The fact that there are paintings by Ivan Aivazovsky banned in Russia even today clearly shows that both the political and cultural approach in that country hasn’t changed over the past century or so.
Russia has attempted to hide some of the pages of its history. However, as they say, you can’t throw the words out of the song…
Historically, the Russian people often and heavily had to starve. Not because there were not enough grain stocks but because the rulers of Russia for their own benefit robbed the people down to complete impoverishment.
One of such forbidden pages of history was the famine that swept the South and the Volga region of the country in 1891-92. Americans even gathered food supplies and sent them to Russia via five steamboats.
An “unexpected” disaster in Russia
No matter how hard the political scientists tried to blame the famine of 1891–92 on adverse weather conditions, the main problem was the state’s bread policy. Replenishing the treasury at the expense of agricultural resources, Russia annually exported huge amounts of wheat.
So, in the first famine year, 3.5 million tons of bread were exported from the country. The following year, when the famine and epidemics were already rampant in the empire, the Russian government and entrepreneurs sold 6.6 million tons of grain to Europe.
These facts are shocking. And the fact that the Russian Emperor categorically denied the presence of any famine in Russia is plain terrifying.
The ruling monarch Alexander III commented on the food situation in the country as follows: “I have no starving people, there are only victims of crop failure.”
In the meantime, entire villages were dying out…
The diary of Count V.N. Lamsdorf reads:
“The tone taken in the highest circles in relation to the disasters of hunger proves that they are completely unaware of the situation, and, in fact, do not sympathize with either the unfortunate people who suffer these disasters or with the compassionate people trying to support them”.
The situation in the country was catastrophic, and this terrible news crossed Europe and reached America. The American public led by William Edgar, the editor of the North Western Miller weekly, offered humanitarian aid to Russia. However, the emperor hesitated with giving permission and only after some time allowed to feed the starving Russian people.
Russian writer Count Lev Tolstoy described the situation in the villages at that time:
“People and cattle really die. But they do not writhe in the squares in tragic convulsions: instead, they quietly and with a weak groan fall ill and die in huts and yards… Before our eyes, there is a constant process of impoverishment of the rich, impoverishment of the poor, and the destruction of the poor…
In moral terms, there is a decline in the spirit and an increase in all the worst qualities of a person – theft, anger, envy, begging, and irritation – supported by the measures prohibiting any relocation of the people… The healthy weaken, and the weak, especially the elderly and children, die prematurely and painfully.”
Collection of humanitarian relief for the starving Russians by Americans
The movement was organized and supervised by the philanthropist W. Edgar who in the summer of 1891 published his first articles in his journal, telling about the famine that had begun in Russia. In addition, he sent about 5.000 letters to grain traders in the north asking for help.
Through the media, Edgar reminded his fellow citizens that during the Civil War of 1862–63, the Russian fleet provided invaluable assistance to America. Back then, distant Russia had sent two military squadrons to the shores of their country.
At that time, there indeed was a real threat from England and France who at any time could come to the aid of the Southerners. However, the Russian flotilla stood by the American coast for about seven months, and the British and the French did not dare to get involved in a conflict with Russia. This helped the Northerners win the civil war.
The appeal of the American activist found a response in the hearts of his fellow citizens, and donations began everywhere. The campaign was carried out unofficially and on a voluntary basis since the government of America did not approve of this gesture of friendly assistance, but it could not prohibit it either.
After all, between the superpowers, there always has been both an ideological and political-economic struggle. In addition, the increased competition in the global bread market had its own role. Surprisingly, despite the raging famine in the country, Russian tycoons continued to send grain for export, which strongly opposed the financial interests of America.
But be that as it may, the Americans were not cooled by the negative attitude of their government, and the movement under the slogan “This is not a political issue, this is a question of humanity” continued. All of America became engaged in the charity for the starving Russians.
Representatives of all layers of the American society participated in the campaign: “farmers and millers, bankers and religious figures, owners of railway and sea transport lines, telegraph companies, newspapers and magazines, government officials, students and teachers of higher and secondary educational institutions, journalists, workers and employees.”
However, ordinary Americans who donated food to the charity bit by bit couldn’t have known that the warehouses with export grain in Russia had been packed to their capacity, and that the grain was being prepared for shipment to European markets.
The arrival of the relief in Russia
The three northern states and the Red Cross Society have been bringing food relief to the seaports of America for several months. By the end of winter, the first two ships loaded with flour and grain departed for distant Russia.
And in early spring of 1892, steamboats with the valuable cargo arrived in the ports of the Baltic states. On one of the ships was the organizer of the charity campaign William Edgar.
He had gone through a lot before firsthand seeing the fruit of his work. In Russia, he would see the pomp of the northern capital and the famine in the provinces, the unfair distribution of the collected relief, and the godless theft of American food in ports. The American’s amazement and indignation knew no bounds.
But be that as it may, since the beginning of the spring to the middle of the summer, five ships with the relief worth about $1 million and weighing more than 10 thousand tons have arrived in Russia.
The future emperor of Russia Nicholas II wrote then: “We are all deeply touched by the fact that ships full of food come to us from America.”
However, in the near future, the Russian government tried to completely forget about this gesture of fraternal assistance.
Aivazovsky – an eyewitness of the historical event
No matter how Russian politicians try to belittle and cover with oblivion this friendly gesture from one people to another, there still exist many documents and unusual artistic testimonies depicted on the canvases by an eyewitness artist.
The first transport ships from Indiana and Missouri – the so-called Hunger Fleet – with a cargo of food arrived in the ports of Libau and Riga. Russian-Armenian painter Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky personally witnessed the receiving of the ships with the long-awaited cargo that would help overcome the catastrophic situation in the country.
In the ports of the Baltic Sea, the steamboats were met with orchestras, and wagons with the food were driven on roads decorated with American and Russian flags. This event impressed the artist so much that he, filled with gratitude and hope, captured it on two of his canvases: “The Help Ship” and “Food Distribution”.
Particularly impressive is the painting “Food Distribution”. In it, we see the Russian troika of horses loaded with food. On the cart is a peasant proudly waving an American flag. The villagers in response are waving handkerchiefs and hats, and some, falling onto the roadside dust, pray to God and give praise to America for their help. We see an extraordinary joy, delight, and impatience of a hungry people.
These paintings would be categorically forbidden to be shown at any public exhibition in Russia. The emperor was irritated by the mood of the people conveyed on the artistic canvases. And they also served as a reminder of his worthlessness and insolvency that had thrown the country into the abyss of the famine.
Aivazovsky in America
Aivazovsky at the turn of 1892-1893 arrived in America and brought with him the paintings that were so disliked by the Russian authorities. During this visit, the painter presented his works as a token of gratitude for the American aid to the Washington Corcoran Gallery. From 1961 to 1964, these canvases have been exhibited at the White House at the initiative of Jacqueline Kennedy.
In 1979, they ended up in a private collection in Pennsylvania and for many years were hidden from the public. In 2008, at the Sotheby auction, both of Aivazovsky‘s historical paintings were sold for $2.4 million to one philanthropist who would immediately transfer the paintings to the Corcoran Gallery in Washington.
I would like to add to all of the above – these canvases painted by the artist in 1892 are still banned in modern Russia. And who knows, if Aivazovsky’s paintings had stayed in Russia, maybe the Russians would have retained a feeling of friendly gratitude towards the Americans.