Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Quakers Visit Russia (1951)

I have come across this book about a Quaker goodwill and fact-finding mission to Soviet Russia in July 1951.  It was published by the East-West Relations Group of the Friends' Peace Committee. It is of double interest to me as the visit was in my birth month and my father was a lifelong atheist communist who would have viewed Quakers as well-meaning bourgeois dupes of the imperialists.  The visit took place while Joseph Stalin was the Soviet leader and at the time of the Korean War and the growing tension between East and West which began after the end of World War II and endured until the collapse of the Soviet Empire (but which seems to have revived with the emergence of Vladimir Putin as a new Russian strongman).

The Quaker delegation had met the UK Foreign Secretary, Herbert Morrison, prior to departure but their mission was neither officially sponsored nor discouraged. The mission carried a message of goodwill to all men (sic), which had been issued in 1950 and appealed for the avoidance of words and deeds that increased suspicion and ill-feeling, for renewed efforts at understanding and for positive attempts to build a true peace.

The mission was made up of very weighty Friends.  It included the editor of the book, the scientist Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-71), who had earlier in her career been imprisoned for conscientious objection (see 24.15 of QF&P); Paul Cadbury, a member of the Cadbury family, who had been chairman of Birmingham’s house building committee; Margaret Backhouse, a lecturer in psychology; Mildred Creak, a child psychiatrist; and Frank Edmead, a reporter on the Manchester Guardian.    One wonders whether Quakers today put together a delegation of such quality, to include scientists, academics, writers, experienced peace workers and public administrators.

Once in the USSR, the visitors were conducted to some extent but also freely wandered on their own.  Relations with their interpreters were frank but friendly.  The delegation did not see, though asked about, the gulags and prison camps, and would have been unaware of the persecutions that Stalin had resumed after the Great Patriotic War, during which he had largely stopped murdering Russian people because he could leave it to the Nazis to do so.

The delegation were as interested in the religious as in the political situation in Russia.  They met the Russian Orthodox and Baptist-Evangelical communities.  The officially sanctioned churches were strong in their denunciations of the western powers, the Vatican and 'the handful of blood-thirsty Anglo-American businessmen who seek to warm their hands over the fire of a new war'.  The Quakers enjoyed the vibrant religious life they encountered but disapproved of the vituperative tone of the official churches' contradictory preaching of peace for Russia and hatred of the west.  The delegation also disapproved of the display of posters depicting western leaders (including the British Prime Minister of the day, Clement Atlee) as warmongers.  The Quakers pointed out to their hosts that, while the Quakers themselves opposed war, Western leaders were freely elected, represented their people and reflected their fears and suspicions.  The Russian hosts could see no need for opposition media or opposition politicians as the country was united, the delegation was told.  Their hosts were baffled by the Quaker practice of peace-building and reconciliation.  While upholding western, democratic values, the delegation learned to be very patient and very sincere. 

On Sunday 22 July, while my mother was being delivered of a twin boy and girl in London's Whittington Hospital, the delegation were visiting the Molotov collective farm outside Kiev, with mixed feelings because they were aware of the ruthlessness with which Ukrainian land had been collectivised.

The visitors were particularly interested in the official peace movement in Russia, which stood against western intervention in Korea (but of course ignored the part that Stalin was playing there).  The delegation concluded that the official peace movement, while suiting the agenda of the communist authorities, reflected a sincere belief that the West meant to attack them and had a ‘genuine core and a genuine potential for peace […] which it is neither right nor sensible to ignore’.  In this refreshingly uncynical approach, the Quaker party helped pave the way to eventual arms control negotiations.

The visitors found much that was wrong or misguided in the policies and practices of the Soviet Union but that there had been solid progress towards economic and social betterment in the mass of the people.  They found the shops were crammed with goods of all kinds, which was more than I found when I visited in 1984, but the concept of political liberty was alien.  Their main concern was whether or not the official peace campaign was genuine.  Their conclusion was that the Russian people were afraid that the West intended to attack and destroy their country, because of the power of vested interests in Government and business circles.  The Russian people were encouraged to believe this by their press and leaders.

I am very impressed by the quality of discernment in this book and the calibre of the delegation, who conducted an open-minded quest for information untrammelled by prejudice in favour or against their Soviet host.  There was a willingness to see that there are many sides to a story and to present findings in a cautious and moderate tone.  There is no incoherent anger or prejudice. It needs to be said in fairness to the delegation's hosts that the Russians showed themselves willing to engage in dialogue while strenuously defending their own position.  The visit was an example of peace-building at its best and a contrast to the politics of protest which, for some Quakers these days, is the entire content of the peace testimony. The skill of the 1951 delegation and the knowledge gained thereby helped build, if not warm relations between West and East, then at least a recognition that honest contact over shared issues was possible.  The Quakers' visit to Russia was a model example of the peace testimony in action. 

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