The Russian Review/Volume 1/May 1916/Russia's War Refugees

Russia's War Refugees  (1916) 
A Russian Observer

Russia's War Refugees.

By A Russian Observer.

In the history of the present War, unparalleled in its terrors and sacrifices, there is not another page so replete with horrors as that which records the story of Russia's war refugees. It may be compared only with the recital of the wholesale slaughter of Armenians in Turkey. In both cases, thousands of peaceful, innocent people were destroyed in the midst of revoltingly cruel armed conflicts.

Beginning with the spring of 1915, War has continued to drive thousands of refugees from Poland, the Baltic Provinces and the governments of Northwest Russia into the interior of the country. Their number has reached three millions, or according to some estimates, even seven millions. About a half million of them were forced by military authorities to leave the territory around the fortresses and near the frontiers. Others left voluntarily the towns and villages occupied by the German and Austrian troops, and these streams of unfortunate refugees, rendered mad by their fear, began to flow away from the sections of the country over which the war's conflagration was burning brighter and brighter.

From that time on, two new words were added to the Russian language; these were vyselentsy, or those who are forced to leave, and biezhentsy, or those who flee voluntarily. These words are met constantly in the columns of the Russian press, for the enormous masses of people that suddenly flooded the interior provinces of Russia still constitute a tremendous problem for the whole country. All of Russia is now covered with a veritable network of committees, organized by the national government and the local governmental institutions in provinces, ouyezds, cities, Zemstvos, for the purpose of solving the problem of the fugitives. The Ministry of the Interior has organized a special department for the removal of refugees. A Special Conference has been called to consider the problem of the refugees, and this Conference is presided over by the Assistant Minister of the Interior. A bill has been introduced in the Douma, in which attempts are made to solve a whole series of problems connected with the distribution of the refugees. The government has appropriated 25,000,000 roubles for this purpose.

The orders providing for the removal of thousands of people from the war zone, issued by the military authorities, made it imperative for these unfortunates to leave within twenty-four hours. Terror-stricken and utterly helpless, they were compelled to sell all their property, or simply leave it behind them, as they rushed to follow every available road that led to the nearest place of safety. Thousands of women, children, and old men lost their lives in this flight, which usually proceeded amidst conflagration and deafening cannonade. Parents lost their children, husbands became separated from their wives; the confusion was endless. The rich and the poor became converted into one crowd of ragged, hungry refugees, almost wild with suffering and privation. It is impossible to describe the horrors of the hasty preparations for leaving, and the flight itself. Neither the government, nor the people were prepared for this misfortune, which suddenly overwhelmed the country. The orders concerning the evacuation were absolute and permitted no delay; yet along the routes of the flight there were no sanitary or provision stations. Many of the refugees went mad, and a large number of them died on the way. In the course of a short time, several carloads of infants were brought to Moscow. They were picked up along the roads traversed by the fugitives and belonged to mothers who could not be found.

The territory from which these refugees came was quite considerable in extent. Not only the governments actually occupied by the Teutonic troops, but also those which were merely threatened with invasion, gave their quota of refugees. To the first class belonged parts of Galicia, Poland, the governments of Grodno, Vilna, Kovno, Courland, the western part of Minsk, Liefland, and Volyn. The second class comprised the governments of Podolia, Bessarabia, Vitebsk, Pskov, and parts of Kiev. Quite apart from the others is the southern part of Transcaucasia and Turkish Armenia, which furnished a considerable number of refugees. The United Committee of the Municipal and Zemstvo Unions, the work of which is devoted to the problem of the distribution of the refugees, has estimated that by November, 1915, the number of people who had already settled down reached 2,267,274. Of this number, 328,819 settled in large cities, while the rest were distributed through the rural sections and the smaller cities and towns. Some of the governments contain enormous numbers of refugees. Thus, the government of Ekaterinoslav has 250,000; that of Samara has 204,000; that of Tambov has 155,000; that of Kharkov has 121,000; that of Saratov has 117,000.

The total number of refugees is, of course, considerably higher than the estimate of the United Committee. The data collected by the Committee covers the period only up to the beginning of November, while the movement of refugees continued all through the month of November and well into December. Moreover, the data of the Committee does not include those refugees who did not apply to it for aid, and there were many such, especially in cities. Thus, in Petrograd, the Committee's estimate of the number of refugees is 31,000, while the number shown by the last municipal census is 84,000. Finally, the statistics of the Committee do not include at all the refugees who are now in Siberia, Finland and Caucasus, as well as in the following eight governments: Archangel, Volyn, Kiev, Liefland, Minsk, Olonetsk, Pskov, and Estland. Yet reports from these parts of the country indicate that there are large numbers of refugees in the above territory. For example, in Riga there were over 50,000 refugees at the beginning of November. Towards the end of November, the Zemstvo Union provided food for over 40,000 refugees daily in the woods of Volhynia. The last municipal census in Minsk showed a population of 250,000, as compared with 120,000 before the War. As regards Siberia, the number of refugees that passed through the city of Cheliabinsk alone, during the first eleven months of 1915, was 164,590. Over 20,000 German colonists were sent to the Turgaisk district. Finally, in the Caucasus, in July, 1915, there were over 260,000 Armenian refugees, who fled to the Government of Erivan, etc. If we add to this that the movement of refugees continues even to the present time, we come to the conclusion that the total number of refugees in Russia is over 3,000,000, not counting those who lost their lives on the way.

The following data has been gathered concerning the nationalistic grouping of this immense number of fugitives. The Lithuanian committee estimates the number of Lithuanian refugees at 300,000. The Jewish committee estimates those that are in need of public support at over 350,000. The Lettish committee places the number of their nationality at 250.000. There is no definite information as to the number of Poles, Ukrainians, and Russians proper, who were forced to flee from the zone of military operations. The indications are, however, that the majority of these are Russians. Thus, according to the statistics gathered by the Ministry of the Interior, the number of refugees who were out of work in October, 1915, was 225,000, of whom 142,000 were Russian, 35,000, Poles, 10,000, Germans, 10,000, Jews, 5,000, Lithuanians and Letts, etc.

Among the purely nationalistic organizations for rendering aid to the refugees, the most extended work is being accomplished by the Jewish committees. On November 8, 1915, a conference of Jewish engineers and "technologues" was held at Petrograd, and the question of the refugees was discussed there. It appeared from the report presented to the conference that by November 1, 1915, one hundred and forty-three Jewish committees were engaged, in all parts of the country, in the task of registering the refugees. Moreover, one hundred and sixty-one special committees were organized for the purpose of rendering aid. By November 3, 1915, the number of refugees who received aid from these committees reached 155,000. The money expended by the committee before that date amounted to 3,500,000.

The work of the All-Russian Zemstvo and Municipal Unions in rendering aid to the refugees has been truly enormous. These powerful organizations are, generally, doing efficient work in every phase of Russian life connected with the War. As for the co-operative organizations, we should keep in mind the fact that they are strong especially in the rural districts, in the villages and small towns, where, as we have already seen, over 85 per cent of the fugitives have setlled. These co-operative organizations, which comprise almost sixty million people, or one third of the country's population, are perhaps the most active force in rendering aid to the millions of bereaved and impoverished.

From what we have said, it is evident that the problem of the refugees is a very complicated and a very difficult one for Russia. Its difficulties are not lessened by the fact that Russia is rich in social forces whose activity towards a solution of the problem is enthusiastic, indeed. And it must be said that the progress heretofore achieved has been quite satisfactory under the circumstances.

But there is another phase of this problem which is of interest not to Russia alone, but to the United States as well. A very large proportion of the Russian emigration to the United States proceeded precisely from those portions of the Russian Empire which are now in the hands of the Germans, and from which came the bulk of the refugees. It was from Poland and the territory of the Jewish Pale that there came a very large per cent of the Russians now in the United States, and the fate of the refugees who fled from this territory is a matter of very vital concern to almost every Russian immigrant here.

The Russian colony in America numbers several millions. During the decade from 1899 to 1908, the number of immigrants that came here from Russia was 1,441,883. In 1909, the number of arrivals was 120,460; in 1910, it was 186,702. This flood of immigration continued to flow incessantly up to the very beginning of the War. At the present time, there are in the United States and Canada over 300,000 Russians proper, over 1,000,000 Poles, about 3,000,000 Jews, besides people of other nationalities.

These millions of people are connected by ties of blood with millions of unfortunate inhabitants of the Western part of Russia, who were forced to leave their homes and seek safety in the interior of the country. Some of them have not heard from their kin for months at a time, sometimes for over a year. A New York Bureau, organized for the purpose of obtaining information concerning the present whereabouts of the refugees, receives hundreds of letters, and these letters are full of most pitiful entreaty. A peasant from Volhynia, now living in Connecticut, writes: "I left a wife and four children in the village of Pisuchonty. Is this territory occupied by the Germans? I have sent two letters, one a registered one, and have no reply." Another peasant, from the government of Minsk, writes: "I left Russia in 1913, and my wife and my two daughters remained. Now I know that our village has been destroyed by the Germans. Is there any way of finding out where my family is now? All the letters I write bring no reply."—"How I wish I could find my of Vilna, "I have not heard from them or about them since the beginning of the War. Yet I am very anxious to know whether they are still alive, so that I may help them."

If some means could be found whereby the Russian immigrants in the United States could get in touch with those of their relatives who have been compelled to flee from their old homes and who were supported largely by the help from their relatives here, both sides would feel a great relief. At least one phase of the complicated problem, the Russian-American part of it, would be near a satisfactory solution.