Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Famine Relief Work in Russia 1891-1929


Through the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th, parts of Russia suffered a series of devastating crop failures resulting in widespread famine.  In this vast country, Quaker relief efforts faced some particularly challenging conditions.

In 1891, Herbert Jones, a Quaker who had travelled extensively in Russia and knew the country well, returned to London bringing news of widespread famine in Russia. Lack of rainfall had resulted in a near-total failure of the wheat harvest in 18 provinces and some 35 million people were affected.

On 30th November 1891, delegates Edmund Wright Brooks and Frances William Fox left for Russia to assess how help could best be given.  Quaker ‘interference’ was not welcomed by the authorities, but they were given assistance by a cousin of the author Leo Tolstoy, who was himself heavily involved in the famine relief efforts.

“We shall witness one of the most awful calamities in modern history, and thousands upon thousands, if not millions of people, must perish from starvation,” warned Fox.

Grain was plentiful in the Caucasus but rail transport was needed to get grain to the famine areas, and horses were needed for distribution. Valuable time was lost, but eventually some trains ran and some horses were found.

With an eye to the longer term, Fox also proposed a system of irrigation that would allow water to be stored for times of drought. It was never taken up.

Meanwhile, the British Press accused Quakers of helping those in distant lands while ignoring those in need nearer to home. Doubts were expressed as to whether aid was reaching those in need.

Altogether the famine relief committee in London received £37k from Britain, Ireland, Canada and the US, which was spent on soup kitchens, bakeries, fodder for cattle and horses, seed corn and seed potatoes, and medical aid.

By 1906/7, events were repeating themselves. British Quakers again set up a relief fund. This time, however, they sent no commissioners to Russia, but distributed the funds through other agencies.

In 1916, in the midst of the First World War, Quakers were again investigating reports of famine in the Volga, exacerbated by the arrival of some 34k refugees. In an area the size of Belgium, they found one doctor, one nurse and one dispenser.  Refugees were living in filthy conditions; there were no baths, no soap and no means of disinfection.

As before, there was grain in the south of Russia, but it could only be transported to the famine areas with great difficulty.

By 1917, British and American Quakers had set up three centres, but local people were fearful and suspicious.  When the October revolution came, the Quakers found themselves cut off from home.  The small party remaining in the town of Buzuluk came under fire and eventually made their way, via Siberia, back to England in 1919.

Despite the difficulties, Quakers eventually succeeded in returning to continue their relief efforts in post revolutionary Russia. In 1920 they were able to organise relief on behalf of both the Quakers and the Save the Children Fund, providing supplementary food for 16k Moscow children. In 1921, the relief effort was extended to the area around Buzuluk, where the Quakers had worked in previous famines.  Once again, the suspicions were raised that relief supplies were being stolen by Russian troops.  Ruth Fry, secretary to the Friends War Victims Relief Committee, travelled to Russia to investigate and testified that no more was going missing than in other relief operations.

The Quakers were a relatively small part of international relief efforts, but in the area around Buzuluk, they took the lead.  Altogether, it is estimated that some 30m people were affected by the famine and some 3m 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.

The Quakers finally withdrew from Russia in 1929.  When famine again threatened in 1933, no foreign aid was admitted.

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Further Reading and Credits


  • Quaker Encounters, Vol 1: Friends and Relief, John Ormerod Greenwood, 1974