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The Russian Job

The Forgotten Story of How America Saved the Soviet Union from Ruin

Douglas Smith


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ISBN10: 1250758114
ISBN13: 9781250758118

Trade Paperback

320 Pages



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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. 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. The story of the ARA is filled with political intrigue, espionage, the clash of ideologies, violence, adventure, and romance, and features some of the great historical figures of the twentieth century.

In a time of cynicism and despair about the world’s ability to confront international crises, The Russian Job is a riveting account of a cooperative effort unmatched before or since.


Praise for The Russian Job

“These young men [of the ARA] come to life in Smith’s book, flickering past like characters in the black-and-white movies of the era. Their heroism and failings, their love of Russia (and Russian women) help humanize a story that could all too easily slip into the grim abstraction of statistics . . . Despite the epic sweep, the horror and moral splendor of this story, it is essentially unknown to both Russians and Americans; the Russians soon found the aid both a humiliation and a cover for espionage, while the Americans let it slip into the country’s general ahistorical amnesia. This book, Smith says at the outset, ‘seeks to right this wrong.’ It succeeds. Clear, forceful, and compelling, The Russian Job tells us what happened and who made it happen.”—Richard Lourie, Los Angeles Review of Books

The Russian Job by Douglas Smith repudiates the modern mythologies of both [the United States and Russia], and their leaders’ twisted histories . . . It is not just Russia that needs to be reminded of this story—so does America, which derived much of its 20th-century greatness from its values rather than military power.”The Economist

“[The ARA] has been undeservedly forgotten . . . Succinct and readable.”—Anna Reid, Literary Review

"Based on rich archival materials, [The Russian Job] focuses on a group of young Americans who set off for Russia, lured by the exotic and the unknown, and found themselves in the middle of a horrific tragedy . . . Rare photos included in the book lend Smith’s account an eerie vividness."—Maria Lipman, Foreign Affairs

"In July 1921, a massive humanitarian mission was initiated by American philanthropist Herbert Hoover to rescue the Russian people from a famine of cataclysmic proportions. The Russian Job pulls no punches in its brilliant, disturbing and at times horrifically graphic descriptions of people on the abyss of starvation, some of them driven to the ultimate crime of cannibalism. The sufferings witnessed by the American team were unimaginable and left an indelible impression that would haunt them for the rest of their lives. This is an important story that needed to be told and Douglas Smith has produced a fast moving and most compelling read."—Helen Rappaport, author of The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra

"The hair-raising account of a great humanitarian act . . . Smith adeptly navigates all elements of the story . . . This expert account deserves a large readership."Kirkus Reviews

"[Smith's] prose moves at a fast clip . . . An intriguing window onto the humanitarian work of the past."Publishers Weekly


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THE RAINS DIDN’T COME IN THE SPRING OF 1920. It was unusually hot, and by planting season the ground had been baked hard. The dry weather carried on throughout the summer and into the...

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About the author

Douglas Smith

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.

© Angela Ellis