Quakers in Russia

Friends House Moscow is the latest stage in the long association between Quakers (the Religious Society of Friends) and Russia.

The history begins in 1656 when the Society’s founder, George Fox, sent an epistle to the then reigning Tsar of Muscovy, Aleksei Mikhailovich. It was followed by another in 1661; however, the texts are not preserved. In 1697 Aleksei’s son Tsar Peter I, later known as the Great, visited England on his famous “Grand Embassy” to Western Europe. Friends sought out the august visitor, and presented him with Barclay’s Apology and other works; he discoursed in German with William Penn. Besides matters of faith, subjects touched upon included the condition of the Russian servile peasantry and the need for public education. Peter took a close interest in Friends’ views – as he did also in those of other confessions — and attended several meetings for worship while in England.

In this period the term ‘Quaker’ was sometimes used in Europe, including Russia, as a pejorative term for any religious individual who challenged earthly powers – prince, priest, parliament – in the name of personal experience of the divine. In the eighteenth century there were reports in Russia of ‘Quaker maidens’, religious dissenters, exiled to Siberia for their beliefs. The exact identity and doctrines of these women are not known: they were probably members of one of the schismatic sects of Old Believers and labelled Quaker by the authorities. Later on Friends travelling in Russia met other dissenting groups who sometimes claimed or were said to have been inspired by Quaker beliefs, notably the Molokane (“Milk-drinkers” or Spiritual Christians); though no exact link has been demonstrated. Thus the term Quaker circulated in Russia at a time when there were few or no actual contacts, and was used loosely for people who would not conform. At the same time another image of the Quaker was also widespread in Europe, deriving from William Penn and his foundation of Pennsylvania in 1682: one of sober respectability and upright responsible citizenship.

After Peter the Great, the next formal Quaker contact with Russia came in the 1760s, when the Empress Catherine II sought a physician to inoculate herself and her son, the Tsarevich Paul, against the scourge of smallpox. Her choice fell upon the English Quaker doctor Thomas Dimsdale, who successfully carried out his politically delicate task, and was subsequently recalled once more to inoculate Catherine’s grandsons. It was under the eldest grandson, Tsar Alexander I, that Quaker contacts with Russia blossomed. Alexander visited England in 1814 as one of the victors over Napoleonic France; the Quakers sought out the illustrious ruler as they had Peter I. Alexander was at this time an evangelical Christian whose beliefs closely matched those of contemporary Friends: he received them warmly, prayed with them, ‘fully assented’ to their peace testimony, and attended meetings for worship. He also invited Friends to visit his Empire, and subsequently welcomed Quaker visitors, notably William Allen, who worked in Russia with the American Stephen Grellet to promote the Bible Society, education and prison reform, and travelled among the many dissenting religious groups of Southern Russia.

In 1817 the Russian government wished to drain marshlands near St Petersburg, and Alexander sent a request for a suitable specialist to the Society of Friends in Britain. Daniel Wheeler and his family responded to this call; they spent some thirty years reclaiming land near St Petersburg and introducing modern farming techniques. Daniel’s wife Jane Wheeler died in Russia in 1832, and her daughter in 1837. In recognition of the Wheelers’ services the Imperial government granted them in perpetuity the land in which the dead had been buried: the Quaker burial ground still exists at Shushary, close to the city.

In 1854 British Friends sent a mission to Emperor Nicholas I seeking, unsuccessfully, to avert the Crimean War. Later they worked with the great novelist and pacifist Leo Tolstoy and his followers; Tolstoy’s daughter-in-law became a member of the Society.

An important facet of Quaker involvement with Russia which began at this time was war and famine relief, first carried out in Russian Finland in the 1850s. This became a major area of work, and British and American Friends gave considerable help during the Volga famine of the 1890s, and during and after World War I, the revolutions and Civil War (1916-mid1920s). They worked with refugees and other victims of harvest failures, wars, and relocations to create feeding centres, hospitals, orphanages, schools, and cottage industries. Perhaps the best-known example of Quaker relief work in Russia was Friends’ participation in the international response to the famine of 1921. In that year alone, British and American Friends were feeding about 212,000 people.

The small Quaker office set up in Moscow in connection with these activities managed to maintain cooperation with the new Soviet authorities in the field of health through the 1920s, and survived until 1931. It became the last representative of any Western religious organisation in Moscow as Stalin tightened his grip on the Soviet Union.

A remarkable pictorial record survives from this period in the sketches made in 1923 by Richard Kilbey of Wells-next-the Sea Meeting, when he and his brother Ernest were relief workers in South-Eastern Russia, in the town of Buzuluk. One sketch shows the Quaker team arriving back on a sledge at the house which was HQ of the Quaker unit. Across the road was a malaria clinic in a building showing the marks of recent fighting between Red and White units in the Civil War.

In the Stalin period (ca. 1930-53) Friends were able to make formal visits to the Soviet Union in 1930, 1948 and 1949; otherwise contacts were limited to a few unusual and energetic individuals. After World War II, from 1950 onwards, the British Friends’ East-West Committee and the American Friends’ Service Committee tried to expand links, with some success, especially in the Khrushchev years (1956-64). Contacts were made with official Soviet organisations and a wide range of encounters was organised – conferences, visits, bilateral exchanges, “work and study projects” — between scientists, diplomats, philosophers, young people and religious representatives. Friends faced a fundamental dilemma in this work: contact was only possible through official Soviet channels, but Friends sought to have contact both with the people in power in Communist states and with those in a critical relationship to them, and had at all times to be ‘mindful of the difficulty of doing both’, as the British Quaker Peace and Service’s East-West Committee minuted. Quaker attempts to find positive connections were reflected in (among other things) William Barton’s 1964 Swarthmore Lecture The Moral Challenge of Communism.

With the advent of perestroika in the 1980s personal and organisational contacts became easier; American and British Friends, as well as Quakers in other countries, responded to the new opportunities and worked to build social and religious contacts.

The present Moscow Monthly Meeting grew out of a small local group which began to meet in Moscow in the manner of Friends in the late 1980s. In 1983, Russian historian Tatiana Pavlova had come into contact with British Quakers. Over the next few years, occasional visits and meetings for worship gradually developed into a worship group initially hosted in Tatiana’s apartment. After the fall of the Soviet Union the meeting outgrew her home; it moved to the basement of a Russian Orthodox church, later to a school, to the premises of Friends House Moscow, and eventually to larger and more public quarters. It is now the largest and most stable of the small groups in several parts of Russia and the former Soviet Union who gather to learn about and worship in the manner of Friends.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the great hardships suffered by the Russian people in the 1990s offered new challenges to Western Friends. Peter and Roswitha Jarman were appointed Moscow Representatives of Quaker Peace and Service (Britain) for two years in 1991, followed by Patricia Cockrell and Chris Hunter. In 1992 Pacific Yearly Meeting (USA) asked David Hartsough and Kay Anderson to visit Russia to consider what actions were needed in view of the current difficulties. American Friends from the pastoral and evangelical traditions were among those Christians who participated in the CoMission consortium in and after 1992, responding to the Russian government’s invitation to Christian teachers to help teach ethics in Russian schools. A few years later, Alaska Yearly Meeting Friends began pastoral visits to their ethnic brothers and sisters in eastern Siberia, and American Friends participated in the material aid programme of the ecumenical Alaskan Friends of Chukotka.

In all this the question of a permanent Quaker presence in Russia was very much to the fore: Pacific Yearly Meeting and the British Quaker Peace and Service shared a vision of a Quaker Centre. To make it a reality, a small group of Friends from various countries met in London, Philadelphia, and most often in Moscow, to establish Quaker roots and durable procedures. Staff were recruited and trained, premises found and projects initiated. Friends House Moscow finally opened on 1 January 1996.