First, we must travel back in time to 1891. Due to the early and harsh winter, crop failures are severe in the Volga and Chernozem provinces. At the same time, a small amount of precipitation, both snow and spring rains, was observed. As a result, a large number of people (roughly one-third of the empire’s population) are at risk of starvation. Furthermore, epidemics of the time’s scourges – typhus and cholera – are superimposed on this. To all of the foregoing, an economic factor was added: the volume of grain sales on the eve and during that time period increased significantly (grain prices fell, so the authorities decided to sell it more so that revenues to the treasury would not decrease).
All of these factors combined to cause the Russian Empire’s food crisis in 1891-1892, which the authorities attempted to minimize. It is obvious that suppressing such stories is not a Soviet invention when the population of the main grain exporter is starving. As the diplomat Lamsdorf recalled, “the tone taken in the highest circles in relation to the disasters of famine proves that they are completely unaware of the situation, and, in fact, completely sympathize neither with the unfortunate who suffer these calamities, nor with the compassionate people who try to come to their aid.”
Despite the authorities’ clear downplaying of the peasants’ plight, news of the Russian famine reached Europe and then the United States. William Edgar, the editor of the weekly magazine “North Western Miller” (published in Minneapolis), was the inspiration and organizer of the assistance. An article about the famine that threatens ordinary Russians was published on the magazine’s pages in August 1891. People from all walks of life responded to the call to help the hungry, including farmers, millers, bankers, journalists, workers, and industrialists. It should be noted that the US government did not support this initiative (for a variety of political reasons), but this did not deter the organizers, who stated, “this is not a matter of politics, it is a matter of humanity.” At the beginning of 1892, aid was gathered, and 5 steamships were poisoned and sent to the shores of distant Russia, each carrying an average of 2 thousand tons of food (mainly flour and grain). These are the ships depicted in Aivazovsky’s painting:
The ships were greeted in a festive manner in the Baltic ports (the first ships were met by Libava – the current Liepaja), with orchestras. William Edgar, the main inspiration for this “hunger fleet,” arrived on one of the ships. Furthermore, wagons with food (decorated with the national flags of the two countries) were sent inland by rail.
Returning to the first image, which depicts a man in a troika waving a flag, it is impossible to tell how many stars Aivazovsky painted on the American flag with any degree of certainty. But one thing is certain: how many of them should have existed during that time period. After all, the number of stars corresponds to the number of states in the union. And since there were 44 states in the United States at the time the picture was created, that is, in 1892, the same number of stars should have been used.
According to popular belief (especially on the Internet), both paintings were banned in Russia because the authorities were irritated that the hunger they denied was also captured by Russia’s most famous marine painter. However, there was no evidence of this in the archives.Aivazovsky took these paintings with him on a trip to the United States (late 1892 – early 1893), where he gave them to the art gallery as a thank you.Here is what the artist himself wrote in his cover letter to the paintings: “In an effort to express the heartfelt gratitude of the people of my country for the generous and timely assistance provided by the government of the United States of America in connection with the recent famine that broke out in Russia, I personally wish to donate United States Corcoran Gallery of Art two of my paintings.”At the height of the “Caribbean crisis” between the US and the USSR, these paintings were displayed in the White House as a reminder of the two countries’ humanistic plots.
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