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At the call of the faith: how the Americans and the British saved Tsarist Russia from the hunger
23 July 2020, 20:18
At the call of the faith: how the Americans and the British saved Tsarist Russia from the hunger
During World War I, the first "landing" of British and American Quakers arrived in our country to help fight the consequences of the terrible drought of 1914.

As soon as an excessively hot (cold, rainy) summer happens, we rush to state that the old-timers will not remember this.

Anna Berseneva, writer

Meanwhile, the old-timers still remember something different. For example, in 1890, the Volga region was terribly dry, until the harvest was completely destroyed, summer, frosts struck in snowless November and continued throughout the winter, in the spring, due to the lack of floods, flooded meadows were left without moisture, the cold at the end of April killed winter crops, in May happened frosts, strong hurricanes swept in the summer, blowing off the arable layer and knocking out grain from the ears, after which in the fall the same thing went in a new circle. The result of all this was a terrible famine that went down in history, which stirred up the Russian and world community, which raised funds to help the peasants. And exactly the same drought came in 1914, only to it was added the mobilization of half of the able-bodied men for the First World War, not to mention the fact that refugees from the front-line regions poured deep into Russia. It is not difficult to guess what kind of mass tragedy it all turned out to be.

It was during the First World War that the first mission of British and American Quakers arrived in Russia. Sergey Nikitin, a long-term representative of Amnesty International in our country, wrote a book about her “How Quakers Saved Russia” (Moscow: New Literary Review. 2020).

“It helped save hundreds of thousands of people who survived thanks to Quaker rations, doctors, tractors and horses. In Russia, practically nothing is known about this assistance, the names of the saviors are forgotten, good deeds are consigned to oblivion, ”the editorial note says. And Boris Grebenshchikov wrote to the publication of this large-scale study: “We are taught that there are only enemies around, but the book is about the fact that this is not at all the case. They teach that a person does everything only for his own benefit, but it turns out that there are people who live in a completely different way. Such books change the world".

The fearlessness of the Quakers, who began to work at the epicenter of the Volga famine, in Buzuluk, is surprising, especially given that almost none of them knew Russian. The attitude towards private charitable aid in Russia has always been cool, and during the war, talk about hunger began to be considered unpatriotic. The censors "crossed out the words" hunger "and" starving people "from newspaper columns and replaced them with the words" crop failure "and" crop failure suffered. " Perhaps this was due to a common saying among the people: “Harvest failure is from God, and hunger is from the king”, - Nikitin writes.

In Buzuluk, the Quaker mission met both the October Revolution and the Civil War. Neither one nor the other prevented her employees from feeding and treating children and adults. Apparently, the moral purity of the Quakers was so obvious that no one raised a hand against them. In May 1918, the cash ran out and the head of the mission, Theodore Rigg, traveled from Buzuluk to Moscow to withdraw money from the bank account. His memories of this trip across the front line and back in the midst of the Czechoslovak uprising with a huge amount in his pocket could become the plot of an adventure novel.

"A tall foreigner who spoke Russian with difficulty in provincial Russia was a figure noticeable and quite attractive to dashing people, of whom there were a lot at that time", - writes S. Nikitin.

What kept him safe? The religious people know the answer to this question.

However, soon after a long and difficult discussion, the Quakers were forced to admit that they would have to take advantage of the urgent recommendations of American and British diplomats and leave Buzuluk. But they did not leave Russia. Some of them continued to do everything possible to make life easier for refugees, including four hundred Petrograd children, while others, having arrived in Moscow, in cooperation with the Pirogov Society of Physicians, began helping children's colonies in the Tambov and Voronezh provinces, where they saved children from starvation and disease...

It is clear that the Quakers with their pacifism were like a thorn in the eye of the Soviet regime during the revolutionary terror. And in 1919 they were still forced to leave Russia.

“These people have gone through a lot, they shared all the hardships with our compatriots. They took care of refugees, children, starving Russians as if they were their relatives. These people were driven by love for their neighbors, the Christian understanding of kindness, they were led by the faith and practice of the Religious Society of Friends, for whom religion is not rituals and objects of worship, but how you live your life, how you help your neighbor, for whom faith is love and the world”, - writes S. Nikitin.

It should not be surprising that as soon as the Entente states lifted the trade blockade, the Quakers made every effort to first send charitable goods to Soviet Russia and then return themselves.

“The hot and dry spring of 1921 already foreshadowed a terrible disaster, the size of which the Bolsheviks had not yet imagined. The peasants, robbed by the surplus appropriation system, had nothing to sow on the dried up fields, where, until recently, the battles of the Civil War were fought. Hunger was coming".

This famine gripped the multimillion population of 35 provinces, so “the Bolsheviks had to change a lot in their policies, including their attitude to foreign aid. Moreover, it was necessary to ask the West for help, otherwise the power of the Bolsheviks could be swept away by yesterday's Red Army men".

The head of the American Aid Administration (ARA) Herbert Hoover responded to the request. Under the auspices of ARA, the Quakers came to Russia, to the Buzuluk district that became close to them, and came again. In a year, they saved half a million residents of the district from death.

It was then that the driver of the station water pumping station Sergey Kelep turned to them with a letter:

“I've heard many different opinions about why you are feeding the hungry in Russia. Some here claim that you will receive a reward for this, that for your work you will be given a part of Russian gold, or Russia will have to give Kamchatka to America. Others here say that only workers help us — people like ourselves. I personally did not believe in any of these explanations, since I see that everyone, not excluding our politicians, is striving only to preserve their power and position. Tell us about your goals, aspirations, ways and ways of spreading your faith, tell about your attitude to politics and your general ideas about the world, about Christ, about God, etc. I would be deeply grateful for your letter".

The answer, of course, followed, and it was extremely simple. Writing that the Quakers were the principal opponents of participation in hostilities, that the dire consequences of the First World War forced them to go on a relief mission to France, Austria, Poland and Germany, the author of this answer concluded:

“And then came the terrible famine in Russia, which you yourself saw. Quakers came here because people were dying. Citizenship, religion and political convictions of the people did not matter to us. So you see that Quakers are just trying to put into practice the lifestyle that Jesus taught".

However, by 1924 the famine had passed, the NEP made it possible to trade in grain, and Great Britain and the United States decided that their help was no longer necessary for Soviet citizens. Moreover, in the USSR “bureaucratic voices were heard more and more often, they say, give us money, and what to do with it, we ourselves will somehow figure it out. Soon after the famine was over, the Kremlin began to indoctrinate the population: foreign aid organizations began to throw mud at them. " At first, it was simply suggested that the help was scanty, and then heavy propaganda artillery went into battle - accusing foreigners of espionage.

Amazingly, the accusations did not affect the Quakers. Perhaps because before the start of the Great Terror, the authorities tried to adhere to at least some semblance of common sense, and this did not allow denying the obvious - the non-participation of Quakers in politics. But they were not going to endure them either - they simply stopped mentioning them, and in 1931 their Moscow office was closed, demanding that they leave "in an amicable way".

They were naive - many of them believed that the ideas of communism coincided with religious ideals. They were ready to cooperate with any authorities for the opportunity to help those who need help. They did their best and saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

They deserve our gratitude, and Sergey Nikitin restores their memory with his book.