In my dissertation project Humanitarian Crises in Late Imperial Russia: Literature and Charity, I study writers’ participation in relief measures organized during a series of interconnected crises: the famine of 1891-92, the cholera pandemic of 1892-93, and peasant migration from the affected regions to the eastern parts of the empire. Writers were involved in charity both as private individuals—for example, Leo Tolstoy established dining halls for starving peasants, Anton Chekhov worked as a doctor during the cholera and typhus outbreaks—and as influential authors who could raise awareness about the crises through their writings and inspire people to help. 

While the 1890s were not the first time that writers participated in charity, the severity of the crises and the broad scale of their discussion made these cases stand out. Such a high level of publicity helped save many lives but also revealed a changing societal attitude to both writers and charity. Can private charity help effectively, or does it only spoil the poor, relieve the government of its responsibilities, and satisfy philanthropists’ egos?—such were the issues debated in the press. Thus, writers who conducted charity work and wrote about their experiences were under double pressure: they were judged as humanitarian workers and as authors whose public statements could influence the situation. I analyze writers’ fiction and letters to reveal their often complicated feelings about the crises and their various motivations for participating in charity.

 

 

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