The American Red Cross and YMCA in Revolutionary Russia, 1917-1924


A review of Constructive Efforts: The American Red Cross and YMCA in Revolutionary and Civil War Russia, 1917–24, by Jennifer Polk.

Jennifer Polk’s dissertation, Constructive Efforts: The American Red Cross and YMCA in Revolutionary and Civil War Russia, 1917–24, is an engaging read that speaks to a variety of historiographies and fields within and beyond modern American and modern Russian history. There is much here to interest scholars studying international relations, progressivism and social reform, American cultural imperialism, missionary efforts, and the generally bumbling interference of foreign powers in the Russian Civil War. In addition, as described by Polk, her ambitious transnational research “also contributes to the burgeoning fields of the study of international humanitarian aid and the history of humanitarian interventions” (p. 8), an area of study that is very timely given global instability and renewed debate over the value of intervention in foreign conflict zones marked by humanitarian disaster.

Polk’s intuition to consider the American Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) (and to some extent the Young Women’s Christian Association [YWCA] as well) and the American Red Cross in a single study proved fruitful, and the result is a much more detailed and comprehensive picture of American humanitarian efforts in revolutionary Russia than the previous literature has provided. Polk is thorough and dutiful with respect to those who have gone before her, showing an impressive grasp of the existing literature, including unpublished dissertations. In addition to biographies of key players (e.g. Howard C. Hopkins, John R. Mott 1865–1955: A Biography. Geneva & Grand Rapids, MI: World Council of Churches & William B. Eerdmans, 1979; Neil V. Salzman, Reform and Revolution: The Life and Times of Raymond Robins. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1991), particularly important to her are historical studies of the YMCA and the Red Cross (for example: Douglas O. Baldwin, She Answered Every Call: The Life of Public Health Nurse, Mona Gordon Wilson (1894–1981). Charlottetown, PE: Indigo, 1997; Donald E. Davis and Eugene P. Trani, “The American YMCA and the Russian Revolution.” Slavic Review 33, no. 3 (Sep 1974): 469–91) and also broader works dealing with international politics and US-Russian relations in the period (such as Leo J. Bacino, Reconstructing Russia: U.S. Policy in Revolutionary Russia, 1917–1922. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1999, and the works of Donald E. Davis and Eugene P. Trani, such as The First Cold War: The Legacy of Woodrow Wilson in U.S.–Soviet Relations. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2002). She also engages a selection of works from a recent, blossoming literature on conflict and humanitarian intervention, such as Michael Barnett’s Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011. Throughout the dissertation, which draws its primary sources from memoirs in addition to documents from a remarkable seventeen US, Canadian, and British archives, Polk exhibits an impressive mastery of her material, as well as a poised narrative voice that draws the reader into the dramatic human stories Polk has meticulously reconstructed. Indeed, Polk’s dissertation is a well woven narrative history that not only provides a wealth of previously unexplored details about American humanitarian efforts in Russia, but also reads remarkably smoothly given the quantity of archival materials on which Polk’s seemingly effortless prose rests.

After providing her readers with the necessary context in her introduction, Polk moves on in her first chapter to explore the YMCA and Red Cross presence in Russia before the Bolsheviks came to power. As she effectively demonstrates, these humanitarian actors, such as John R. Mott (YMCA) and William Boyce Thompson (Red Cross) shared a general American optimism about the prospects for Russian democratization—under American tutelage, naturally—after the February Revolution of 1917. Their essentially paternalistic views were characteristic of most American relief workers, as well as of social reformers in the Progressive Era more broadly, but their paternalism and mixed motives did not make their humanitarian motivations or their dogged optimism about Russia any less sincere. These actors also shared the US government’s desire to keep Russia in World War I. Mott negotiated with General Aleksei Brusilov and reported directly to US President Woodrow Wilson. The Red Cross also had close ties to the Wilson administration and to Wall Street. As Polk shows, Thompson demonstrated his own commitment to the cause by buying 500,000 rubles’ worth of Provisional Government liberty bonds, although his example failed to convince his Wall Street connections to invest in them.

In addition to sharing concerns widespread among the US government, these actors also pursued their own peculiar ends. The YMCA’s activities in Russia, which dated back only to 1900, had been heavily regulated by the wary tsarist regime. For that reason, in its zeal to bring its brand of wholesome spiritual and physical development to as many Russian men as possible, the YMCA, in Polk’s words, was “keen to establish itself on a permanent, peacetime basis all across the former Russian Empire” (p. 32). Its representatives were interested in continuing their work with POWs—although they were forced to give much of it up as America entered the war and thus ceased to be a neutral power—and in working with soldiers, but they also sought to open new branches of their organization known as Mayak (Russian for “lighthouse”) and to expand their programs among civilians. The YMCA established missions for soldiers in Russian cities as well as it could: lacking the official backing of the Provisional Government despite having Kerensky’s unofficial blessing to work among soldiers as long as they were not at the front, YMCA leaders (known as “secretaries”) had to negotiate with the local military and civilian authorities wherever they went beyond Petrograd. It was only in August that they managed to open their first new facility (these were called “huts”) for soldiers, not far from Moscow. There, they provided literature, film screenings, classes in math, writing, and English, sports, and inexpensive tea. Polk’s first chapter, then, gives us a sense of the complex conditions, various agents, and sometimes competing motivations that shaped Red Cross and YMCA activity in revolutionary Russia.

For its part, the Red Cross would naturally seek to provide medical supplies and aid wounded soldiers. Despite increasingly difficult circumstances in Russia, it did eventually provide “medical and surgical supplies valued over $400,000…and 125 fully-equipped ambulance cars…at a cost of just under $85,000,” which was distributed by the Provisional Government, the Zemstvo Union, the Russian Army, and the Russian Red Cross, generating some goodwill among the Russians toward the American Red Cross (p. 64). The Red Cross was also concerned with child welfare and thus saw that large shipments of condensed milk were shipped from the United States for distribution in Petrograd—in cans labeled “FROM FREE AMERICA TO FREE RUSSIA” (p. 72). Of course, the Red Cross workers were aware that food shortages could undermine Alexander Kerensky’s hold on power, and William Boyce Thompson’s motives were not purely humanitarian. In his own words, in working out his mission he had understood that he “was expected as the representative of the United States to undertake any work which in my judgment was necessary or advisable in the effort to prevent the disintegration of the Russian forces” (cited in Polk, p. 46). Even the American labor leader Raymond Robins, another leader in the Red Cross mission who would eventually gain the trust of leading Bolsheviks (especially Trotsky’s), pushed this line. According to Polk, although Thompson’s understanding of his mission’s purpose at first aligned with that of the Wilson administration, it nevertheless “seemingly went against the supposedly neutral, humanitarian character of a Red Cross commission,” and this eventually led to “clashes with American officials in Russia, the State Department, and even with President Wilson himself” (p. 49). Some of these occurred over Thompson’s attempt to increase propaganda efforts in Russia, a cause in which the US State Department was little inclined to invest. Meanwhile, the American ambassador to Russia, David Rowland Francis, was often at odds with the semi-official and non-state actors who turned up in 1917 and, in his view, undercut his authority. Things were, of course, about to get even more complicated.

Polk’s second chapter focuses on how the representatives of the Red Cross and YMCA related to the new Bolshevik authorities in the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution. Since the YMCA had been focusing on supporting the tsarist war effort by working among soldiers, its mission’s entire raison d’être was thrown into question, and some secretaries left in order to work where they could directly aid the Allied war effort. Although many of its representatives, including Thompson, left the country, the Red Cross continued its medical and food relief efforts. In a chaotic moment in which the direction that US-Russian relations would take was unclear, Robins became Ambassador Francis’s “unofficial go-between with the Bolsheviks” (p. 85), as Francis would not speak with them directly. Outside Russia, Thompson tried to convince British Prime Minister Lloyd George and US President Wilson that the Allies could find a way to work with the Bolsheviks, an attitude that would increasingly marginalize him. Inside Russia, the condensed milk distribution program made a good impression on the Bolsheviks, as did Robins, despite his openly disagreeing with some of their policies. With very little help from a US government that would not deign to speak with the new de facto rulers of Russia, YMCA leaders, such as Paul B. Anderson, and Red Cross leaders, prominently Robins, naively and persistently attempted to keep the Bolsheviks from ratifying the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, but to no avail. It was not long before Robins was recalled, despite a desire to stay on and the Bolsheviks’ desire to continue working with him as an unofficial link to the United State government. He left Russia on May 14, 1918 to become, along with Thompson, another voice crying in the wilderness regarding the desirability of recognizing, and thus trying to work with and to influence, the Bolshevik regime.

Despite these difficult circumstances, the YMCA likewise managed to continue its activities in the revolutionary moment by finding ways to work with the authorities. Although he was hesitant to reach out to the Bolsheviks, the YMCA’s Jerome Davis eventually met People’s Commissar for Enlightenment Anatoly Lunacharsky and secured his approval for the YMCA activities that had been supported under the Kerensky regime. The work with Russian soldiers nevertheless stopped in February, 1918, causing the YMCA to rethink its Russian mission. Meanwhile, YMCA secretaries were involved with the distribution of American propaganda under Edgar Sisson, the man who had been picked to head up the propaganda initiative started by Thompson. YMCA leaders disagreed among themselves as to the appropriateness of their involvement in this initiative. It was eventually decided that they should cease from distributing propaganda, and the relationship of the ecumenically minded but essentially Protestant organization with the anti-religious Bolsheviks remained tenuous.

In Chapter 3, the plot thickens, as Polk introduces the activities of the YMCA and the Red Cross in connection with the Czechoslovak Legion that had placed itself in the service of the Allies in World War I, hoping to improve the prospects for the recognition of an independent Czechoslovak state after the war. Like the Allies, these Czech and Slovak soldiers had no love for the Bolsheviks, and as the Russian Civil War began they found themselves stranded in Russia. As Polk puts it on p. 141:

Once the Czechoslovaks rose against local Soviet administrations blocking their way out of Russia, American secretaries became more heavily involved. Soon the Red Cross was also playing a support role, and by early fall [of 1918] it was running nearly all Czechoslovak medical facilities in Russia. As an outgrowth of these activities, Red Cross and YMCA personnel provided medical and auxiliary services to members of the various anti-Bolshevik Russian forces. The decision to do so had less to do with politics than with proximity, but it set the stage for outright anti-Bolshevism within relief society ranks.

An incident of fighting between Czechoslovak and Red Army soldiers at Cheliabinsk had caused the Bolsheviks to demand the legion’s complete disarmament. Distrustful of the Bolsheviks, the Czech and Slovak soldiers had refused this demand, taking up arms against the Red Army as they fought their way across Siberia with the aim of departing Russia from Vladivostok. All the while they were aided by the Red Cross and the YMCA, during a period in which citizens of Allied states began to be arrested in Bolshevik-controlled Russia and the YMCA attempted to carry on initiatives in both Red- and White-controlled areas. When the Czechoslovak Legion took over Vladivostok in July and the Allies declared that the city had come under their protection, the situation for Americans in Soviet Russia became particularly tenuous, while citizens of other Allied nations began to be arrested. The YMCA and particularly the Red Cross would provide support to the other Allied troops that arrived in far northern Russia and in Siberia to shore up Admiral Alexander Kolchak’s White government, thus becoming more directly involved in the Russian Civil War. With Allied troops on the ground, the American Red Cross’s activities were put under the auspices of an organization called the Siberian Commission, which oversaw most American Red Cross work in Russia until it was disbanded in 1920. Prior to Polk’s research, little was known about the Siberian Commission. Her detailed recovery of its activities, which continues throughout the subsequent dissertation chapters, represents one of her most important original contributions.

It was the Czechoslovak uprising that was the decisive factor in bringing about direct Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War. Once that intervention occurred, continuing relief work in Soviet Russia became untenable. Polk’s fourth chapter describes the last few months of that relief work, covering the spring, summer, and fall of 1918. During this period, both the Red Cross and the YMCA worked with Russian former POWs returning in large numbers, sometimes collaborating with one another in the effort. In addition, Mayak centers operated in Moscow and Petrograd. The YMCA also worked out a program with the Soviet government in which its secretaries took steamers and barges along the Volga into the Russian countryside, investigating local conditions in addition to providing exhibits and educational programs related to agriculture. According to Polk, “Several kinds of exhibits, demonstrations, and lectures were proposed on subjects including field crops, agricultural machinery, horticulture, vegetable gardening, dairy and poultry farming, beekeeping, the cooperative movement, home economics, and hygiene and sanitation. An on-board book shop was planned, and guides were to be hired to explain exhibits to visitors” (p. 199).

Polk highlights the easy cooperation of Russian and American actors and institutions in this initiative, commenting on “how similarly-minded reformers the world over were during the Progressive Era” (p. 199), and noting how “YMCA plans fit in well with the contemporary Russian adult education movement” (p. 200). The YWCA was also involved, providing “representatives to carry out programming aimed at women and girls” (p. 200). Such cooperation could not last once the Allies were officially at war with the Bolsheviks, however. The YMCA and Red Cross workers in Soviet Russia were subjected to increasingly difficult circumstances and in some cases to arrest, and were eventually forced to leave. Many YMCA secretaries, however, were determined to return to carry on their work as soon as possible, convinced that Russia needed their help.

Polk’s fifth chapter takes us to the Russian Far North in 1918-1919, where the YMCA and the Red Cross worked primarily with allied troops in addition to providing some relief to refugees and locals, including a Red Cross school lunch program and other food distribution efforts. According to Polk (p. 231):

The inherent tensions between their dual roles—military and humanitarian—were exacerbated by stresses particular to this northernmost fighting front. These included dealing with the British command, the over-abundance of alcohol, and the extremely limited availability of food, basic supplies, and other items. Representatives of both organizations found value in carrying out what limited civilian work they were able to, for reasons that will be familiar to readers by this point: success of the Allied occupation, friendly relations between Russia and the United States, and the future development of Russia itself.

The spring of 1918 saw the deployment of a number of Allied forces to Russia, the cause for intervention having been given a boost by the Czechoslovak uprising, as Polk observes. This chapter deals extensively with the British, French, and American forces in the Far North, highlighting the lack of coordination and poor management that complicated the efforts of relief workers.

In Chapter 6, Polk turns to the work of the YMCA and Red Cross in conjunction with Allied efforts to support Kolchak in Siberia. In addition to its focus on Red Cross hospitals, this chapter treats considerably the deployment of relief and sanitary trains from Vladivostok, highlighting in particular an anti-typhus train that was one of the Red Cross’s more successful initiatives in revolutionary Russia, even if its effectiveness was hampered by the confused situation in Siberia. The train was just one aspect of the fight against a fatal typhus epidemic, in which Dr. Rudolph Bolling Teusler, hitherto an Episcopal missionary to Japan, played a leading role. For its part, the YMCA struggled in Siberia. It was “subject to bad press and insidious rumors throughout its time in Siberia. It had a much harder time than did the Red Cross convincing Siberia’s top leaders—and public opinion—that it could do good work for Russian soldiers” (p. 293). Despite these difficulties, the YMCA did provide some direct aid to White Russian soldiers. The YMCA also carried on its regular educational, physical, recreational, and religious activities in Siberian cities until they fell to Red forces. In addition, it was members of the YMCA who brought the plight of the Petrograd Children’s Colony to the attention of the Red Cross, which took responsibility for caring for these refugee children. They had been sent east from Petrograd by their parents in order to keep them safe from the Great War, only to find themselves behind White lines during the Russian Civil War.

Polk’s seventh chapter explores the relationship between American relief workers and the Kolchak regime through its downfall in 1919. As she describes the situation: “From Vladivostok to Lake Turgoiak, more than forty-three hundred miles away, the Red Cross was involved in an impressive variety of medical, sanitation, and welfare services. While professing neutrality, its extensive work had an important political goal: the preservation of the Kolchak regime” (p. 353). The YMCA’s relationship to Kolchak remained complicated and tense. As it was unable to gain official recognition as a noncommercial organization, its representatives were forced to pay for transportation by rail and to pay duty on the items that they had imported for discounted, not-for-profit sale to soldiers. Polk shows how the YMCA’s “efforts to expand its activities to the Russian armed forces in an official way had come to naught, but secretaries had plenty to do. They provided services and goods to soldiers of many nationalities in traveling club cars or stationary huts. City work secretaries were hard at work in Vladivostok, Harbin, and a handful of other places” (pp. 353-354). This chapter also details the ways in which certain facilities and projects had to be abandoned as Kolchak’s forces were pushed eastward by the Red Army. In addition, Polk’s detailed and moving accounts of the evacuations of aid workers—particularly those of the women working for the YMCA, YWCA, and Red Cross—provide an intriguing window into the motivations of aid workers and the gender dynamics at play in their milieu. Meanwhile, with prospects and conditions growing increasingly worse for the White cause, the Czechoslovaks abandoned it and in November 1919 ceased to follow Kolchak’s orders, beginning preparations to leave Russia at last.

Although Kolchak’s army and government collapsed by the end of 1919, it took the Bolsheviks some time to establish full control over the eastern edge of Siberia. Vladivostok soon came under an essentially Red Zemstvo-SR government (it would subsequently change hands a few more times), but an American relief worker presence in the city remained possible. Polk’s eighth chapter covers the activities of YMCA and Red Cross representatives in eastern Siberia during the period of 1920-1924. During this time, the Red Cross continued relief efforts among refugees, distributed clothes and medical aid, and continued battling typhus as well as it could. The YMCA, the different goals and character of which contributed to its being much less popular in Siberia, continued to operate centers only in Vladivostok and Harbin. At this point, YMCA secretaries were mainly “engaged in providing support services to the many foreign troops still awaiting repatriation, and in doing some work for POWs” (pp. 414-415). As Polk demonstrates, the American aid workers of both the YMCA and the Red Cross largely remained optimistic about what they had accomplished, believing that the goodwill they had helped to spread would continue to have an impact, pushing Russia toward a brighter future. Interestingly, despite their sometime (if always tension-ridden) support for Kolchak, both groups began to look seriously into the possibility of returning to Soviet Russia. For their part, the Bolsheviks were prepared at least to accept Red Cross relief work, but this return was not to be. Both organizations suffered from continuing uncertainty as Washington dithered and Japanese intervention in the Russian Far East caused numerous complications. While Washington was loathe to communicate with the Bolsheviks, the return home of the Petrograd Children’s Colony ultimately required finding indirect channels of communication. Since their removal from harm’s way during the civil war battles of 1919, the children had been in Vladivostok, where the Red Cross and one YMCA representative saw to their education and care. Given the prevailing instability, getting the children home proved to be difficult, but they were ultimately sent via steamer in early 1921. Meanwhile, the Siberian Commission was busy with its own liquidation. The YMCA continued to provide relief to POWs as they were repatriated from Vladivostok, now under Japanese and White control again, until all were gone by the summer of 1922. Mayak activities continued in Vladivostok until November 1923, nearly a year after the Reds’ final consolidation of power in Vladivostok and the Soviet Union’s official establishment. The YMCA continued to operate in Harbin until 1935. A tiny American Red Cross chapter, separate from the Siberian Commission, remained in Vladivostok until March 1924.

Polk’s dissertation provides many more rich details and stories, meticulously documented with archival sources, that cannot be touched upon in this review. The broad significance of her work lies in part in its thoroughness in bringing so many different source bases together. Her original discoveries are valuable in their own right, while they also provide new contexts through which to interpret previously well known episodes, such as those involving Robins and Thompson. And while her contributions lie primarily in the history of relief work, intervention in conflict, and American foreign relations, her transnational project has much to offer Russianists. Polk’s dissertation will also be required reading for any interested in the Russian emigration, a topic of increasing interest (see, for example, Matthew Lee Miller, The American YMCA and Russian Culture: The Preservation and Expansion of Orthodox Christianity, 1900-1940. New York: Lexington Books, 2012). Specifically, Polk’s research provides us with some of the essential backstory for the YMCA secretaries such as Mott, Anderson, and Donald A. Lowrie, who would later be intimately involved in supporting spiritual and intellectual life among Russian emigres and exiles in Paris. Constructive Efforts is thus a rich and remarkable work that speaks to many historiographical trends. It is this reviewer’s sincere hope that Polk’s valuable research will prove influential as these trends are developed further.

Christopher Stroop
Senior Lecturer
School of Public Policy
Russian Presidential Academy in Moscow (RANEPA)

Primary Sources

Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, ON
Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA
National Archives, College Park, MD
Kautz Family YMCA Archives, Minneapolis, MN
Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA

Dissertation Information

University of Toronto. 2012. 507 pp. Primary advisor: Margaret MacMillan.

Image: Red Cross nurse at train station in Kacha. Photograph by James Maxwell Pringle, 1917-1918. Library of Congress PR 13 CN 2010:041, p. 35.

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