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From Empire to Humanity: The Russian Famine and the Imperial Origins of International Humanitarianism


This article investigates the imperial origins of international humanitarianism in the British and international relief mission to Russia during the famine of 1921–1922. The famine triggered the first large-scale international humanitarian mission beyond the scope of the European and American empires. Imperial expertise and knowledge became central to the British as well as international humanitarian response to relieve hungry Russia. From international coordination to national campaigns, British politicians and voluntary aid workers relied on imperial tools and thought. The British involvement in the relief mission to Russia thus provides a fresh perspective on the development of internationalist and nationalist humanitarian projects in the interwar period and their relationship to imperial legacies. Through humanitarian aid, Britain assumed a new role on a global stage. By retooling imperial expertise, humanitarian ethics became part of a project of global governance. Furthermore, with the advice of former colonial experts, a “mixed economy” of voluntary and state aid underlay the collaboration between voluntary and international agencies throughout the famine and after. The history of famine relief provides a case study in the emergence of humanitarian governance in the twentieth century.

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Journal of British Studies
  • ISSN: 0021-9371
  • EISSN: 1545-6986
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-british-studies
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