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The American YMCA and the Russian Revolution

  • Donald E. Davis and Eugene P. Trani

Extract

In hope it began; in perplexity it ended. The twenty-three-year presence of the American Young Men’s Christian Association in Russia that began in 1900 and reached a peak between 1917 and 1920, when more than 440 YMCA staffers served in that country and the Association spent almost eight million dollars for its operation, was over in 1923. In fact, the Association was required to curtail certain of its activities between 1917 and 1920 by both the conservative Kolchak movement in Siberia and the radical Bolshevik government, and eventually, like other groups, it was forced out.

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The authors would like to express their gratitude to Dr. Paul B. Anderson for sharing his vast personal experience in the Russian activities of the American YMCA with us and to the staff of the YMCA Library in New York City for its help in assembling the YMCA’s records on this subject for our research. They would also like to thank the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where Eugene P. Trani was a fellow during the 1972-73 academic year, for help in the preparation of this article.

1. Extract of a letter from Bracket Lewis, enclosed in telegram from G. C. Hanson, American consul at Harbin, to Secretary of State, Oct. 15, 1923, 861.144/2, microfilm roll 87, Records of the Department of State Relating to Internal Affairs of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1910-29, available at the National Archives. According to a Soviet historian, Grigortsevich, S, “Iz istorii amerikanskoi agressii na russkom Dal'nem Vostoke, 1920-1922,Voprosy istorii, 1951, no. 8, pp. 59–79, the YMCA in 1922 was still sponsoring lectures, concerts, and movies and publishing a biweekly newspaper through its Russian branch, the “Maiak.” But Grigortsevich claims that the YMCA also recruited spies, gathered intelligence, and preached the “superiority” of American democracy.

2. There is a good deal of material on the YMCA and Russia. By far the most important source is the Russian material in the YMCA Historical Library in New York City, a large—more than twenty boxes—and mainly untouched source on the Russian Revolution. This rich collection will hereafter be cited as Russian YMCA Materials. A number of personal manuscript collections of former YMCA secretaries are in private hands. The authors examined the papers of the late Russell Story, through the courtesy of his wife, Gertrude, of Claremont, California, as well as those of surviving secretaries, Arthur Eugene Jenny of Medford, Oregon, and the Rev. William L. Tucker of Princeton. New Jersey. It should be noted that the Story Family Papers have recently been deposited in Hoover Institution Archives. We have also corresponded with other former secretaries and have received especially detailed information from Arthur P. Kempa of San Pedro, California, and Dr. Raymond J. Reitzel of San Mateo, California, who kindly sent us a copy of his autobiography, All in a Lifetime (Burlingame, Calif. : Advance Print Shop, 1969), which deals at length with Dr. Reitzel's long stay in both European Russia and Siberia.. The authors also interviewed two men who had long connections with the YMCA's Russian activities, Donald Lowrie of Hightstown, New Jersey, and Dr. Paul Anderson of White Plains, New York. The interview with Dr. Anderson on September 9, 1971, lasted more than four hours and was most helpful for filling in details not available in the written records. There is also YMCA material in file 811.144, Young Men's Christian Association, Young Women's Christian Association, Salvation Army, in the State Department Records, 1910-29, Record Group 59, National Archives. Although this is a general file, about half the material has to do with YMCA operations in Russia between 1917 and 1920. A large portion of this material is made up of telegrams sent on State Department cables from YMCA secretaries in Russia to the New York Office. The Hoover Institution Archives in California has a number of collections with material on this subject. The most important are the Records of the American Red Cross, the Hugh Moran Papers, and the William Graves Papers. Two final sources that the authors examined are the Samuel Harper Papers at the University of Chicago and the John Mott Papers, deposited at the Yale Divinity School Library. Both have material on the YMCA in Russia. There are a number of YMCA-sponsored published sources on this topic, and they will be cited throughout this article. A general account of the wartime operation is Harris, Frederick, ed.', Service with Fighting Men : An Account of the Work of the American Young Men’s Christian Associations in the World War, 2 vols. (New York : Association Press, 1924 , which gives details of the size and cost of the Russian operation.

3. One of the authors, Eugene Trani, is currently at work on a study, “Woodrow Wilson and Russia, 1913-1921,” and these conclusions come from his research in the primary materials available on this topic. There is, of course, a very large historiography. both Western and Soviet, on American participation in the Russian Civil Wai. This historiography will not be cited unless it is directly related to the efforts of the YMCA in Russia. The Soviets view the YMCA in Russia as part of the Allied effort to overthrow the Bolshevik government, and mention will be made of Soviet sources that cite the YMCA’s activities. For mention of Mott’s name to head a Russian relief program, see Edward M. House to Woodrow Wilson, June 4, 1918, Woodrow Wilson Papers, Library of Congress. Mott's ideas for such a program are outlined in John Mott to Woodrow Wilson, July 24, 1918, Wilson Papers. William Appleman Williams treats the Red Cross in Russia in his American-Russian Relations : 1781-1941 (reprint. New York : Octagon Books, 1971). A recent examination of the Stevens Commission is Jacqueline St. John, “John F. Stevens : American Assistance to Russian and Siberian Railroads, 1917-1922” (Ph.D. diss., University of Oklahoma, 1969).

4. The best source for this early period of YMCA activity in Russia is Ober, Frank W., ed., James Stokes : Pioneer of Young Men’s Christian Associations (New York : Association Press, 1921 , which has a chapter by Franklin Gaylord, “Breaking into Russia.” See also Latourette, Kenneth S., World Service : A History of the Foreign Work and World Service of the Young Men’s Christian Associations of the United States and Canada (New York : Association Press, 1957), esp. pp. 368–72. For an example of the American YMCA’s work in another country during this period see Garrett, Shirley S., Social Reformers in Urban China : The Chinese Y.M.C.A., 1895-1926 (Cambridge, Mass., 1970).

5. One of the best accounts of the work with the prisoners of war at a local level is Jerome, Davis, A Life Adventure for Peace : An Autobiography (New York, 1967). See also Colton, Ethan T., Forty, Years with Russians (New York : Association Press, 1940.

6. Scott to Brusilov, July 9, 1917, box S, X673, Russian YMCA Materials. Mott’s hopes for the Russian operations are indicated in John Mott, “The Opportunity of the Hour in Russia and Other Countries of Europe,” Oct. 11, 1917, speech given at the Boston City Club, Addresses and Papers of Johu R. Mott, 6 vols. (New York : Association Press, 1946-47). 4 : 758-77, and also Recent Experiences and Impressions in Russia : Extracts from Correspondence and Addresses of Johu R. Mott, Member of the Special Diplomatic Mission of the United States to Russia, May-August, 1917 (New York : International Committee, 1917). Mott wrote in reporting his conversation with Brusilov, “Pending our return to Washington and the securing of action on the part of our Government, I have diverted from the Prison Camp Work as many American secretaries as possible.” Mott's conclusions were that “the need cannot be exaggerated; that the doors are wide open; that the Association is the only agency at hand qualified to deal adequately with the situation.” See “Report of Mr. Mott,” ca. August 1917, box 192, Elihu Root Papers, Library of Congress. A recent study of the Root Mission is Alton E. Ingram, “The Root Mission to Russia, 1917” (Ph.D. diss., Louisiana State University, 1970). For Soviet attitudes to Mott’s role in the Root Mission, see Gulyga, A, “Nachal'nyi period antisovetskoi interventsii SShA, 1917-1918 gg.,Voprosy istorii, 1950, no. 3, pp. 3–25. Mott is characterized as the Mission’s leading ideologist who laid the groundwork for pro-American propaganda. Ioffe, A. E., in “Missiia Ruta v Rossii v 1917 godu,” Voprosy istorii, 1958, no. 9, pp. 87–100, calls Mott the leader of the reactionary YMCA and also portrays him as a close personal friend and unofficial adviser of Wilson, whom, of course, the Soviets blame for intervention in the Russian Civil War.

7. Jerome Davis to Mott, Nov. 4, 1917, Records of Russia and Siberia, 1918-20, E. T. Colton Collection, Russian YMCA Materials. Seleznev, G. K., in Krakh zagovora (Moscow, 1963), notes that the Provisional Government granted enormous privileges to the YMCA. Such concessions, Seleznev maintains, amounted to the beginning of American economic penetration and a sellout to American imperialists by the Kerensky government.

8. William Orr, “Memorandum of College Men for Service in Russia,” Aug. 22, 1917, box 7, Russian YMCA Materials; and Mott to Samuel Harper, Oct. 5, 1917, box 4, Harper Papers, University of Chicago.

9. Davis to Mott, Nov. 4, 1917, Records of Russia and Siberia, 1918-20, Colton Collection, Russian YMCA Materials. Soviet sources, obviously inflated, set the size of the YMCA mission at fifty entering Vladivostok in early October 1917, with an additional five hundred arriving there in late October. They also say that the funding for this operation was part of “counterrevolutionary” activities of the Western Allies. See G. K., Seleznev, “Ekspansiia amerikanskogo imperializma v Rossii v 1917 godu,Voprosy istorii, 1954, no. 3, pp. 55-73, and Ioffe, “Missiia Ruta v Rossii v 1917 godu,” pp. 97-98.

10. Story to Mrs. Story, Nov. 8 and 9, and Dec. 9, 1917, Story Family Papers; “Report of R. M. Story on Y.M.C.A. Work in Russia and Siberia,” Mar. 9, 1919, box 5, X947, Colton Collection, and E. T. Colton, “Russell M. Story,” undated memorandum, box 7, both in Russian YMCA Materials. Story and his fellow secretaries in Russia were not alone in criticizing Davis. Secretary of State Robert Lansing sharply reprimanded Davis for meddling in political and diplomatic affairs in Russia, one of the few YMCA secretaries so criticized by the United States government. See Lansing to. Mott, Dec. 7, 1917, 763.72119/987, Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1918, Russia, 3 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1931-32), 1 : 289-90.

11. Colton, “Russell M. Story,” undated memorandum, box 7, Russian YMCA Materials.

12. Story to Mrs. Story, Nov. 27 and Dec. 4, 1917, Story Family Papers.

13. Summers to YMCA, Dec. 9, 1917, Records of Russia and Siberia, 1918-20, Colton Collection, Russian YMCA Materials.

14. See David Francis's Appointment Book for 1917, David R. Francis Papers, Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis; Story to Mrs. Story, Nov. 27, Dec. 16 and 30, 1917, and Jan. 18, 1918, Story Family Papers; and “Report of R. M. Story on Y.M.C.A. Work in Russia and Siberia,” Mar. 9, 1919, box 5, X947, Colton Collection, Russian YMCA Materials.

15. Story to Mrs. Story, Jan. 18, 1918, Story Family Papers.

16. Crawford Wheeler to Mott and Colton, Nov. 22, 1919, “Report on War Time Activities in Russia,” E. T. Colton, Siberia, World War I Field Reports, Russian YMCA Materials. The YMCA's effort to distribute Wilson's statements to the Russian people was reported by George Creel, head of the Committee on Public Information, to the president. See Creel to Wilson, Jan. IS, 1918, Wilson Papers. Soviet scholars continually discuss the fact that the YMCA aided the American government and see the distribution of Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech as a perfect example of this sort of activity. See Gulyga, “Nachal'nyi period,” p. 21. These contentions are made despite the fact that apparently the YMCA’s distribution to Russian and German troops on the Eastern front of two million copies of Wilson’s speech was made with Bolshevik assistance. See Louis, Fischer, The Soviets in World Affairs : A History of the Relations Between the Soviet Union and the Rest of the World, 1917-1929, 2 vols. (London, 1930), 1 : 42.

17. Colton to Mott, Jan. 27, 1918, Records of Russia and Siberia, 1918-20, Colton Collection, Russian YMCA Materials. For a discussion of the need for more governmental support of the YMCA see Mott to Creel, Feb. 8, 1918, enclosed in Creel to Wilson, Feb. 27, 1918, Wilson Papers.

18. Davis to Mott, telegram, Feb. 9, 1918. and Mott to Davis, telegram, received Feb. 10, 1918, Records of Russia and Siberia, 1918-20, Colton Collection, Russian YMCA Materials. At one point, John Mott enlisted the support of the American socialist Charles Edward Russell in the hope that activities supported by American socialists would be more acceptable in revolutionary Russia. See, for example, Mott to Russell, Mar. 18, 1918, book 9, Charles E. Russell Papers, Library of Congress.

19. E. T., Colton, “With the Y.M.C.A. in Revolutionary Russia,Russian Review, 14 (April 1955) : 128–39.

20. Colton to Mott, Mar. 21, 1918, Russia, 1918 box, Russian YMCA Materials. Discussions of the Samara conference are in Colton, “With the Y.M.C.A. in Revolutionary Russia,” p. 133; Reitzel, All in a Lifetime, pp. 193-99; and “Report of R. M. Story on Y.M.C.A. Work in Russia and Siberia,” Mar. 9, 1919, box 5, X947, Colton Collection, Russian YMCA Materials. See also “Report of Minsk District Given at the Samara Conference,” Mar. 20, 1918, and Donald Lowrie, “Statement Regarding Work in Odessa District, Presented at the Samara Conference,” Mar. 20, 1918, box X947, Russia, Minsk, Russian YMCA Materials.

21. Mott to Colton, Apr. 9, 1918, box 7, Russian YMCA Materials. Mott was, of course, never a sympathizer of the Bolsheviks and probably never really understood Bolshevism. He was a strong believer in the March Revolution and a supporter of the moderates who ruled Russia between March and November 1917. He also remained in close contact with the Russian ambassador in Washington, Boris Bakhmeteff. His belief that the secretaries should remain in Russia is thus easily understood. For an analysis of Mott see Kennan, George F., The Decision to Intervene (Princeton, 1958), pp. 32526.

22. Baker to Mott, Aug. 9, 1918, box X947, Siberia : POWs, Russian YMCA Materials. The president told Baker, “This matter which Mott alludes to here seems to be important, and I would be very much obliged if you would be kind enough to have it straightened out and these young gentlemen reassured.” See Wilson to Baker, July 22, 1918, and Baker to Wilson, Aug. 8, 1918, Wilson Papers.

23. The agricultural pamphlets, in Russian, are found in the Russian YMCA Materials.

24. Poole to YMCA, Aug. 22, 1918, box 7, Russian YMCA Materials.

25. “All Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combatting Counter-revolution, Speculation and Crimes when Employed” to the YMCA, Oct. 25, 1918, E. T. Colton, World War I Field Reports, Russian YMCA Materials.

26. Jerome Davis, for example, was more sympathetic to the Bolsheviks than most of the YMCA secretaries. But he was more the exception than the rule.

27. For a summary of these activities see Wheeler to Mott and Colton, Nov. 22, 1919, “Report on War Time Activities in Russia,” E. T. Colton, Siberia, World War I Field Reports, Russian YMCA Materials.

28. Craig to C. V. Hibbard, Aug. 30, 1918, YMCA, Russia, North Russia Occupation box, and Wheeler to Colton, Jan. 11, 1919, box 146-B, World Service, both in Russian YMCA Materials. See also Kennan, Decision to Intervene, p. 255.

29. “Report of R. M. Story on Y.M.C.A. Work in Russia and Siberia,” Mar. 9. 1919, box 5, X947, Colton Collection, Russian YMCA Materials. It should be noted that YMCA secretaries disputed the reports by opponents of the Soviet government that the Bolsheviks were arming the German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners in Siberia, a reason frequently cited by those calling for Allied intervention in Russia during 1918. Story, for example, wrote that there was “much exaggeration” in these reports. See Story to Mrs. Story, Apr. 20, 1918, Story Family Papers. A recent work by the Soviet scholar Soskin, V. L., Ocherki istorii kul'tury Sibiri v gody Revoliutsii i Grazhdanskoi voiny, konets 1917-nachalo 1921 gg. (Novosibirsk, 1965), summarizes YMCA activities in Siberia in the following way. There was a close connection between the YMCA, the American government, and leading financiers of imperialism. Soskin points out that even the Kolchak government felt threatened by this and therefore eventually tried to eliminate the YMCA. Soskin shows that the Rockefellers contributed funds for YMCA activities in Russia. For Soskin the true aim of the YMCA was to create its own Russian agency and thus force Russia to submit to the “imperialist monopolists” that stood as the “backbone“ of the YMCA. The YMCA, as the most powerful ideological agency in Siberia, also tried to subvert the ignorant peasantry with religious propaganda. Thus the YMCA, for Soskin, becomes the chief ideological arm of American expansion and part of a plan to force a foreign religion on unsuspecting peasants. Soskin notes that the YMCA was highly successful among young intellectuals, though not with the peasantry. Geronimus, A. I., in “Pomoshch” Soedinennykh shtatov Ameriki Kolchaku, Istoricheskie zapiski, 29 (1949) : 33–47, states that the YMCA was energetic in its instructional work in the counterrevolutionary and interventionist armies and among the population. The YMCA used mass media with great skill in propagandizing the American way of life, but, Geronimus notes, the population did not put its faith in these representatives of the “democratic” republic that sided with one of the most “brutal leaders of the White Guards” (p. 45).

30. The best account of the YMCA and the Czechs is by E. T. Heald, “With the Czecho-Slovak and Other Allied Armies in Russia.” box 146-B, World Service, Russian YMCA Materials. See also Heald's memoirs, recently published : Gidney, James B., ed., Witness to Revolution : Letters from Russia, 1916-1919 (Kent, Ohio, 1972), and The Y.M.C.A. with the Czecho-Slovak Army (Prague : Vojensky Domov, 1919).

31. Ernest L. Harris, American consul in Omsk, to Secretary of State, Dec. 30, 1918, telegram, box 5, X947, Russian YMCA Materials.

32. Heald to Colton, Feb. 2. 1919, box 5, X947, Russian YMCA Materials. See also the Siberian Report of G. S. Phelps. Nov. 3, 1920, box 5, X947, Colton Collection, and “Memoirs of G. Sidney Phelps : The Drama of the Siberian Expedition of the Y.M.C.A., 1918-1920,” Apr. 1, 1954, box 7, both in the Russian YMCA Materials. Heald was not the only one who expected the YMCA to remain in Western Siberia. The consul in Omsk, Harris, thought the problems had been worked out. See Harris to Secretary of State, Feb. 25, 1919, telegram no. 853, box 40, Henry White Papers, Library of Congress. These unfulfilled requests by Heald are cited as evidence that the YMCA was a key participant in counterrevolutionary activities. See Soskin, Ochcrki istorii kul'tury Sibiri, pp. 147-48. Harris later changed his mind. He thought the problems could be worked out only by the YMCA countering Japanese influence and helping to stamp out the Bolsheviks. When the YMCA refused, Harris came to oppose the YMCA presence in Siberia, stating that it had Bolshevik sympathies and was dominated by moneygrubbers. The YMCA denied these charges, which clearly resulted from the failure of the YMCA actively to support the Kolchak regime. See R. W. Hollinger to Harris, Oct. 23, 1919, box 1, William Graves Papers, Hoover Institution Archives, and also Harris to Secretary of State, Dec. 10, 1918, 861.00/3437, Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1918, Russia, 2 : 458-60. The best summary of Harris's charges against the YMCA appears in his report, “The Allies in Siberia,” Report to the State Department, Aug. 29, 1921, 861.00/9050, Entry 555, Records of the Department of State Relating to Internal Affairs of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1910-1929, Record Group 59, National Archives.

33. Phelps to Minister of Foreign Affairs, Russian Provisional Government, May 30, 1919, box 7, Roland S. Morris Papers, Library of Congress. It should be noted that the YMCA was also having trouble with both Russian and Japanese officials over the use of the Chinese Eastern Railroad in Manchuria. See, for example, John K. Caldwell to Secretary of State, Nov. 21, 1918, 861.00/3254, Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1918, Russia, 2 : 437-38.

34. Phelps to Morris, July 11, 1919, box 7, Morris Papers, Library of Congress; Colton to Bakhmeteff, Oct. 31, 1919, and Bakhmeteff to Colton, Dec. 17, 1919, box 5, X947, Russian YMCA Materials.

35. Statement of Admiral Austin M. Knight, Feb. 8, 1919, box X673, World War I, Russian YMCA Materials.

36. For Russian newspaper stories critical of the YMCA see Record Group 395, Historical File, AEF in Siberia, Department of War Records in the National Archives.

37. Memorandum of a visit to the State Department by Colton and Hibbard, Aug. 6, 1919, box 146-B, World Services, Russian YMCA Materials; and Morris to Secretary of State, Aug. 14, 1919, and Jan. 17, 1920, box 5, Morris Papers. Some of the secretaries did stay, even outside of Vladivostok, after 1920. But they soon left. Rev. William Tucker did not leave until 1921, and his personal papers indicate the kinds of activities these remaining secretaries were engaged in.

38. “Findings of the Russia Conference, February 21-23, 1920,” box 5, X947, Russian YMCA Materials.

39. Meeting of Apr. 1, 1920, Memorandum, E. T. Colton, Records of Russia and Siberia, 1918-20, and Memorandum of Policy of the International Committee of the YMCA, “Regarding the Political Activities of Its Overseas Representatives,” May 13, 1920, box 7, both in Russian YMCA Materials.

40. Hibbard to Cyrus H. McCormick, Aug. 10, 1920, box 116, Cyrus McCormick Papers, State Historical Society, Madison, Wisconsin. McCormick was an old friend of President Wilson's and a strong supporter of the YMCA.

41. Donald Lowrie, “Notes on an Interview with Mr. Nuorteva, November 24, 1920, “ box 146-A, World Services, Russian YMCA Materials.

42. For details on these activities see “Russian Work-Policy Study,” Nov. 23, 1943, box 8, and Paul Anderson, “Notes on the Development of Y.M.C.A. Work for Russians Outside Russia, 1919-1939,” Feb. 19, 1940, box X947, both in Russian YMCA Materials. One aspect of aid to Russian émigrés in the United States was the establishment of the Russian Student Fund, Inc., which the YMCA helped support. Mott was on the Board of Directors of the Fund. The Fund, of which Norman Davis served as chairman, lent more than $500, 000 to 476 Russian students who attended American universities between 1921 and 1931, the period Davis headed the organization. For details of the Fund see the material in boxes 52-53, Norman H. Davis Papers, Library of Congress.

43. An American YMCA secretary was in the Soviet Union from 1923 until 1926 teaching physical education at the Soviet Higher Physical Education Institute in Moscow, but this was not an acceptance of YMCA activities by the Soviet government. Those activities ended in 1923.

The American YMCA and the Russian Revolution

  • Donald E. Davis and Eugene P. Trani

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