By Sergei Nikitin, translated by Suzanne Eade Roberts. Quacks Books, 2022. 385 pages. $15/paperback; $14.99/eBook.
Reviewing Friends and Comrades was a challenge for me, as we currently witness Ukrainians fighting for their homeland, livelihoods, and families against Russian invading forces. It challenged my ability to recognize the Light of God in everyone. However, in reflection, the current environment helped me empathize with Friends in the early twentieth century as they also struggled to live their values while helping Russians who were suffering under an increasingly oppressive communist system. With no political motives or religious evangelization—only the desire to live their values and help fellow human beings—the Quakers were the only foreign aid organization allowed by the Bolsheviks to work in Russia at the time.
Originally published in Russian in 2020, Friends and Comrades is a multilayered story. First, it is a well-researched chronology of British and U.S. Quakers during the post-WWI period of 1916–1931 as they provided food and medical aid to a starving Russian population adjusting to the new Bolshevik regime. Next, it is an insightful look at the logistic, political, and personal struggles of Friends establishing and implementing an international aid program. Finally, it is a glimpse into the spiritual struggle of Friends living their values under the constant skepticism of a paranoid political system.
Many years ago, while visiting Friends House in London, the author Sergei Nikitin first heard about the Quakers’ work in Buzuluk, Russia, from Bill Chadkirk, who was then the head of Quaker International Social Projects, a program of Britain Yearly Meeting. (Chadkirk passed away in 2021.) Since that time, Nikitin has dedicated many hours to researching the British and American Friends work through travels and discussions with historians and locals in Russia, as well as accessing archives from places like the State Archive of the Russian Federation, Friends House in London, and American Friends Service Committee. For those Friends interested in Quaker history, this book is a wealth of information, including personal diary accounts and letters, news article references, and appendices with names and timelines. If the first sentence in the preface doesn’t keep you reading (“You know they even had a poster in Soviet Russia which said, ‘Learn to work like the Quakers do.’”), you will certainly be hooked by the account of Quaker aid worker Anna Haines as she is summoned to talk with the Soviet secret police.
Establishing and implementing an aid program takes people driven by a cause, political savvy, and financial support. Nikitin delivers an inspiring account of how British and American Friends managed to accomplish this during two challenging periods in history. The first period was from 1916 to 1919, during the lead-up to the Bolshevik Revolution and directly following World War I; and the second was from 1920 to 1931, during a deeper-rooted Soviet Communist regime. The conditions for Russian peasants and refugees during these times were severe: little food, clothing, or medical care. Many of these resources had been diverted to the war front or seized by the Bolshevik regime. Nikitin’s account transports you to the grim situation facing Friends as they arrive in and around Buzuluk and the Samara region. The Quakers established food and clothing distribution; medical facilities; and homes and schools for orphaned children, as well as education and equipment for farming and production of some basic goods. In the end, these efforts saved thousands of Russians. In 1995, Nikitin traveled to Buzuluk, where he interviewed a number of older individuals who still remembered the Quakers: “We were dying because there was nothing to eat. But it was foreigners who saved us: Americans and British people. They gave us food: it was their rations which saved us from death.”
It was a spiritual struggle to live out Quaker values in Soviet Russia. Peacefulness, nonviolence, honesty, and candor are values Friends pursue in their daily lives; did these values make them naïve to deceptive political propaganda? During the twentieth century, the term “useful idiots” was used to describe people who believed they were doing good but were actually being used as puppets by the Bolsheviks to further the regime’s political stronghold. If you’re not familiar with Quakers, you might easily jump to that conclusion. However, Nikitin points out that even for Friends today, both the belief that good conquers evil and the belief in “the good, noble work of saving people dying from starvation” are viewed as leadings to live Quaker values regardless of the political environment. To pursue these leadings, Friends had to work with the Bolsheviks, but in the end, Quaker values had a lasting impression on the Russian people for more than a generation.
Nikitin mentions in his introduction that while he was growing up during the Cold War, he was inspired by stories with peaceful light: positive, uplifting stories that contrasted with the suspicion and hostility of the times. Friends and Comrades is his story of peaceful light, about individuals whose sole interest was helping to relieve the suffering of others. Undoubtedly, the story of these Friends will inspire you, just as they inspired the Russians during the early twentieth century.
Steve Jenkins is an energy industry professional with interests in Eastern European cultures, languages, and economic development. He is a member of Live Oak Meeting in Houston, Tex.