Fridtjof Nansen and Ukraine. Facts about the life and activities of the Nobel laureate on Memorial Day

13 May 2023

Who is Fridtjof Nansen?

May 13 is the day of memory of the Norwegian scientist, traveller, public figure, and Nobel Laureate Fritjof Nansen. Unfortunately, in Ukraine, few people know about Nansen’s activities, at best remembering him as a traveller talked about in Geography lessons in schools.

Rescue of starving people in Ukraine, education of Ukrainian children and students, and “Nansen passports” that saved Ukrainian emigrants. The Holodomor Museum tells about Fridtjof Nansen and his mission in Ukraine.

Nansen and the protection of Ukrainian emigrants

The revolution in the Russian Empire and the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks took place against the background of the First World War, which also led to the fall of several European empires. Thus, hundreds of thousands of people who lost their legal status appeared in Europe and many other countries of the world – some had passports of countries that no longer exist, and others refused to return to the country with the new government.

Nansen, who at that time already had a powerful authority in Europe, literally conducted negotiations with the leaders of European countries about the legalisation and protection of migrants and refugees, in particular, Ukrainian ones.

In 1922, Nansen proposed the idea of the so-called “Nansen passport” – an identity card for people who lost their citizenship or refused to return to their homeland due to danger. Nansen passports were recognised by more than 50 governments, allowing refugees to cross borders legally, find work, and more.

In total, about 450,000 Nansen passports were issued. In 1938 after Nansen’s death, the Nansen International Office for Refugees received the Nobel Prize. In 1922, Nansen was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for many years of efforts to help the defenseless.” Subsequently, the principle of Nansen’s passports was embedded in the UN Convention on Refugees, which is currently operating in most countries of the world.

Nansen and the famine of the 1920s

Nansen’s mission to save the starving in the 1920s is usually remembered mainly in the context of the Volga famine, while his humanitarian initiative fed hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians.
Having visited the USSR, Nansen spoke indignantly at the session of the League of Nations on September 30, 1921: “In the USA, wheat is rotting among farmers who cannot find buyers for surplus grain. In Argentina, such a quantity of corn has been collected that there is nowhere to put it, and it is already starting to be used for steam locomotives. And next to us in the East, millions of people are starving.”

On the 16th of June, 1921, Nansen was appointed the first High Commissioner for Refugees by the League of Nations for aid to the starving, but his initiative was more often called simply the “Nansen Mission”.
In the autumn of 1921, the first shipments of the Nansen mission began to arrive in Russia. However, the RSFSR government allowed Ukraine to receive foreign humanitarian aid for starving regions only from March 1922. In Ukraine, the Nansen mission managed to start its work only in the middle of May 1922.

In general, by the summer of 1923, the Nansen mission had delivered 12.2 million rations, more than 1,000 food and clothing packages, and 40 tons of scarce medicines worth 140,000 US dollars to the territory of Ukraine. In total, 90,180 Ukrainian residents received assistance from F. Nansen’s organisation. For comparison: the communist “International Workers’ Committee for Aid to the Starving in Russia” provided only 383,000 food rations to the starving in Ukraine.

Nansen and Ukrainian children and students

The Nansen mission paid specific attention to helping less protected categories of the population: the homeless, schoolchildren and students.
It is about saving from hunger, as well as about education, upbringing and humanitarian support. Thus, Ukrainian students received food aid from the mission: only in Kharkiv did Nansen’s staff open two canteens for students for a thousand people each. They also provided textbooks and clothes en masse. The professors received food and material packages as well as scientific and technical assistance. In particular, support for professors was provided by “Nansen Aid to Workers of Intellectual Work”.

During the famine of the 1920s, child homelessness became another problem. Some sources mention groups of lonely children sitting, literally, along the roads and waiting for rescue. Nansen launched a separate program to help children and the homeless. Children left without parents were taken to “Nansen kindergartens”, which were opened exclusively on Nansen’s personal initiative and at Nansen’s expense. In such institutions, children also received medical care, vaccinations and education. The kindegartens are known to have worked in the Kharkiv, Kherson, Odesa, and Poltava regions.

Nansen and the restoration of Ukrainian agriculture

Having visited Kharkiv at the end of January 1923, Nansen became convinced that Ukrainians were not breadwinners and could feed themselves, but they needed some help. Thus, among the cargoes of the Nansen mission, imported into the territory of Soviet Ukraine in the form of humanitarian aid, agricultural machinery appeared for the first time.

In 1922, after Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he donated a monetary prize (122,000 kronos) for creating several research station farms in Ukraine, which used advanced agricultural practices in their work. According to the Norwegian’s plan, local peasants were to work at the stations while foreign specialists were to become managers, capable of teaching their subordinates and imparting new farming methods to them, including crediting peasants by issuing seeds, livestock, and equipment. Additional agricultural machinery was supposed to be imported for the operation of the stations. Mykhailivska Agricultural Research Station, or Dr Nansen First Agricultural Station, received a record 45 American-made tractors. The station turned into a real training ground, a training centre for a new generation of Ukrainian agricultural producers, agronomists, and tractor operators.

However, the intention to revive the Ukrainian village was never realised due to the strengthening of the authoritarian and dictatorial communist regime in the Ukrainian SSR.

Is Nansen a communist? The myth of sympathy for communists

Humanitarian aid to the residents of the Soviet Union in the 1920s still gives rise to the myth that Nansen was a supporter of the communists or the Soviet government. However, many factors suggest otherwise.

On the 25th of November, 1920, when considering the question of joining the League of Nations of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, Nansen, as an extremely important figure in the League, supported the UNR, contrary to the position of the majority of the organisation’s members. And it was extremely different from the communists or the Soviet government’s position.

Nansen largely refused to participate in domestic Norwegian politics, but in 1924 he decided to participate in the new anti-communist movement, the Fatherland League. In Norway, they feared that if the Marxism-oriented Labor Party came to power, it would present a revolutionary program. At the inaugural meeting of the League in Oslo, Nansen declared: “To talk about the right for revolution in a society with full civil liberty, universal suffrage, equal treatment for all is idiotic nonsense.”

Oles Honchar, Doctor of Historical Sciences and Associate Professor Dmytro Arkhiereyskyi, Dean of the Faculty of Dnipro National University, states in his work on Nansen and Ukraine: “Nansen was by no means a political sympathiser of the Bolsheviks.”

After the completion of the Nansen Mission, many cases of arrests and repression against the participants of his work who remained in the USSR are known about. In particular, the arrests of former “Nansenites” held in the Saratov and Samara (later Kuibashev) provinces of the Volga region. That is how the Soviet authorities thanked them for saving them from starvation.

The publication, among other things, used the work “Fridtjof Nansen and Ukraine” by the head of the Department of World History of Oles Honchar Dnipro National University, doctor of historical sciences, associate professor Dmytro Arkhiereyskyi.