Monday, June 22, 2020

Q&A with Douglas Smith

Douglas Smith, photo by Robert Wade
Douglas Smith is the author of the new book The Russian Job: The Forgotten Story of How America Saved the Soviet Union from Ruin. It focuses on the famine in the Soviet Union during the early 1920s. His other books include Rasputin and Former People. He is based in Seattle. 

Q: You write, "Now, almost a hundred years later, few people in America or Russia have ever heard of the ARA [the American Relief Administration, which aided Russians during the famine of the early 1920s]. The Russian Job seeks to right this wrong." Why do you think so few people have heard of the ARA, and why did you decide to write this book?

A: I had studied Russian history for decades before I first heard of the ARA.

I was researching my book on the fate of the nobility after the revolution—Former People—and read letters in a Moscow archive from young former countesses and princesses working for the Americans who had arrived in Moscow in 1921 to begin feeding starving Russia.

I was embarrassed I knew nothing about this remarkable chapter in Russian-American relations. I filed the idea away and went on to write some other books, but knew I’d come back to it someday.

I toyed with the idea of using it as the basis for a historical novel, but then realized that the facts of the story were so unbelievable—the suffering beyond human comprehension—that readers would think I had made it all up, and so stuck with the original plan of writing a work of nonfiction.

I honestly don’t know why so few Americans have any knowledge of this story. I think it’s largely due to the fact that Herbert Hoover, the leader of the ARA, fell into such disfavor after the Depression that his truly monumental earlier humanitarian efforts were forgotten.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I love digging in archives and uncovering new material. I did the same thing for this book, chiefly in the ARA archives at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, but also at libraries and archives at the University of Virginia, Columbia University, the New York Public Library, and archives in Russia.

I found so much new and fascinating material. Reading the letters home of the young Americans fighting the famine were gripping, and the photographs they took—thousands of them—were eye-opening and often horrifying, especially those of cannibals and their victims. I included many of these in my book.

Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Herbert Hoover?

A: Hoover’s life and accomplishments before his presidency are not widely known, which is a shame. He had a hugely successful career as an international mining operator before World War I and then became one of the world’s great humanitarians during the war and in the early 1920s.

Thanks to his efforts, tens of millions of lives were saved; it’s a truly incredible record. It was this part of his biography that I wanted to bring out and share in my book.

Q: You write, "May the spirit of the ARA inspire that same spirit of generosity today toward all humanity, at home and abroad." What lessons can be drawn from the history you write about in this book?

A: I came away from my years spent working on The Russian Job with a renewed belief in the need for the U.S., and all Americans, to try to come to the aid of suffering people, wherever they may be, whoever they may be, and that’s not just abroad, but right here at home too.

America’s greatest strengths, as I see it, are her values, not her military might or GDP, which we too often fail to live up to.

The story of the ARA in Russia is one of the finest examples I know of when we truly did the right thing and showed that if the political will is there, great things to aid humanity can be accomplished. We always need to be reminded of this, especially these days.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am now completing a translation of one of my favorite books — Konstantin Paustovsky’s epic memoir, The Story of a Life. Paustovsky was one of the most beloved Russian writers of the 20th century, but unfortunately he’s little known in the West.

I fell in love with Russia by way of this book, and have so enjoyed working on this new translation, which will be published by Vintage Classics. I’m very excited to share my love of Paustovsky with readers in the English-speaking world.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: There is some really great history being written these days, so whatever it is interests you, please go out and buy and read those books and authors.

For folks who like books on Russia, be sure to check out the short-list for this year’s Pushkin House Russian Book Prize. You can’t go wrong.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Douglas Smith.

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