20 August 2008

First impressions of Buzuluk

After a 25-hour train ride from Moscow, we arrived in Buzuluk two evenings ago, and yesterday was our first full day in town. We spent much of the day walking around the town, noting the large number of old buildings--a very different feel from Elektrostal, where nearly all the oldest buildings date from the 1940's or 1950's. Here many pre-revolutionary buildings survive, although a lot of the ones in the center are covered by some kind of siding.



The building we most wanted to see was the headquarters of the Quaker relief work during World War I and then during the terrible famine of 1921-22 and its aftermath. (First picture. The building is now a children's clinic. Pictures 2 and 3 are the pedagogical college and, a few meters away, the town's famous water tower.) To sum up quickly, here's the amazon.com review I wrote for the book Constructive Spirit: Quakers in Revolutionary Russia about the history of that Quaker work:
Writing from Moscow to Quaker colleagues at home in the disastrous winter of 1921, Anna J. Haines specified what kind of emergency relief workers were needed to cope with civil war, famine and a paranoid Bolshevik government: "In general the people who will be able to accomplish the most will be those who can win rather than fight their way. One need not be a Communist, but one should be capable of an open mind and a closed mouth. No one of the dreamy parlor-Socialist type should be considered; sensation hunters equally undesirable...."

With many such vivid archival excerpts, this fascinating book illuminates an episode of Friends service that deserves to be far better known. In two separate but related waves of involvement--for a three-year period bracketing the revolutionary year of 1917, and during the famine and reconstruction period of 1921-27--teams of British and American Friends operated food, clothing and medical distribution networks in Moscow and in the famine-stricken Samara region, a thousand miles to the east. At their peak, these activities were keeping as many as 397,000 people alive in the area between Samara and Orenburg, centering on the town of Buzuluk. Friends ran a thousand feeding centers, a hospital, over 40 malaria clinics, and a number of children's homes; they negotiated with their own governments, with the shifting cast of Soviet bureaucrats, with local officials; they taught tractor mechanics, bought and sold horses, organized employment, and advocated passionately for Russian relief among variously supportive and skeptical home-office Quaker leaders, all in the service of (in the words of the AFSC's director, Wilbur Thomas) "a Christian message of goodwill...."

A number of fascinating individuals come alive in the pages of Constructive Spirit, particularly the imperious and irrepressible Nancy Babb, a one-woman relief and development agency who practically rebuilt the community infrastructure in a hard-hit district of 43 villages and 63,000 people, and who "had a reputation," according to the authors, "of being hard to work with." Anna Haines, the meticulous and thoughtful co-leader of Quaker relief activities in Russia, provides a study in contrast; thanks to her careful notes, we learn much about the daily realities of the work, the persistent diplomacy required, and the visions of the field staff for their ongoing work in Russia.

Some of the behind-the-scenes incidents in this book illustrate perennial dilemmas for emergency relief and development work. The complicated personal relationship between American Friends Service Committee chairman Rufus Jones and American Relief Administration director (and later U.S. president) Herbert Hoover affected more than one dilemma of the time. First of all, Friends were properly concerned to remain clear of government entanglements. Secondly, in the USA, much of the financial support for Russian relief came from leftist and progressive groups, while Hoover and many other leading Friends of the time had no sympathy for such groups. And, thirdly, these complications in turn sometimes aggravated relationships between the British and American service bodies. Constructive Spirit also details the lively discussions between those advocating concrete relief-oriented services and those who advocated a more spiritually-oriented Quaker center or "Quaker Embassy" approach to the ministry of presence.

Sergei Nikitin, formerly on the staff of Friends House Moscow, contributes a helpful introductory chapter to Constructive Spirit.

Ultimately, Quaker efforts to play a role in Russian reconstruction could not make a lasting transition from emergency conditions to long-term ministry. Home-country Quaker politics (and perhaps a consequent failure of vision) and shifting policies in the Soviet Union combined to bring even a nominal Friends international presence in Russia to an end by 1931, not to be revived on an ongoing basis until the establishment of Friends House Moscow only a decade ago.
Our guide at the local museum yesterday looked directly at us and said, "The Quakers saved us. If it weren't for them, we simply would have died." Earlier, guiding us through the exhibit of photos and documents, she said, "They must have been brave people: they came to a frigid country they didn't know, and immediately cared for everyone, including children with typhus and who knows what other diseases."

The photos were indescribably awful--they included people who simply died on the street from starvation, too weak to make it home, and the frozen corpses of people left in the cemetery, waiting for spring to be buried. As one of the museum visitors pointed out, it is almost impossible to convey the depth of the suffering during such famines. One piece of wisdom from an earlier famine was passed along through the generations: after boiling leather for about eight hours, it becomes edible.

I left with a flood of impressions from that museum, which covered the history of Buzuluk from prehistory to the present day. Aside from the exhibits of the famine and refugee crises that brought Friends to Buzuluk, one of the exhibits stood out as especially moving: the story of the September 1954 military exercise at Totskoe Military Site, not far from Buzuluk. Over 45,000 people took part in this exercise, including condemned criminals; the centerpiece of the exercise was the dropping of a 45-kiloton nuclear bomb. For many years, the catastrophic aftereffects of this exercise were deliberately concealed. (Russian language readers, start here: Тотский полигон.)

We cannot begin to say anything particularly perceptive about today's Buzuluk after only 40 hours, but we can promise to look, listen, and appreciate!

See also:
To see light more clearly
Return to Buzuluk
Memories of Buzuluk

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

how interesting this was! of course i knew none of it. :/

to me, it's interesting how personalities and issues revolving around interpersonal difficulty can still be worked around to bring good in the world. we all have a place and a purpose, i guess. those of us with gentle natures and those of us with more thorny dispositions.

omgplz on the leather thing. like, ew.

Jeremiah said...

So much of modern Russian history is just mind-numbing in its horror, cruelty and folly. We need to know about it and reflect on it before self-righteously wagging our fingers at the Russians for not being like good Europeans or Americans. Thank you for keeping us informed.

Johan said...

Anon and Jeremiah--thanks for your comments. We're back now, trying to digest some of the most intense few days I've ever experienced.

Donna said...

This is so interesting--I'm abysmally ignorant of both Russian history and Quaker history. What a terribly sad time in their history, and what an amazing comment from the museum guide that the Quakers had saved them!
Donna from EW Friends

Johan said...

Donna! Great to hear from you. Please say hi to Ener. That comment about "we were saved by Quakers" was echoed by other local people later in the week.

Arnost Rusek said...

My mother was born in 1923, in Buzuluk, shortly after the end of the famine - had she been born only a year earlier, she would not make it. I learned about the famine just two years ago, prior to my visit to Buzuluk. I visted Buzuluk museum - there i learned that The famine, and the perpetrators, are not forgotten by the people of Buzuluk.
I am greatefull that the history is publishet, evn if it hounds me sometimes.
Arnost Rusek, Sweden