The Friends of Soviet Russia (FSR) was formally established at a conference held on Aug. 9, 1921 as an offshoot of the Communist Party of America's primary legal arm, the American Labor Alliance (ALA). The organization was established by a conference called by a provisional committee including the ALA, the Society for Technical Aid for Russia, and the Medical Relief Committee for Soviet Russia. Some 150 delegates representing 87 organizations were represented. The credentials of 2 delegates from an unnamed "counterrevolutionary" publication "which has indulged in rabid and repeated attacks on Soviet Russia" were rejected.
The formation of the FSR organization was a response to a decision of the 3rd World Congress of the Communist International [June 22-July 12, 1921], which issued a manifesto calling for the formation of mass organizations by affiliated parties around the world dedicated to raising funds for Soviet famine relief. The FSR raised funds and collected food and clothing for immediate amelioration of the crisis as well as agricultural tools and equipment for the reconstruction of Soviet agriculture. Membership in the FSR was open without regard to an individual's politics, but the organizational apparatus was tightly controlled by dedicated adherents of the Communist movement. In the documents of the underground Communist Party of the day, the ALA was referred to as "the A" and the FSR (or "Fessar") as "the B."
The Aug. 9 organizational conference elected an Executive Committee to serve for a term of 3 months, including Dr. Hartman, Caleb Harrison, Edgar Owens, Allen S. Broms, Dr. Mendelsohn, Dr. J. Wilenkin, Dr. Reichel. As soon as the conference adjourned, this Executive Committee went into session and elected its officers: Caleb Harrison, Chairman; Allen S. Broms, Secretary; and Dr. J.W. Hartman, Treasurer.
The Friends of Soviet Russia proved successful in raising funds for Russian relief, generating about $250,000 for famine relief in its first 2 months of existence and another $500,000 and clothing worth an additional $300,000 over the course of the next year. The funds were raised transparently, with the name of each donor and the amount given published in each issue of Soviet Russia; detailed lists of expenditures, regularly audited, were also published. In round numbers, about 25% of the group's income went to administration and the costs of fundraising with the balance to relief. The FSR was the American division of International Workers Aid, an international organization headed by the German Communist Willy Münzenberg.
The FSR published a program in December of 1922 which listed the group's aims: (1) to advocate the extension of credits to and recognition of the Soviet government; (2) to raise and distribute funds for clothing and food for the needy of Soviet Russia, to be distributed via the Soviet government "regardless of their political opinions"; (3) to agitate and demonstrate for non-intervention in the affairs of the Russian people in determining their form of government; (4) to raise funds for tools for the reconstruction of Soviet industry; and (5) to disseminate "truthful news" about Soviet Russia and build sympathetic sentiment.
The FSR was structured around over 200 organized branches around the country, which raised funds to support the relief effort and the organization directing it. It maintained an office in New York and a paid staff of about 40 "organizers," members of the Workers Party of America (WPA), some of whom were engaged to travel the country speaking on behalf of the organization and engaging in politics "in their free time." In this sense, the FSR subsidized WPA activity by providing paid employment for some of its leading cadres.
This structure drew the ire of the opponents of the WPA, particularly Abraham Cahan, editor of the Socialist Party-affiliated Yiddish dailly The Jewish Daily Forward, which began making charges of irregularity and extravagance in the handling of funds on the part of FSR in editorials and news stories in the summer of 1922. In response to these charges, the FSR appointed an "Investigating Committee of Five," including Roger N. Baldwin of the ACLU, Norman Thomas of the League for Industrial Democracy, Robert Morss Lovett of the liberal magazine The New Republic, Timothy Healy of the Stationary Fireman's Union, and attorney Walter Nelles. While the last-mention later recused himself to avoid possible charges of conflict of interest, the other four members of the committee issued a report at the end of October 1922 essentially clearing the FSR of wrongdoing and attributing the charges against the group to "factional interests."
The FSR also had a youth section, established in 1922, called the Famine Scouts. The basic unit of this group were "Famine Scout Clubs," organized in various localities to aid in the gathering of relief funds and supplies for Soviet Russia. The official motto of the Famine Scouts was "From the children -- to the children." The "Famine Scout Chief" was Bob Hardy, who maintained an office in New York City at 201 W 13th Street.
[fn. The Young Worker, v. 1, no. 3 (March 1922), pg. 19.]
After a brief run with a typeset newsletter (Russian Famine Relief Bulletin, from Nov. 15, 1921) the organ of the FSR was the magazine Soviet Russia, a plain-paper magazine which had formerly the journal of the Soviet Government Bureau, headed by Ludwig Martens in New York. The magazine was essentially a Communist publication, regularly printing articles by Soviet leaders such as Zinoviev, Trotsky, and Radek about matters of Soviet internal policy (for example, the ongoing show trial of the leaders of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party in 1922). This magazine was variously a bi-weekly until December of 1922, at which time it went to a monthly publication schedule under editor Eugene Lyons. Effective with the January 1923 issue, the magazine moved to glossy paper with a new name -- Soviet Russia Pictorial.
Near the end of 1924 the magazine was merged with the CP's arts-and-theory magazine, The Liberator, and the Trade Union Educational League's monthly organ, The Labor Herald, to form The Workers Monthly in a 3-for-1 combination. This merger was probably driven by the financial concerns of the WPA and clearly underlines the connection of the FSR to the organized American Communist movement.
In late 1923 and 1924, in response to the economic chaos in Germany, in particular among the German working class following the failure of the October 1923 revolution, the FSR changed its name (briefly) to "the Friends of Soviet Russia and Workers' Germany" in an effort to increase its fundrasing appeal. This interlude proved brief, and the group was not long in reverting back to its original name.
In later years, the FSR carried on under the name Friends of the Soviet Union (FSU), publishers of the pictorial monthly magazine Soviet Russia Today.
-- Tim Davenport
"Circular to All District Organizers, Sub-District Organizers, Section Organizers, and Respective Committees of the Communist Party of America from Ludwig Katterfeld, Executive Secretary, Aug. 6, 1921." This circular letter from new Executive Secretary of the unified CPA L.E. Katterfeld announces the recently concluded 3rd World Congress of the Comintern had adopted a manifesto which called upon Communist Parties around the world to "act in behalf of Soviet Russia through the present crisis." To this end, a new "legal" famine relief organization, the Friends of Soviet Russia, was to be formed (called "the B" in this document). Each District Committee was to elect a committee of 3 trustworthy members to be in charge of legal activities, one of whom was to be designated as Secretary. "The name will be turned over to the [American Labor Alliance], and information how to proceed will be sent him by the [American Labor Alliance] direct," Katterfeld states. "The first public activity for the [American Labor Alliance] will be to launch the [Friends of Soviet Russia], and help energetically in the campaign for relief of the famine stricken districts of Russia. In [the American Labor Alliance] we can affiliate only organizations that comply to certain strict requirements, but in [the Friends of Soviet Russia] we shall ask the cooperation of much wider masses, as is suggested in the call sent out by the Third Congress." Other Russian famine relief organizations are to be amalgamated in the new FSR organization, Katterfeld indicates. "The work is going full blast already. Speakers are being listed, application blanks, subscription lists, appeals, literature, etc. are being prepared, and will be sent as soon as we have the name and address of your legal secretary," Katterfeld notes.
"Friends of Soviet Russia Launched: Unions and Other Working Class Organizations United to Relieve Famine in Russia." [The Toiler] [Aug. 9, 1921] This news story in The Toiler announces the formation of the Friends of Soviet Russia, a mass organization started by the Communist Party of America in accord with general instructions of the Communist International to member parties around the world. The organization was launched with a conference held in New York on Aug. 9, 1921, attended by 150 delegates representing 87 organizations, with Dr. Jacob Hartman, editor of the magazine Soviet Russia, in the chair. The new organization was contrasted with the "imperialist terms" and counterrevolutionary nature of the Hoover mission and other capitalist relief efforts. "The organization will collect funds for the relief of famine stricken Russia, the money to be turned over to the Soviet Government or its accredited representatives without imposing any terms. All appeals shall be of a distinctly working class character, class-conscious and free from the humanitarian taint always involved in such enterprises conducted by capitalist organizations," according to the article. An Executive Committee consisting of Dr. Hartman, Caleb Harrison, Edgar Owens, Allen S. Broms, Dr. Mendelsohn, Dr. Wilenkin, Dr. Reichel was elected by the conference. This group in turn selected as officers Caleb Harrison, Chairman; Allen S. Broms, Secretary; and Dr. J.W. Hartman, Treasurer.
"Some Plain Words," by Charles W. Ervin [Sept. 10, 1921] Managing Editor of the New York Call Charles Ervin fires a broadside in the direction of the Communist Party's Friends of Soviet Russia organization, appealing for funds for Russian famine relief, to be collected and distributed outside of the FSR apparatus. The Call's fund will be administered without the deduction of a single cent for operational expenses, Ervin indicates. Alternatively, Call readers are encouraged by Ervin to donate to Russian famine relief through their trade unions. Ervin notes the hostility of the FSR to parallel relief efforts, and cites the group's antipathy to the efforts of the ACWU and ILGWU as "proof positive to us of a desire to sabotage other funds being collected, and a total disinclination to really unify the activities taking place among the working class." Ervin declares that "we are used to the abuse of the Communists in this country. All the energies that in Russia go to the doing of constructive work seem to be employed by the Communists in America in factional strife. Not content with going their own way and attacking capitalism, they spend much of their time in a vain effort to destroy the existing labor unions by intriguing within their ranks and by seeking to interfere in every way possible with the activity of other groups of workers who do not happen to believe in their tactics." Ervin characterizes the CPA's efforts under the FSR banner as the "antics" of "long-distance revolutionists" who are "working under false colors, or posing like some cheap detective in ridiculous disguise" and indicates that the paper will not hesitate to "show them up as thoroughly as we know how" when they are caught vilifying others.
"The 'Legal' Communists: Letter to the Editor of the New York Call," by Adolph Germer [Sept. 11, 1921] The former Executive Secretary of the Socialist Party and current assistant to Greater New York Secretary Julius Gerber, Adolph Germer, writes this letter in support of Charles Ervin's editorial of the previous day attacking the Friends of Soviet Russia. "It is high time that the unsuspecting public, especially the progressing working class, among whom they carry on their panhandling, understand these self-appointed 'saviors of the proletarian revolution'.... It should require no argument to convince any open-minded person that anyone, or any group, that carries on a persistent campaign to divide the ranks of labor, no matter in whose name it is done or to what pretended purpose, is an enemy of the working class - a far greater and more dangerous enemy than the paid hireling of the employers," Germer declares.
"A Summary of Its Work by the Friends of Soviet Russia." [Dec. 1921] A very early public summary of its operations by the FSR, published without authorship signature in the Jan. 1922 issue of Soviet Russia. This short news release details the raising of $250,000 for Russian famine relief, forthcoming pamphlets on the famine by the organization, plans for stereopticon and motion picture events to raise awareness and funds for famine relief, and details the work of William Z. Foster touring on behalf of the organization and raising money through sales of his book, The Russian Revolution.
"The Friends of Soviet Russia," by Alfred Wagenknecht [Dec. 17, 1921] Weekly report of Secretary of the Friends of Soviet Russia, Alfred Wagenknecht, writing for the official organ of the Workers Party of America under the pseudonym "A.B. Martin." Wagenknecht notes that to date $265,000 had been collected for the relief of the Russian famine, including the collection of 7,000 pairs of used shoes in Chicago and 26 bales of clothing in Cleveland. New York cobblers had volunteered to do shoe repair on donated footwear, two clothing manufacturers had made available their machinery, a benefit symphony concert had been arranged in Detroit, and Chicago was organizing druggists. Wagenknecht urges the collection of surplus grain from from Midwestern farmers. He notes that Floyd Ramp, Norman H. Tallentire, and Dennis E. Batt had been added to the FSR's staff of touring speakers. Includes a c. 1918 portrait of Alfred Wagenknecht.
"An Appeal for Russian Famine Relief," by Eugene V. Debs. [April 1, 1922] America's most widely known socialist appeals for financial help to alleviate the famine menacing the "embattled Russian revolutionists" who have faced "the combined powers of the world's despotism and reaction in the war of the workers for liberation." Debs calls for every member of the American working class and everyone with sympathy and a conscience "to give and give at once and give freely and to the last dollar and the last penny that may be spared to the Friends of Soviet Russia."
"Report of the Investigative Committee of Five to the Friends of Soviet Russia," by Roger N. Baldwin (Chairman) et al. [Nov. 1922] Starting late in July of 1922, Abraham Cahan, editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, began agitating against the Friends of Soviet Russia in the pages of his publication, charging the organization with various improprieties -- charges that were repeated in the pages of The New York Call. In an effort to answer this attack, the FSR appointed a committee of 5 non-members of the Workers Party of America headed by Roger N. Baldwin of the American Civil Liberties Union, and including Norman Thomas of the League for Industrial Democracy. The group analysed each of Cahan's specific charges, finding most to be factionally-driven and without merit, but concuring that many of the 41 paid organizers of the FSR also engaged in political activities on behalf of the Workers Party during their spare time. The Investigation Committee recommended that the group's employees be prohibited from such political activity in the future. Editor Cahan renewed his attack following the publication of this lengthy report.
"A Program of Reconstruction," by A.A. Heller [November 1, 1922] This article by the American representative of Soviet Russia's Supreme Council of National Economy (Vesenkha) in the organ of the Friends of Soviet Russia indicates that while Soviet industrial reconstruction will have to be achieved largely via Russia's own volition and internal financing, there are ways in which interested individuals can aid the process from abroad. Heller specifically mentions the work of the Society for Technical Aid to Soviet Russia (TA), an organization dedicated to equipping small parties wishing to go to Soviet Russia to establish agricultural communes or industrial cooperatives with tools, machinery, and provisions, as well as the Russian-American Industrial Corporation (RAIC), then in the process of being organized by Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. In addition, Heller cites the need for direct capital investment via a Russian-American investment bank, detailing several specific cases in which comparatively small capital investment can be employed to profitably revitalize industry -- either in the form of a private concession or as a "mixed" government-private enterprise.
"A Splendid Opportunity," by Robert Minor [December 1922] Leading member of the Workers Party of America Robert Minor introduces the readers of the Friends of Soviet Russia's official organ to the new Russian-American Industrial Corporation (RAIC), established by Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. Minor takes special care to diffuse the criticism leveled against the new corporation in the pages of the New York Tribune by former financial advisor William O. Thompson, who was sharply critical of Hillman for failing to engage in the lucrative export trade but instead concentrating on the more difficult and less profitable establishment of clothing manufacturing capacity in conjunction with various Soviet clothing trusts. Minor notes that Hillman had negotiated a state guarantee of both the principal invested by the RAIC as well as a guaranteed 8 percent return on that money. Thompson's failure to get behind this splendid opportunity meant little more than he had "lost his nerve" and "fallen for the old emigré's theory" that Soviet Russia would collapse imminently and thus was incapable of guaranteeing an investment or the return on that investment. Minor states that "the one remaining obstacle to its existence is the boycott of capitalists who will not supply it with industrial machinery. The Soviet Government appeals over the heads of the capitalists, asking the workers of the world to break the boycott by supplying industrial machinery as friend to friend in partnership."
"Program of the Friends of Soviet Russia." [December 1922] Although the FSR was established in August of 1921, it seems that there was no formal program issued until the end of 1922. This document, published in Soviet Russia, the official organ of the FSR, briefly outlines the group's purpose: to provide relief to the needy in Soviet Russia via the Soviet government ("regardless of their political opinions"), to advocate for recognition of the Soviet government and the extension of trade credits, to "agitate and demonstrate" for an end to foreign interference in the form of government chosen by the Russian people, to rais funds for food, clothing, and tools for the reconstruction of the Soviet economy; and to "disseminate truthful news about Soviet Russia and its great struggle by means of the platform, the press, and the film screen." "Workers, farmers, and other sympathizers" were called upon to support the organization ("an organization of American workers without distinction as to political affiliation") morally and financially.
"Letter from C.E. Ruthenberg in New York to Vasil Kolarov in Moscow, Feb. 17, 1923." The early Communist International is frequently misrepresented in the literature as a paramilitary command-and-control system, issuing binding orders arbitrarily deduced in Moscow to blindly obedient Communist Parties around the world. In reality, there was a give-and-take, with information flowing from the periphery to Moscow, which was often called upon to provide tactical advice, to mediate disputes, and to rectify factional schisms. This letter from Workers Party of America Executive Secretary C.E. Ruthenberg to General Secretary of the ECCI Vasil Kolarov is an example in which the Comintern was used by national parties as a mediator. Ruthenberg protests the establishment of a new Soviet relief organization, the Volunteer Fleet, noting three relief organizations are already in existence: the Friends of Soviet Russia, Technical Aid, and the Yidgescom. The Workers Party was attempting to centralize these relief efforts in the hands of the FSR, a task which Ruthenberg argued was being needlessly complicated by the ill-considered establishment of the Volunteer Fleet fundraising apparatus. Concrete suggestions are made to make use of the ECCI's Ausland Committee to transmit information on future relief campaigns to the Friends of Soviet Russia, which was to coordinate such drives.
"Fill the Bowl -- 20 Million German Workers Are Starving!" [Advertisement published Feb. 1924] After the failure of the Octobe 1923 German uprising, the Friends of Soviet Russia briefly changed its name to the "Friends of Soviet Russia and Workers' Germany" in an effort to raise funds for German relief. This is an advertisement soliciting donations on behalf of Germany run in The Liberator, a Workers Party owned artistic and theoretical magazine. ***LARGE FILE: 944 K., FAST INTERNET RECOMMENDED.***