22 November 2023

Friends and Comrades, a Thanksgiving P.S.

Title frame from the film Famine. Screenshot from source.

Historian Yulia Khmelevskaya—Famine.
Historian Sergei Nikitin—Famine.
Historian and journalist Sergei Kolychev—Famine.

New York Times, July 23, 1921—Famine.
"Remember the starving!" Source.

Last week I reviewed Sergei Nikitin's Friends and Comrades: How Quakers helped Russians to survive famine and epidemic, translated by Suzanne Eade Roberts. Working with Russian and Soviet sources as well as English-language memoirs and archives, Sergei told the epic story of British and American Friends' work in Russia—in refugee assistance, famine relief, medical outreach, and agricultural reconstruction—in the years 1916-1931.

My review had lots of words, but barely any images. Today, in honor of the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday (and I'm not being ironic), I want to tell you about a documentary film that can be of enormous help with both images and context for the story Sergei tells. The film: Famine.

Context: The full campaign against starvation and epidemic at the height of the 1921-23 famines was far larger than the specifically Quaker mission centered on the cities of Buzuluk and Sorochinsk. Together, all the international help during those years may have saved 10 or 11 million lives. It is harder to fix the number of lives that the Quaker teams might have saved, but it is certainly in the tens of thousands. Buzuluk was the capital of a region with a pre-famine population of over 600,000. Had death rates continued as they were at the start of the famine, this region would have lost fifty percent of its population, not counting people who simply left the region. Instead of 50 percent, 21.5 percent of the population was lost to starvation and disease.

Many other voluntary organizations worked in this massive relief campaign, but the largest single contribution came from the American Relief Administration, headed by the future Quaker president, Herbert Hoover. In December 2021, the U.S. Congress, despite the anti-Bolshevik mood of the times, allocated $20 million for famine relief in Russia. For a time, the American Quaker mission to the region became somewhat enmeshed in the ARA's work, with several awkward implications for their relationship with the local government as well as their British Quaker co-workers. They negotiated several exceptions to the ARA rules, and eventually regained their independence to manage their own work and collaborate fully with the British team.

Quakers may have been better prepared than some other groups to work on a large scale in Russia. Their presence in Buzuluk dated back to their World War I outreach to war refugees. They had already earned credibility with the suspicious Bolshevik authorities. At times they were a conduit into Russia for other relief organizations who didn't have the degree of access Friends had gained. When Russia made its global appeal for help in July 1921, Friends were able to respond quickly, thanks to their earlier experience in the Buzuluk region.

In covering the vast scale of the international response in these famine years, 1921-23, the documentary Famine selects several regions of Russia as case studies. The Buzuluk region is one of those case studies, featuring interviews with, among others, Sergei Nikitin and Sergei Kolychev. Judy and I knew of Sergei Nikitin's interest in this history long before we ourselves visited Buzuluk in 2008 and 2011. During our 2011 visit we got to know the local journalist and historian Sergei Kolychev, whose study of the famine years led him (a Russian Orthodox Christian) to envision a memorial to those Quaker workers of a century earlier.

Speaking of memorials, two of the Friends' workers died of typhus during the winter of 1921-22, Mary Pattison and Violet Tillard. Lenin's principal deputy, Leon Trotsky, paid tribute to them in a speech in March 1922, as quoted by Sergei Nikitin's book:

These graves are a kind of augury of the new, future relations between people which will be based upon solidarity and not be shadowed by self-seeking. When the Russian people become a little richer, they will erect (we are profoundly sure of this) a great monument to these fallen heroes.

Judging by reports of the cancellation of Famine's license for screening in Russian movie theaters, Russian authorities do not welcome these kinds of historical reminders. (Here is a link to Global Voices report of the ban, along with a summary of the film. And a report from Meduza.) I'm less sure than Trotsky that an actual monument will be built. For now, maybe the film Famine will serve as a memorial. 

If you watch it (see below), be aware that there are many stark and troubling scenes and stories from the height of the famine, including reports of cannibalism. As several observers have noted, this famine may have been the first in world history to be so minutely and graphically documented.

As with many families in the USA, cooking and eating will be two of our family's main activities tomorrow.  My memories of the film, of Sergei's book, and of our own visits to Buzuluk will not muffle my thankfulness during the holiday—they'll sharpen it.

Famine is available on the YouTube channels of the U.S. government-funded media outlet Current Time TV. The film itself was not funded by Current Time, but was financed through crowdfunding. Over 2,000 people contributed.

The film is in Russian, but you can turn on the subtitles, and choose the language you wish from the video settings. The English is adequate to follow, most of the time, although (for example) when Sergei Nikitin says, "We are now in the Quaker meetinghouse [he used the English word "meetinghouse"], it's translated "the Community House apartment...." Earlier, the auto-translator gave us "Gold" when Sergei Kolychev said "Volga." In general, you'll be able to keep up with the narrative.

Here's a separate link cued to the section on Quaker work in Buzuluk. The full film is below:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's controversial conversion.

The prison hazards that await Russian anti-war artist Aleksandra Skochilenko.

Robert P. Jones: when (U.S.) ex-presidential rhetoric crosses into Nazi territory.

Who is abandoning the evangelical label? Ryan Burge graphs the trends.

Nancy Thomas writes about gratitude—and gets specific.

Kate Bowler's Thanksgiving blessing when you don't feel terribly thankful.

Via Open Culture: a massive online digital archive of Chaucer. Caution: it's habit-forming. And if you are able to escape, Open Culture can link you with 130 ancient maps, atlases and globes.

What is a Quaker? Here's Micah Bales's answer in English and Russian.

Rick Holmstrom's instrumental version of "Oh Mary Don't You Weep."

No comments: