small productive livestock was even greater than pre-revolutionary numbers. By 1925 there were 6.8 percent more cows and 6.3 more pigs than in 1916. By the beginning of 1926, the pre-war numbers of sheep and goats had been considerably exceeded.
The circumstances of the Russian Famine of 1921-1922 seem, in retrospect, destined to produce catastrophe. While not as deadly as the Big Hunger of 1933 — which, it should be noted, resulted not from drought but state requisitions of grain that deprived peasants of seeds — this famine amply demonstrates the manner in which political and economic forces can combine with ecological phenomena to exacerbate the devastation. The economic and political events in the years leading up to the 1921-22 drought destroyed any chance the Russian people may have had to withstand a multi-year drought. Years of war had drained the country of any resilience it might have had to fight the crop failures of 1921-22.
In their vision for the nation, the Communists relied on a “scientific” political ideology that did not adequately take into account the natural ecology of the country. Drawing on the image of Russia as the “granary of Europe,” they failed to recognize how the climatic conditions that had shaped Russia’s rural landscape for centuries, including periodic droughts and crop failures, had influenced the social relations of its people. In their push for industrialization, they overlooked the ecological limits of the land and its people — limits that contradicted the ability of Russia to produce great quantities of crops for export and for urban consumption. Only through Stalin’s violent destruction of the people and the land was this objective temporarily achieved, and at tragic cost for future generations whose existence will inevitably be punctuated by enormous droughts.
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Pavlovsky, George. Agricultural Russia on the Eve of the Revolution. New York: Howard Fertig, 1968. (originally published 1930.)
Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RFSFR). The Restoration of Agriculture in the Famine Area of Russia: Being the Interim Report of the State Economic Planning Commission of the Council for Labour and Defence of the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic. Eden and Cedar Paul, Translators. London: The Labour Publishing Company, 1922.
Sigurst, Henry E. Socialized Medicine in the Soviet Union. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1937.
 “Elias the Prophet”: Though Russian peasants were not particularly religious, special prayers to various saints and religious figures would be uttered in day-to-day speech, as appropriate. Elias the Prophet was a Christianized representation of a traditional God of thunder and lightning; It was he the peasantry turned to in times of drought, to pray he would deliver the rain.
 RSFSR, p. 15.
 Pavlovsky, p. 17.
 Ioffe and Nefedova, p. 196.
 Pavlovsky, pp. 15-16.
 Cambridge Encyclopedia of Russia and the Former Soviet Union, p. 14.
 Fisher, p. 471. Quoting Ivan Bunin, The Village, 31. New York, 1923.
 According to Fisher, there were seven famines each century from the 12th through the 16th century. In the two centuries prior to 1921, famines were recorded somewhere in Russia in 1773-4, 1777, 1786, 1801, 1811-12; nine of the years between 1830 and 1846; and in 1851, 1855, 1860, 1867-8, 1873-74, 1877, 1884, 1891-2, 1897-98, 1906, and 1911.
 Fisher, p. 475.
 Encyclopedia of Russian History, 8:86.
 Keep, p. 9.
 Kingston-Mann, p. ?.
 Baykov, p. 12.
 Ibid., p. 13.
 Keep, pp. 204-206.
 Arnold, p. 98.
 RSFSR, p. 10.
 Keep, p. 32.
 RSFSR, p. 10.
 Danilov, p. 276.
 London Times, September 21, 1921, in Fisher, p. 504.
 RSFSR, p. 25.
 League of Nations, p. 3.
 Sigerist, p. 185.
 League of Nations, pp. 97-98.
 Fisher, p. 109.
 Maynard, pp. 144-145.
 Sigerist, p. 277.
 Ibid., pp. 227-228.
 Ibid., p.228.
 Ibid., p. 229.
 Ibid., p. 231.
 Ibid., p. 234.
 Ibid., p. 237.
 Danilov, p. 272.
 Ibid., p 276.
 Ibid., pp. 288-289.
 Ioffe and Nefedova, p. 62.