FHM's diary of events celebrating Quaker work in Russia in the 1920s

1920s Soviet Russia, as seen by Friends

Exhibition of sketches by Richard Kilbey, opened by Archbishop Sergius of Samara and Syzran
Eparchial Museum of Church History, Samara
6 September to 31 November 2010

Cover of Kilbey's sketchbook

Richard (Dick) Kilbey was a member of a team of American and British Quakers who were engaged in relief work in the Buzuluk region, near Samara, between 1917 and 1931, during the famines that followed World War I and the Civil War, and the period of reconstruction in the 1920s. He was born at Itarsi in India on 30 December 1897, one of the four children of missionaries Francis and Mary Ann Kilbey. As a young boy he was sent to England to school. In 1916 he joined the Friends Ambulance Unit. After the famine broke out in 1921 he joined the Quaker team based in Buzuluk. An amateur artist, he took his sketch pad with him and made a collection of pen and ink drawings, watercolours and pencil sketches of people and places in Buzuluk and the surrounding villages. After he died in 1984 the pictures passed into the care of his Quaker Meeting, Wells-next-the-Sea, in Norfolk, which has lent the collection to Samara’s Eparchial Museum.

The Round Table at the Samara Scientific Centre, Russian Academy of Sciences, 7 September 2010: The Fight against Hunger in the Volga Area 1921-22

The Russian famine of 1921, also known as the Volga famine, began in the early spring of that year, and lasted through 1922. The famine, which killed an estimated 5 million people, affected mostly the Volga-Ural region. The famine resulted from the combined effect of the disruption of agricultural production, which had begun during World War I and continued through the disturbances of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Russian Civil War with its policy of War Communism, especially requisitioning. One of Russia’s intermittent droughts that happened in 1921 aggravated the situation to the level of national catastrophe. Hunger was so severe that it was doubtful that seed-grain would be sown rather than eaten.

Although no official request for aid was issued, a committee of well-known people without obvious party affiliations was allowed to set up an appeal for assistance. In July 1921 the writer Maxim Gorky published an appeal to the outside world, claiming that millions of lives were menaced by crop failure. At a conference in Geneva on 15 August organised by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the League of Red Cross Societies, the International Committee for Russian Relief (ICCR) was set up with Dr Fridtjof Nansen as its High Commissioner. The main participants were Hoover’s American Relief Administration, along with other bodies such as the American Friends Service Committee and the International Save the Children Union, which had the British Save the Children Fund as the major contributor.

In the overall relief programme, Friends were but one of a number of organisations involved, feeding 794,000 people in Buzuluk region with the American Relief Association providing relief to 9,545,575 people across the affected areas.

Book Launch: 1920s Soviet Russia through the eyes of Friends

This is the Russian-language edition of David McFadden and Claire Gorfinkel’s book Constructive Spirit, Quakers in Revolutionary Russia published in 2004 by Intentional Productions. The translation by Lyubov Radchenko is the result of local initiative in Samara.

Constructive Spirit is an authoritative account setting the stories of the individuals working with the refugees and the local population, in feeding centres, work rooms, orphanages and hospitals in the Volga region, in its broader historical and political context.

The diary of Friends House Moscow’s visit to the Samara region

Monday 6 September

Arrived on the overnight train from Moscow. We met Margarita Wood, representative Friend from Wells-next-the-Sea Quaker Meeting, in our hotel. Immediately upon arrival (having duly registered), Margarita was called upon to witness the opening of the package fully of Richard Kilbey’s artwork so long delayed in the Moscow customs, the checking of its contents and a visit to the picture framers; the care and skill behind the exhibition was impressive.

Sergei went off to the Museum to meet Olga and help with final arrangements for the afternoon’s opening of the exhibition. After a leisurely chatty lunch we walked up to the Museum for 2.00.

The Museum and Seminary are situated in what was the House of Pioneers in the Soviet period. Previously it had been a teacher-training college. A chapel has been incorporated inside, off which is a small two-room museum. One room contained the Kilbey Exhibition as though it were made to fit. A wonderful full-length wall hanging had been made from Anna Haines’s “A Day in Friends House” chapter in Constructive Spirit. The pictures have been uniformly framed in white and gold frames: in pairs, singly or in small groups. The effect is wonderful and the museum framer has done an excellent job. Display cabinets in the Kilbey Room contained related photographs and letters from the period; the other room in the Museum contains icons, and church artefacts.

The ceremony began with a choir from the Seminary singing. Margarita made a short speech of welcome and introduction to the exhibition, which was translated into Russian, followed by Archbishop Sergius, who spoke of Russia’s return to the Orthodox faith; then they jointly cut the red ribbon. There must have been about seventy people there, for the room felt very full. Sergei took the Archbishop round the pictures, providing explanations in a loud enough voice for everyone to hear. Three TV channels were present and interviews were taken afterwards, and people continued to look round.

We joined the Archbishop for afternoon tea in one of the rooms, where there was far too much food laid out for us. (I expected the novices would make short work of it later). After the Archbishop left we were able to chat at leisure about the event with Olga, her daughter Lyuba (interpreter for the occasion and translator of Constructive Spirit) and Valentina, the wife of Anatolii Afanas’ev, who had paid for the translation.

Tuesday 7 September

The Round Table was held in a large lecture/concert hall. The panel consisted of five people. The audience was between 200-300 students and teachers.

We were welcomed in an eloquent speech by Alexander Repinetskii. After a general introduction on the topic by celebrated Samarian historian, Petr Kabitov, Iulia Anshakova, one of his research students, gave the main address on the 1921 famine and international efforts to alleviate its consequences. Not surprisingly, it focused on the work of the American Relief Association but there were many references to the Quaker teams and other groups working in the field.

Margarita provided an introduction to the Kilbey exhibition in the Museum. Recalling that until the late 1970s, Russian ships brought timber into the harbour at Wells-next-the-Sea, she said that she did not know whether Richard Kilbey had seen such ships, but he came to Russia as an ordinary man from an ordinary town, moved by compassion not power (so contrasting the Quaker input to the other agencies). Margarita went on to say that the Quakers did not just provide relief, but reconstruction ‘for if you feed a man you support him for that day, but if you give him a horse, a plough and seed corn, you give him back his life’. She also said that in that encounter, person to person, something important happens and she found that this was still happening with the people she had met whose parents, grandparents and great grandparents had survived the famine. Famine was the ultimate trauma and grandparents of those in the hall had had the physical and mental strength to make a new life.

Sergei followed on with some detailed vignettes of some of the team members and the work they were involved in by way of introduction to the new Russian edition of Constructive Spirit, retitled 1920s Soviet Russia through the eyes of Friends. It was self-evident that Sergei has become an expert in this field of Quaker activity in Russia, and he spoke with passion and enthusiasm, skill, competence and authority.

At the end of each presentation there was the opportunity for questions. This was taken up by the audience. One telling question asked by a student from Buzuluk was: Why was this hidden from us – the story of foreign relief work in the region?

After lunch in the Head of Department’s office we set off in the minibus to Buzuluk, three hours away. Historian Sergei Kolychev, our Buzuluk contact, who had come to Samara for the events was our guide on the journey, and Olga Radchenko accompanied us.

We were met by writer Vladimir Nikitin (a former assistant prosecutor who has written a book on the Stalin purges), Olga Osetskaia from the Buzuluk Museum, and Anatolii Panteleev, a local businessman. We were later taken in two cars to see some of the places where Kilbey had sat to draw his pictures. These included a magnificent spot on the top of the hills offering a wonderful panoramic view of Buzuluk. Unfortunately the lovely evening sunshine made capturing the view with a camera difficult.

One of the monasteries Kilbey painted was taken over after the monks were expelled and turned into a children’s detention centre, in which capacity it still remains. However another church, surrounded by five ponds, in the village of Sukhorechka, has been restored after having its tower demolished during the Soviet period. There we were met by Father Anatolii, who had afternoon tea waiting for us. Kilbey’s picture of the church has been used to provide detail to assist in the reconstruction and restoration of the building and indeed his pictures of other churches have provided essential information towards restoration too. These particular pictures have been published in a book (Obitel’) written by Sergei Kolychev about the reopening of this group of churches. Richard Kilbey would have been well pleased if he were still alive. About halfway through tea there was a power-cut; candles were brought and this just added to the tranquil atmosphere of this small old village church. There was a good opportunity for Sergei Nikitin to tell those present about Quakers, their history and principles – because Sergei Kolychev had asked how many Quakers are there in the world. When Sergei Nikitin mentioned that there are no priests in Quaker services as everyone present at a Quaker Meeting for Worship can speak their hearts, Father Anatolii gave his explanation why it is essential that God’s word is transferred through those who are better prepared for the delivery of such messages. It was a nice example of sharing points of view, without arguing.

Wednesday 8 September

We walked to the Museum and were stopped in the street by a woman, one of the librarians, who with tears in her eyes, wanted to thank us for feeding her grandmother and thus enabling her granny to survive and hence her mother’s and her own life.

We were welcomed at the museum by Vera Tkachenko. After a brief tour we joined the waiting audience in the larger room (about fifty school students and teachers). Sergei Kolychev gave an introduction to the exhibition in Samara, and Sergei Nikitin repeated his talk presenting The BOOK; followed by Margarita this time.

Questions were more focused on the history here. Another woman stood up to express her gratitude for having a life because Friends had fed her grandmother. This story is one that repeated itself several times in conversations. Four TV channels were at work at this event and interviews taken afterwards. Our departure to see the old Quaker Headquarters (now the Children’s Polyclinic) was delayed by waiting for the Head of the Town Council of Deputies, Ivan Kashkin, to arrive, who wanted to thank us for coming. Thus the visit to the clinic was very brief. It is so appropriate that this building continues to serve the community in this way.

In Sorochinsk we went to the town’s small museum, run by its elderly communist director Vasilii Baklanov, and performed our routine once again before the assembled members of the press and one TV camera. This museum continues to amass the social history of the town in its albums of photos and cuttings of its citizens. As in Buzuluk there are many new small houses.

Afterwards we went to the old Quaker Headquarters (now the office of the Sorochinskii Vestnik newspaper) for a cup of tea and a chat with our old friend, the Editor Lubov Mazilo.

Thursday 9 September

The long haul back to Samara. We appear to be overloaded with books. As well as the many copies of books we have been given both individually and for the Friends House Moscow Library, we have twenty copies of 1920s Soviet Russia through the eyes of Friends to carry to FHM.

We have made contact with a new group of spiritually-motivated enthusiasts (historians, art experts, museum and archive workers, students, teachers and librarians) whose passion is to record this period of their history and raise awareness to the tragic events of the famine. As individuals they are all incredibly interesting people with stories to tell. Their kindness and support for and during our visit was most touching and it was a privilege to meet them. Their enthusiasm is infectious and ideas for continuation tumble around in our heads. There is a clear need for more research into the activity of the Quaker teams in the area, including a definitive list of those involved – we know of five people missing from the list so far, including Richard Kilbey and his brother Edward!! What happened to the Russian staff who worked in the teams – did they survive the repression? There are archives to be explored in greater depth than before: in Philadelphia, London, and in Russia. There is considerable interest among those we met in publishing a bi-lingual definitive historical account of the famine to include Kilbey’s pictures. There will be a role for FHM in supporting this project: material will need translating into English and proofreading; documents, journals and more photographs will need to be traced and scanned and permissions obtained. Next year is the 90th anniversary of the famine and the Buzuluk Town Administration has already started planning to commemorate the relief work. A proposal is being considered for a major international historical conference in which we would be asked to participate.

Margarita, Natasha, Sergei and Peter