How the Quakers Tried to Save Russia

The horrific famine of 1921 confronted the Soviet government with an inevitable decision: to recognize the disaster and accept foreign aid. Within a short time, more than twenty agreements were signed with international organizations that had expressed a desire to help Soviet Russia. Third on the list was an agreement between the People’s Commissariat and the Quakers. The Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends, is a Protestant Christian church whose history of interactions with Russia dates the seventeenth century. From 1916 to 1931, the Quakers were able to cooperate quite peacefully and fruitfully with all the authorities: with officials of Tsarist Russia, with the Czechoslovak Legionnaires, and with the Bolsheviks. This cooperation helped save hundreds of thousands of people, people who survived thanks to Quaker rations, doctors, tractors, and horses. In Russia, almost nothing is known about this assistance: the names of the saviors have been forgotten, and their good deeds have been consigned to oblivion. Sergei Nikitin, a long-time representative of Amnesty International in Russia and a researcher of Quaker history, is committed to restoring historical justice with his book. The book features an introduction by Vladislav Aksyonov, a senior researcher at the Institute of Russian History (RAS) and a member of the Free Historical Society, which situates the Quakers’ efforts in the socio-political context of the era.

Sergei Nikitin has written an amazing documentary book. We are taught that we are surrounded by enemies, but this book is about how this isn’t the case at all. We are taught people do everything only for their benefit, but it turns out that there are people who live quite differently. Books like this change the world.

Boris Grebenshchikov, musician

This book by Sergei Nikitin, a long-time representative of Amnesty International in Russia, is dedicated to one of the most important values of human civilization—love for one’s neighbors, no matter how close they really are geographically, ethnically, or politically. Religious feeling and compassion lead thae book’s characters, British and American Quakers, to distant Russia to help the starving and dying. The author opens this page of Russian history for the first time, carefully and thoroughly extracting hitherto unknown facts. This is not just a chronicle of humanitarian aid, but a history of humanity.

Mikhail Fedotov, lawyer and civil rights defender

No matter how you look at the story told by Sergei Nikitin, it contradicts commonly held notions in modern Russia: the English and Americans help refugees and starving people in Bolshevik Russia; Quakers cooperate with the Soviet government to combat hunger and establish health care; a religious society serves as a channel of communication between a diplomatically isolated country and the outside world. The book also discusses the commonalities between the Communist utopia and Quaker ideals, and whether it is possible to emerge victorious based on your own idea of what should be done, despite the framework in which you are placed by politicians at home, the host government, and even those you help. These are deeply personal stories, intertwined with the history of our country—a history that we need to know.

Ivan Kurilla, historian

Sergei Nikitin talks about his book How the Quakers Tried to Save Russia

Source: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Mark Teeter for the heads-up.

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