Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Saving the starving Soviets with Spam

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

“Without Spam, we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army. We had lost our most fertile lands.”1
– Nikita Khrushchev

Preparing canned pork (Russian: “svinaia tushonka“) for lend-lease shipment to the USSR at the Kroger grocery and baking company, Cincinnati, Ohio. One pound of pork, lard, onions, and spice go into each can. Photo by Howard R. Hollem, June 1943. US Farm Security Administration. Library of Congress. 

In 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the USSR. The “breadbasket” agricultural regions of Southern Russia and the Ukraine were quickly occupied, causing a food crisis for the USSR. Russian soldiers’ food rations consisted of nearly one kilogram of bread daily and some meat, sugar, butter, and tea, if available. The US agreed in 1942 to send the Soviets cheese, butter, and meat.2

In 1937, the Hormel Foods Corporation had a surplus of pork shoulder meat, a cut which was not attractive to consumers. They ground precooked pork shoulder with ham and produced blocks of a ready-to-eat meat product that received the name “Spam.” The most agreed-upon origin story is that “Spam” came from the words spiced ham. One hundred grams of Spam contains 310 kilocalories, 27 grams of fat, 13 grams of protein, and 1,369 mg of sodium. A high-calorie, high-protein food was a valuable food for soldiers at war, and was also appreciated by undernourished civilians. None of these “consumers” worried about eating lots of fat or sodium. The US military bought 75,000 tons of Spam during World War Two.3 The Soviets were happy to get it, but after several shipments, requested a more familiar canned pork product.4 They gave Hormel the recipe for svinayya tushonka5 (“braised pork” or “pork stew”), which contained whole pieces of pork, onions, and bay leaves.6,7 The US sent 266,000 tons of tushonka, the “Soviet Spam,” to the USSR.8

Spam is currently sold in over forty countries. Eight billion cans had been sold by 2012. It is eaten in the US—especially in Hawaii—Guam, Puerto Rico, Canada, the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan. Usually, it is blended into local cuisines and cooking techniques.9 Canned tushonka continued to be sold in the Soviet Union after the war, where it was often the only meat available.10


  1. Olivia Waxman. “Spam is turning 80. Here’s how the canned meat took over the world.” Time, July 5, 2017.
  2. Jenny Smith. “Tushonka: Cultivating Soviet postwar taste.” Media/Culture Journal, 13(5), 2010.
  3. “Spam (food).” Wikipedia.
  4. Donna Brien and Adele Wessell. “Pig: A scholarly view.” Media/Culture Journal, 13(5), 2010.
  5. MilitaryTube. “What did USSR soldiers eat during World War 2?” YouTube video, 6:25, Dec 10, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXLpTyPUI8g.
  6. “Thanks to the American farmer, Nikolai gets his Tushonka.” In “Purina Mills advertisement for pork “Tushonka” in World War II,” Nebraskastudies.org, Nebraska Public Media Foundation, courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, “Successful Farmer,” https://www.nebraskastudies.org/assets/images/0805_0401tushonka.original.jpg.
  7. Smith, “Tushonka.”
  8. Roger Munting. “Soviet food supply and allied aid in the war, 1941-45,” Soviet Studies, 36(4), October 1984.
  9. “Spam (food),” Wikipedia.
  10. Smith, “Tushonka.”

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Fall 2023



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