British Humanitarian Activity in Russia, 1890-1923

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Luke Kelly
  • London, UK: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , December
     220 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Famine relief and humanitarian assistance have sadly become an important part of modern society—to the point of supposed donor fatigue. The Russian food emergencies of 1891 and 1922 were early incidents of humanitarian crisis and, with British Humanitarian Activity in Russia, 1890-1923, Luke Kelly examines the reasons for the British public’s attention to, and support for, political causes that sought the freeing of Russia and its minorities from the political grip of the autocracy. Kelly’s work is a well-researched and informative account of the British responses to these issues. Although Russia is the object charted here and there are reflections of its image in different areas of British society, yet, apart from a few insightful asides, Kelly’s work primarily examines the British history, not the Russian.

Unsurprisingly, Quakers figure prominently in the three case studies that make up the volume, although Jewish charities are also explored. While Kelly’s research questions seem to examine the public’s underlying motivations, issues such as public perception, or rather misperception, of Russia deliver the most striking outcomes. There is a valuable display of interacting topics, including various nuances in Christian solidarity, political influence being brought to bear at home, avoidance of embarrassment to Her Majesty’s Government—and in Russia—the arrest of aid workers as suspected spies or agitators, and the nature of humanitarian impulses are all embedded in a richly-detailed text. The agonising concern of prioritising relief is addressed: feed the children and produce a generation of orphans in a particular region, or feed active adults at the expense of the children and the elderly, hoping they will go on to re-build the devastated lands. 

A comparison between the disjointed, personal, and, in a neutral sense, amateurish approach of British agencies with the ruthless, business-based, hard-bargaining of the American Relief Administration—which did have side lines in spying and cultural acquisition which is not discussed here—is another fascinating and recurring vignette. Kelly concludes that “humanitarian activity was not simply the application of ‘humanitarianism’ to various problems” but developed in a variety of ways derived from transnational and local influences. “The evolution of humanitarianism in this context shows that British, Quaker, liberal, antitsarist and professional humanitarianism need to be understood on their own terms” (216). The evidence certainly supports this conclusion. Relief from Jewish sources ranges from wealthy philanthropy to politically-coloured assistance to radical movements. The British government, engaged in its usual “Great Game Russophobia,” welcomes the poor image of tsarism portrayed by the humanitarians but is wary of opening the doors to refugees and migrants. Democratic liberals follow the radical representation of Russia derived from otherwise alien political sources with sympathy: notably anarchists such as Kropotkin and Tolstoy, revolutionaries such as Burtsev, and terrorists such as Stepniak. Moreover, Quakers, who were essentially pacifist, appeared to have a degree of sympathy for liberationist violence in Russia that would be much less tolerated if it came from, for example, Irish sources. 

Ultimately, British Humanitarian Activity in Russia is very rich in detail yet, if there is a weakness, this detail sometimes appears to overwhelm the analysis in that every effort is made to include as much of the research findings as possible. However, it is good to have such “thick description.” This book is a helpful study for anyone investigating the roots and meaning of British humanitarianism, and the issues examined have resonance down to the present.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Read is Professor of Modern European History at the University of Warwick.

Date of Review: 
February 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Luke Kelly is Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Manchester, UK.


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