From Russia with love and courage
— From the Village of Altamont Archives and Museum
Child refugees at Antigone pose through an archway as a camera waits on a tripod. Captain Stephen Venear had to see that food shipments got through to centers feeding the starving children in the Crimea after World War I. Later, Venear settled in Altamont and ran the village pharmacy.
Stephen A. Venear was born Athanasium Frank Venearski, on Feb. 2, 1887 in Chemerootza, Russia and arrived in America in 1908, at the Port of New York, on the ship Statendam out of Rotterdam, Holland. He was 21 years old and already a trained nurse.
When he was processed through immigration, he signed an Oath of Allegiance in which he renounced his loyalty to Nicholas II, Emperor and Czar of all Russia. On Jan. 4, 1915, previous to joining the United States Army in World War I, he petitioned to have his name changed to Stephen Athanasium Venear and the petition was granted.
In the U.S. Army, his medical and language skills and organizational abilities made him a valuable soldier but his skills were even more attractive to the American Red Cross, dealing with the results of “the Great War” on the civilian population in Russia.
In 1917, Venear was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army and immediately reassigned to the Medical Corps of the American Red Cross and given the rank of Captain. In 1920, a great famine had descended on Russia and Herbert Hoover, then the head of the U.S. Food Administration (precursor to the FDA) under President Warren Harding, had just ended his Commission for the Relief of Belgium, which organized feeding the entire nation of seven million starving Belgians.
The starvation in Crimea, Russia was much, much larger and Hoover moved to form the American Relief Expedition (ARE) of some 300 Americans and 120,000 Russians on a humanitarian mission to feed some 10.5 million people daily! The U.S. Congress appropriated $20,000,000 for the ARE program and many private donations followed.
In 1921, Captain Stephen Venear was one of the first ARE members to be sent to Russia, to the Kazan, the largest and worst famine center, which had been recently overrun by cholera, typhoid, and starvation. Captain Venear was put in charge of the feeding stations in “Bololand” (as the relief workers referred to Bolshevik Russia).
He was responsible for seeing the food shipments got through, especially to the centers feeding the starving children. The occupation of Constantinople, in 1918, by British and French troops provided a safe haven for the children of the Crimea.
Captain Venear was brought from Constantinople (now Istanbul) by way of Odessa, aboard a U.S. destroyer, to organize the relief effort. In less than 10 months, the food stations he directed, were able to return the area to pre-war conditions.
Much praise and many accolades were heaped upon Captain Venear by the Russian government and its grateful people. Stephen Venear was a celebrated and decorated soldier, the recipient of numerous honors, including the American Red Cross Service Certificate (1921); the Croix Blanche Award from the La Croix de la Société, Constantinople; and the Order of St. Wladimir Award (1921) received directly from the commander-in-chief of the Russian Army (Crimea), General Petr Nikoloevich Wrangel.
I am told by Bertrand Patenaude, Ph. D., of Stanford University and author of the book The Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921 (Stanford University Press), in which Captain Venear is mentioned, that the importance of receiving a citation from the revered General Wrangel would be comparable to receiving recognition from someone like our own General George Washington.
Dr. Patenaude also stated that, had he known of the Stephen A. Venear material contained in the Altamont archives, he would have devoted an entire chapter in his book to Venear’s extraordinary accomplishments.
He asked if we could send copies of all our material to Stanford, and, thanks to Ron Ginsburg, all of the material we have in the archives on Stephen A. Venear, and his time as director of the Crimea relief effort has been scanned and donated to The Hoover Institute at Stanford University, for others doing research on this subject.
In addition to the awards bestowed by the Russian people, the city of Albany also awarded Stephen A. Venear the New York Medal Award for Patriotic Service World War (1917-19), and a Posthumous Award was granted by Lyndon B. Johnson, president of the United States (ca.1968).
Included in the Altamont Venear Archives are several photo albums containing documentary evidence of this period, along with drawings by children, presented to Captain Venear by grateful Russians upon his departure for America. All are testimonials of the reverence in which he was held for what he accomplished for the sick and starving people of the Crimea.
While in Russia, Stephen Venear met and married, in 1923, Ludmila (Lucy) Belyauskaya from Theodesia, Russia; she was employed by the ARE in one of its feeding stations. She is thought to be descended from Russian nobility, a possibility that needs further research through her family crest, family photos, and letters contained in the Altamont Archives.
Upon return to this region, Stephen Venear entered the Albany College of Pharmacy, graduating in 1925. He and his wife came to Altamont in 1927, purchasing the Altamont Pharmacy business from John L. Harrington.
Venear was an active citizen and property owner in the village, a member of St. John’s Lutheran Church; Noah Lodge 754, F. &A.M.; and a member of the Altamont Kiwanis Club. Upon his 1954 retirement, he sold the pharmacy business to Gilbert J. DeLucia.
He died in his Main Street home in Altamont in 1956.
The Village of Altamont Archives and Museum was bequeathed the papers, medals, and awards bestowed on Captain Venear, from the estate of his grandson, Steven Todd Richter.
Editor’s note: Marijo Dougherty, a village resident, is a retired museum director of the University Art Museum at the University at Albany and is the curator for the Village of Altamont Archives and Museum.