Famine Relief Work in post-Revolutionary Russia 1921-1929
Despite the difficulties posed by the October Revolution of 1917, Quakers were determined to return to Russia and continue the relief efforts that had begun in 1916.
Since the Revolution, Russia had been subject to a blockade by British, American and other allied forces. By 1919, it was clear that this could result in a famine even more devastating than that of 1891. Quakers petitioned for aid to be allowed through for children’s hospitals. This was at first denied, but in January 1920, the first consignment of 50 tons was allowed in. Later that year, two Quakers, Arthur Watts (British) and Anna Haines (American) obtained permission to stay in Russia. Between them, they organised initial relief efforts on behalf of both the Quakers and the Save the Children Fund, providing supplementary food for 16 thousand Moscow children.
In 1921, Anna Haines extended the relief effort to the area around Buzuluk, where the Quakers had worked in previous famines.
As international awareness of the crisis grew, an International Russian Relief Commission was set up with Norwegian Fridjof Nansen as its head. When he travelled to Russia, he made contact with the Quakers, as the first relief agency on the scene, and was accompanied for part of his journey by Ruth Fry, secretary to the Friends War Victims Relief Committee.
Once again, suspicions were raised that relief supplies were being stolen by Russian troops. Fry was able to testify that no more was going missing than in other relief operations.
The Quakers now became a relatively small part of international relief efforts, but in the area around Buzuluk, they took the lead. The American Quakers were working under the auspices of Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Agency, which was by far the largest contributor of international aid, while the British worked with the Save the Children Fund.
That winter, Evelyn Sharp, who had travelled to Buzuluk with Fry, recorded the sight of hundreds of bodies lying waiting to be buried on the frozen ground. People were eating grass and weeds. The relief workers faced agonising choices over who to feed – if they fed only the children, say, then parents would abandon them at their doors and walk away to die. Many relief workers themselves fell ill from typhus and some died.
By spring 1922, however, most people were being fed. The Quakers switched from providing soup kitchens to distributing dry rations. When the worst of the famine was over, the Quakers stayed to help with reconstruction efforts, developing small-scale spinning, weaving and sewing industries and then later helping to repair bridges, dig wells and drain marshland. They also provided medical relief.
It is estimated that altogether some 30 million people were affected by the famine and some three million died of typhus alone. Nevertheless, relief efforts were not popular with the Soviet government, who saw bread as a propaganda weapon that could be used against them.
By 1925, British Quakers hoped to open a Quaker International Centre in Moscow, while the Americans had plans to establish a nursing school. But the Soviet authorities were not sympathetic, and it became clear that neither of these projects would come to fruition.
The last of the Quakers withdrew from Russia in 1929. When famine again threatened in 1933, no foreign aid was admitted. It wasn’t until 1995 that Friends House Moscow finally opened its doors.