By Arthur Ransome
Guardian Unlimited, London
Tuesday, October 11, 1921
We went down to the shore of the Volga, down a rough broken street, past
booths where you could buy white bread, and, not a hundred yards away, found
an old woman cooking horsedung in a broken saucepan. Within sight of the
market was a mass of refugees, men, women, and children, with such
belongings as they had retained in their flight from starvation, still
starving, listlessly waiting for the waggons to move them away to more
fortunate districts. Some of them are sheltered from the rain that is coming
now, too late, by the roofs of open-sided sheds. Others are sitting
hopelessly in the open, not attempting to move, not even begging.
I shall never forget the wizened dead face, pale green of a silently weeping
little girl, whose feet were simply bones over which was stretched dry skin
that looked like blue-black leather. And she was one of hundreds. A
fortnight ago there were twenty thousand waiting beside the quays of Samara.
Every day about 1,400 are taken off in waggons. There are, of course, no
latrines. The beach was black with excreta until, as an eye-witness (not a
Communist) told me, the local Communists arranged a 'Saturdaying' which
deserves a place in history, and themselves removed that disgusting ordure,
and, for a day or two, lessened the appalling stench that is beginning once
more to rise from the beach.
In the morning of the second day we called at one of the sixty "children's
houses" in Samara, so that Ercole could photograph the famine orphans, the
children purposely abandoned in the streets, in the state in which they were
received. The garden, a plain courtyard with a few trees, was full of
children lying in the sun under the wall, staring in silent unchildlike
groups, ragged, half-naked, some with nothing whatever but a shirt. All were
Among these children, a man and a woman were walking about, talking quietly
to them, and carrying sick children into the house, bringing others out.
Ercole had hardly begun to turn the handles of his machine before some of
the children saw us, and, some with fright, some with interest, all
scrambled to their feet, although many of them fell again, and, too weak to
get up, stayed sitting on the ground where they fell. Ercole photographed
them as they were.
Then he picked four little boys and photographed these alone. Wishing to
reward them, he gave them some chocolate before the woman looking after them
had time to stop him. "You must not do it," she said; "they are too hungry."
But it was already too late. All of them who had strength to move were on
top of each other, fighting for the scraps of chocolate like little animals,
with small, weak, animal cries.
That is only one of dozens of such scenes that we witnessed during those two
days in Samara. Samara is one place of hundreds. Everywhere people are
trying to save the children. Nowhere have they the means that we in other
countries have to give what they should be given. And, to the shame of
humanity, there are some in Western Europe who have urged that help should
not be given. Outside the goods station is a huge camp of white tents, a
military camp of the Red Army, handed over bodily by the army authorities
for the use of the refugees.
The refugees have over-flowed from the tents and built more tents, and
wigwams for themselves out of anything that came handy - rags, branches of
trees, pieces of old iron from the railway sidings. Everywhere on the open
ground outside the cemetery, whither every day fresh bodies are carried
('Thirty-five this morning,' a man told us, whose little hut commanded the
entrance to the cemetery), and along the railway line for half a mile or so,
were little camp fires, and people cooking scraps of pumpkin rind, scraps of
horse-dung, here and there scraps of bread and bits of cabbage.
In all that vast crowd there was not one who did not look actually hungry,
and for many mere hunger would be a relief. Among them from tent to tent
walked an unshaven young man with a white forage cap, now nearly black, a
blue shirt and breeches, and no coat. A mechanic who was carrying the camera
tripod for us told me who he was. He was a German, one-time prisoner of war,
now a Communist, and 'for all that,' as my man put it, 'a man of God. He has
stayed since the beginning. He never leaves them. I don't believe he ever
sleeps. Whatever can be got for them he gets it. He has taken and lived
through all their diseases. It is owing to that one man that there is such
order in this place instead of pandemonium. Thousands owe their very lives
to him. If only there were a few more like that.'
I wished to speak to that young German, but, just as I was making my way to
him through the crowd, a little skeleton of a boy pulled at his sleeve and
pointed to a tent behind him. The young man turned aside and disappeared
into the tent. As I walked by the tents, even without going into them, the
smell of dysentery and sickness turned my stomach like an emetic.
A little crowd was gathered beside a couple of wooden huts in the middle of
the camp. I went up there and found that it was a medical station where a
couple of doctors and two heroic women lived in the camp itself fighting
cholera and typhus. The crowd I had noticed were waiting their turns for
vaccination. At first the people had been afraid of it, but already there
was no sort of difficulty in persuading them to take at least this
precaution, though seemingly nothing will ever teach them to keep clean.
The two women brought out a little table covered with a cloth and the usual
instruments, and the crowd already forming into a line pressed forward. I
called to Ercole and he set up his camera. One of the sisters called out
'Lucky ones to-day; vaccination and having your pictures taken at the same
time,' and while the camera worked, those behind urged those in front to be
quick in taking their rags off, and to get on so that they too would be in
time to come into the picture.
There were old men and women, girls and little ragged children. Shirt after
shirt came off, showing ghastly bags of bones, spotted all over with bites
and the loathsome scars of disease. And, dreadful as their condition was,
almost all showed an interest in the camera, while I could not help
reflecting that before the pictures are produced some at least of them will
have left the camp and made their last journey into the cemetery over the
way, the earth of which, as far as you could see, was raw with new-made
In the siding beyond the camp was a refugee train, a sort of rolling
village, inhabited by people who were for the most part in slightly better
condition than the peasants flying at random from the famine. These were
part of the returning wave of that flood of miserable folk who fled
eastwards before the retreating army in 1915 and 1916, and are now uprooted
again and flying westwards again with the whip of hunger behind them. To
understand the full difficulty of Samara's problem it is necessary to
remember the existence of these people who are now being sent back to the
districts or the new States to which they belong.
They have prior right to transport, and, in the present condition of Russian
transport, the steady shifting of these people westwards still further
lessens the means available for moving the immediate victims of the drought.
I walked from one end of the train to the other. It was made up of cattle
trucks, but these trucks were almost like huts on wheels, for in each one
was a definite group of refugees and a sort of family life.
These folks had with them their belongings, beds, bedding, chests of
drawers, rusty sewing machines, rag dolls. I mention just a few of the
things I happened to see. In more than one of the waggons I found three or
four generations of a single family - an old man and his still more ancient
mother struggling back to the village which they had last seen in flames as
it was set on fire by the retreating army, anxious simply, as they said, 'to
die at home,' and with them a grandson, with his wife (married here) and
Families that had lost all else retained their samovar, the central symbol
of the home, the hearth of these nomads; and I saw people lying on the
platform with samovars boiling away beside them that must have come from
West of Warsaw and travelled to Siberia and back.
In the doorway of one truck I found a little boy, thinner than any child in
England shall ever be, I hope, and in his hand was a wooden cage, and in the
cage a white mouse, fat, sleek, contented, better off than any other living
thing in all that train. There were a man and his wife on the platform
outside. I asked them where they were going. 'To Minsk,' said the man,
'those of us who live; the children are dying every day.' I looked back at
the little boy, warming his mouse in the sun. The mouse, at least, would be
alive at the journey's end.
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