Interaction with Tsarist Russia

1698 - 1919

In 1698 Tsar Peter the Great travelled in disguise to London. He wanted to learn more about shipbuilding, and took lodgings near the docks. News of his arrival reached Friends and Thomas Story and others went to meet him.  Peter challenged them with the proposition that Quakers were no use to the state because they would not fight: Story’s response was that they were extremely useful because they worked hard, were honest, and very innovative. Peter was sufficiently intrigued to arrive unannounced at Gracechurch St Meeting the following Sunday. All this interaction had needed interpreters, but on another occasion William Penn and the Tsar had a direct conversation in German, a language both of them spoke.

In 1768 Catherine the Great was very concerned about the scourge of smallpox, and had heard that a method of inoculation was being developed in Britain. Her ambassador in London asked Dr John Fothergill for advice, and he recommended Quaker doctor Thomas Dimsdale. With some trepidation, Thomas travelled to St Petersburg, and some time later he successfully inoculated Catherine and her children, and then many others. In 1781 he returned to inoculate two of her grandchildren, one of whom became Tsar Alexander I.

The interaction with Alexander was probably the most far-reaching of all.  In 1814 he made a triumphal visit to his allies in Britain, at the end of the Napoleonic wars. Russia had suffered terribly at Napoleon’s hands (described graphically in Tolstoy’s War and Peace) but the tide had turned and Alexander had recently marched into Paris. He came to London to find out more about new thinking and new technologies. (The education of the Russian aristocracy of the time was European in orientation, and they tended to look west for new ideas).

Meeting for Sufferings had prepared a message for Alexander and charged William Allen and Luke Howard with delivering it. Before they had arranged this, Alexander asked Allen to take him to a Quaker meeting. The Tsar’s command of English was good, and he was impressed. He had many questions to ask when he met Allen, Stephen Grellet and others some days later, and they also discussed practical matters such as farming methods, and the Lancastrian education system. These discussions led to the introduction of the Lancastrian system into Russia, and to Daniel Wheeler spending 15 years (1717-32) reclaiming the St Petersburg marshes. When Allen and Grellet visited in 1818-19 they saw these initiatives at first hand, as well as visiting prisons, hospitals, and farms. They met the Tsar several times, and discussed what they had seen with him.

Alexander died in 1825, and his successor Nicholas 1 had different preoccupations. Wheeler was able to continue his work but the Tsar took little interest. It was not until 1853, when the Crimean war was brewing, that a Quaker group visited Nicholas again.  This time Britain and Russia were on opposite sides, and the Quaker delegation, led by Joseph Sturge, were seeking to prevent war breaking out. Their efforts were fruitless, and they were severely criticised in the British press for even trying.

In 1856, when the war was over, Sturge and others became aware of the devastation in Finland (then part of Russia), caused by a British bombardment, and organised a relief programme. It was the first of several relief efforts in the ensuing years.

In 1891 and in 1906 the focus was famine relief. Quakers helped with immediate needs but also suggested ways of addressing the root causes. Francis William Fox made detailed proposals about irrigation schemes, for example.

Another relief thread concerned minorities who were suffering for their beliefs, notably Mennonites and Dukhobors. In 1858 British Friends took a plea for liberty of conscience to the Tsar, and in 1878 US Friends appealed on behalf of the Mennonites. In the 1890s Quakers helped the Dukhobors to leave Russia and settle in Canada. In this work they had many interactions with Leo Tolstoy, who was also campaigning on these issues and financing relief work himself.

The last intervention in Tsarist times began in 1916, helping Polish refugees fleeing into Russia. As the Tsarist regime crumbled, a team from the newly formed AFSC and a British Quaker Unit collaborated to do what they could, until they had to leave in 1919.

Further Reading and Credits

further reading
  • Greenwood, J O, Quaker encounters: Friends and Relief, Sessions, York, 1975.
  • Scott, R.G. Quakers in Russia, Michael Joseph, London, 1964