Update from Friends House Moscow

Barbara Forbes reports on participation in Friends House Moscow (FHM) Board Meeting in November 2019.

Quakers’ links to Russia go back to the 17th century, when Tsar Peter I (“the Great”) visited London, met some local Friends and attended Meeting for Worship. The appendix to this report outlines briefly how those links developed, leading to the present situation where there are two worship groups in Moscow plus Friends House Moscow. FHM is a charitable collaboration between Friends in the UK, USA and elsewhere in Europe, and does not have any official connection with Moscow Monthly Meeting. 

The work of FHM is carried out by two members of staff, Natasha and Sergei, and overseen by an International Board whose membership stretches from the USA, the UK, Brussels and Germany across to Moscow. This makes meetings difficult and expensive. There is one face-to-face meeting in Moscow, usually in the autumn, and Zoom meetings in between.

I had been interested in the work of FHM for some time before being approached last spring about joining the Board. Although my appointment was not confirmed until the Board meeting in November, I took part in one of the Zoom meetings in the summer and also started learning how to help with the production of the newsletter, which I think will be one of my main contributions to the work.

FHM conducts outreach by translating Quaker (and Quaker-ish) books into Russian – these are available to download on the Russian-language website, and a few are also published in paper format. The texts range from George Fox’s Journal to Patrick Gale’s “Notes from an Exhibition”. One of the most recent additions has been William Penn’s “Fruits of Solitude.” One of their translations is of Helen Steven’s Swarthmore Lecture “No Extraordinary Power”, and when I mentioned that Helen had been a good friend of mine, I was promptly asked to write a personal introduction to the book for them to translate. They contribute items to the Russian Wikipedia, write a regular blog with short articles about Quakerism, and manage their presence on two social media sites. FHM staff member Natasha is co-clerk of the international network Quakers Uniting in Publication.

For several years they have also been running an experimental outreach project called “Meditation of Friends”, which introduces people to spiritual meditation using materials in accordance with Quaker values and practice. It is not advertised or run as a religious or Quaker group, but enquirers ask about Quakers if they are interested. The running costs of this project are supported by FWCC/EMES.

As well as all this, they aim to support local groups and individuals who work for peace and non-violence and otherwise to improve the lives of their fellow-citizens. This is done by providing grants towards projects and sometimes by giving “seed money” to enable a project to begin. These projects include Alternative to Violence workshops, support for conscientious objectors (including the administration of the website which has taken over from the long-standing newspaper “Alternativshchik”), work with refugee children, and English classes for young people brought up in orphanages. Details of all these and more are on the website www.friendshousemoscow.org .

The office itself consists of a large room in a small modern office block accessed through a small local shopping mall on the eastern outskirts of the city. This is where we held our formal meetings (with Zoom participation from some members who couldn’t make it in person), during which we received the staff annual report, set the budget for the next year, and considered applications for grants from projects including some interesting initiatives around conscientious objection and alternative service, and research into the history of pacifism in Russia. We also attended the Wednesday “Meditation of Friends”, the Saturday Meeting for Worship, and visited two of the projects.

The first project we visited was at “Big Change” – this is a charity which has now been in existence for 17 years to support the social rehabilitation and education of young people who have been brought up in state orphanages. Being brought up in an institution often leads to psychological problems and gaps in education, so “Big Change” provides the opportunity to study for exams and also offers the “English Club”, which is the project supported by FHM. The organisation had just moved to new premises, provided free of charge by the city council of Moscow, and we had to visit in the afternoon while it was still daylight, as the electricity hadn’t yet been connected. In amongst all the unpacking of boxes we could see for ourselves the wide range of subjects taught, and we met a young man who had himself been brought up in an orphanage and who, with the support of “Big Change” had passed his exams and was now studying psychology at university. He still comes to take part in the English lessons and he bravely spoke to us about his experiences.

The “Kids are Kids” project at the Centre for Integration for Refugees and Migrants provides education, social and emotional support for children of all ages who are unable to attend school because they lack registration documents. From the director of the project, I discovered that there is a real problem with trafficking of women from sub-Saharan Africa, who arrive in Moscow as undocumented asylum-seekers and who, without documents, are unable to access any official support whatsoever. It is estimated that there are around 50,000 such families in Moscow alone. There are play and socialisation sessions for the youngest children, right up to classes for teenagers. The project also works with documented migrants and refugees who have been unable to find school places, and we saw maths lessons for teenagers and an introduction to the Russian alphabet for two Syrian teenage sisters. This is admirable and necessary work but it is difficult to know what the future holds for these children, as the recognition rate for even documented asylum-seekers is only around 3%. The director hopes that they will soon be able to introduce Russian lessons for the mothers of the children who attend. The work of the Centre provides support from teachers and psychologists for around 100 families. 

Friends House Moscow maintains its impressive work and witness on a very tight budget, and therefore requires the Board members to pay their own way for travel, visa and accommodation costs. I am grateful to Bull Street Meeting for their generous support for my participation at the 2019 meeting.

Appendix – a brief outline of Quaker links to Russia

Quakers’ links to Russia go back to the 17th century, when Tsar Peter I (“the Great”) visited London, met some local Friends and attended Meeting for Worship. In the 18th century, Empress Catherine II  brought a Quaker doctor from Britain to Russia to inoculate herself, her son, and her grandchildren against smallpox. In 1814, when one of those grandchildren, Tsar Alexander I, visited London, he received Friends warmly, prayed with them, “fully assented” to their peace testimony, and attended several Meetings for Worship. He invited them to visit Russia, and subsequently received William Allen and Stephen Grellett to promote education and prison reform. In 1817, he then called upon a Quaker engineer Daniel Wheeler to supervise the draining of the marshes around St Petersburg; the Wheeler family lived there for 30 years and Daniel’s wife and daughter are buried in a graveyard on the outskirts of the city. In the 19th century, Friends worked with Tolstoy, whose daughter-in-law became a member of the Society.

In the 19th century, British and American Friends gave considerable help during the Volga famine of the 1890s, work which continued during and after World War One and the revolutions and Civil War between 1916 and the mid-20s. In 1921 alone, they were providing famine relief to over 200,000 people. This work was overseen from a small office in Moscow, which maintained its cooperation with the new Soviet authorities until 1931. It became the last representative of any Western religious organisation in Moscow during that time .

Quakers made formal visits to the Soviet Union in 1930, 1948 and 1949. From 1950 onwards, British and American Friends had some success in expanding links and contacts with official Soviet organisations. In the 1980s, contacts became easier.

The present Moscow Monthly Meeting grew out of a small local group which began to meet in Moscow in the manner of Friends in the late 1980s. Meetings took place in the home of one of the members, but after the fall of the Soviet Union the meeting outgrew this vanue and moved to larger and more public quarters. Quaker Peace and Service appointed Moscow Representatives in 1991 and American Friends also became involved, including Alaska Yearly Meeting Friends who began pastoral visits to eastern Siberia. A small group of Friends from the USA (Pacific YM) and QPS met regularly to establish Quaker roots and durable procedures, and Friends House Moscow finally opened on 1st January 1996.

There are two worship groups in Moscow and small numbers of Quakers scattered elsewhere – these Friends come under the oversight of Friends World Committee for Consultation, Europe and Middle East Section (FWCC/EMES).