‘A Standard to Live By’: Violet Tillard and the Russian Famine

Leon Trotsky was considered, in 1922 at least, to be the second most powerful man in the Soviet Union when he chanced upon the name ‘Violet Tillard’ in the obituaries of a local newspaper. In a speech delivered in March 1922 he invoked Tillard’s ‘humanity and inner nobility’ at a time of profound suffering when a vicious famine was stalking millions of Russians. It was her, and other ‘forerunners of a better human morality’ like her, who Trotsky thought ought to be thanked with a ‘great monument’ in the future. Violet Tillard – or ‘Till’ as she was often called by those who knew her best – was also, as it turns out, a lifelong friend of Muriel Matters. They first met in 1908 as the pioneering suffrage caravan came over a hill during its tour of south east England. So how exactly did this friend of Muriel’s end up in Buzuluk, Russia, a place so far from her home? Tillard’s is a story of someone always trying to make a difference; helping others in times of need. She is also, as it turns out, someone well worth knowing more about in these times of trouble and worry.

A Life of Quiet Action

To understand the path that lead to Violet to Russia we first need know more about her background. Beyond privately held family recollections, not many have looked into her story besides Sybil Oldfield in Woman Humanitarians (2001) who does a wonderful job of sketching out many of the key details. Violet was born in December 1874, the eldest daughter of a Colonel. After her training at Poplar Hospital in London she worked as a hospital nurse for a full decade. By 1908 Tillard was motivated to join the suffrage movement. She soon became a devoted organiser for the Women’s Freedom League during the highpoint of the suffrage effort. In fact, she was by Muriel’s side for some of her most important accomplishments. Tillard was all hands on deck in the caravan tour of 1908, she was active in the Ladies’ Gallery during the grille protest, and travelled with Muriel on her lecture tour of Australia in 1910.

From 1912 to 1914 she travelled to Dublin to assist workers taking industrial action for better conditions before World War I broke out across Europe. Tillard’s pacifist beliefs came to the fore during this period. She was heavily involved in managing the donations to the ‘No Conscription Fellowship’ an organisation that, among other things, financially supported conscientious objectors. She was no stranger to going to prison for her beliefs either. Tillard spent time in Holloway Gaol under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) for refusing to tell the British Government which printer had been responsible for publishing material for the ‘No Conscription Fellowship’. This followed a stint in the same prison exactly a decade prior for her role in the grille protest.

From 1919 to 1921, as the Spanish Flu pandemic was sweeping Europe, Tillard travelled to post-war Germany to assist destitute University students in Berlin. She also, during this period, officially joined The Religious Society of Friends. It was a natural fit for Tillard. Quakers have always tended to strongly emphasize peace and social justice. It was this commitment to helping the most vulnerable that led her to the relief effort in Buzuluk, Russia, upon the request of Joan Mary Fry. Joan was, as you may have already guessed, born into that line of famous Fry’s – prominent Quakers who made their fortune in the confectionary business. Joan Mary Fry herself was an extraordinary humanitarian who tackled poverty in both England and Germany in particular.  

The Russian Famine of 1921-1922

Buzuluk is situated nearby the modern-day border between Russia and Kazakhstan; a 17 hour drive from Moscow even using today’s roads. Back in 1921 to 1922 the region was in the grip of a terrible famine. It was not just a drought that was causing the hardship but the lingering impacts of war, political upheaval, and a lack of infrastructure to distribute aid. It was into this situation that Violet Tillard arrived to assist with managing supplies and to offer her skills as a nurse.

A letter sent by Tillard on 30 December gives an intimate, albeit harrowing, eye witness account of the situation she confronted. Take this passage as an example:

One feels horrible to live in such good conditions when the people are literally starving at our door – a boy of 16 lies dead a few yards away, last night 20 were found dead in one street here in Buzuluk. Some of these poor people came in to our kitchen to beg before they give up. On Christmas day 114 died in Buzuluk on the 26th 355, 27th, 212 – 509 of them were children. It is not so harrowing to see them lying dead, they suffer no more, it is the doomed shadow one sees round the street and in the homes that are most horrible. Yesterday I was in one of the receiving homes near the station. In one big dreary dorm are children, sometimes 100 sometimes more, all along one side was a long platform in these crouch little bundles of misery, here they live day and night, no beds, no other coverings – not room for all to lie down, no clean clothes.

There is an ominous, though constant, reference throughout her letter to disease. Typhus and cholera were particularly prevalent in districts with poor sanitation. Worse still that such illnesses were set to spread amongst the weakened immune systems of the starving. Tillard writes that the local passenger train services were to be stopped for six weeks in an effort to reduce the spread of disease “down the line”. Still, there is reference to those doing all they could to help. One figure in particular stuck out to Violet: “[T]here is a dear old woman who bakes and washes, has to be restrained by force from working day and night.”

Tillard was not long in Russia before she too fell ill. Her obituary in The Vote, a suffrage publication back in England,reveals how her final deed was one of profound sacrifice. She, along with one to two other workers, had volunteered to travel to a nearby relief outpost that had been rumoured to be riddled with typhus. Upon arriving at the address she found the three relief workers stationed there “lying helpless and untended” in the small house. She nursed these workers back to health but, in the process, succumbed to the same illness herself. Violet Tillard died on 19 February 1922, barely three months after she had arrived. The Russian famine was acutely felt for at least another year following her death. In total almost 5 million people died but over 16 million more were severely impacted.

Muriel’s Memoir

Eight years to the day that Violet died, Muriel Matters wrote a brief record of her friend’s life that was archived for posterity in the Suffragette Fellowship Collection in London. Matters spoke of how they first meet on the caravan tour of 1908 but her account also provides a very useful survey of her life as a whole. Moreover, it gives a wonderful sense of Violet’s character:

Courage – sympathy – generosity – selflessness … But there were reaches in the mind and spirit of Violet Tillard that only the intimacy of deep friendship could reach – if indeed even the love of a friend could fathom. Shy, elusive qualities accompanying the grimiest kind of determination and will … shot through with an almost daredevil gaiety when faced with situations requiring nerve and set purpose.

Remembering back to her suffrage days, Muriel remarked on the contrast between the stereotype of the suffragist with the reality of a seasoned campaigner like Tillard:

No wonder the British Public was puzzled by the personnel of the suffragettes movement! Could anyone look less like the ‘Punch’ type of new woman than did Violet Tillard. Tall, slender, delicate, reticent…

To learn of a friend’s untimely death as Muriel did is universally difficult. Yet, while documenting Violet’s life in just a handful of handwritten pages Muriel summed up her efforts neatly: ‘She set one a standard to live by’. As a nurse, her selfless drive was to help others. And, in challenging times like these, it is nice to know that people who share Violet’s traits and mission still stand ready to help.

Looking for more?

The recent Covid-19 outbreak has given many writers pause to look back at how the suffrage cause not only survived, but was invigorated by, the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 to 1920. This was particularly the case in The United States, a country that waited until 1920 for women’s suffrage to be secured by the Nineteenth Amendment. Click here to find out more!