The Story of a Secret Rescue Mission

St. Petersburg During the Russian Civil War

Group of older children who were rescued,
on deck of Yomei Maru, 1920.
Photo: Vladimir Lipovetsky

The calamities of the First World War with its massive loss of Russian lives greatly weakened the power of the Romanov dynasty and, in 1917, the Tsar was forced to abdicate his throne. A weak Provisional Government was formed in February 1917, but the losses from the war, the breakdown of the economy, and the violence caused by rival political factions created an opportunity for the Communists to seize power in the fall of 1917.

Russia then disintegrated into civil war as the Red Army of the Communist Party, which controlled St. Petersburg (Petrograd), Moscow and the central Russian heartland, found itself surrounded by conservative forces who wanted to crush the radical Bolshevik revolution. The opposition forces were called the White Army and the violence of Russians versus Russians quickly spread across the country.

The Plight of the Russian Children

It was during the chaos of these years of civil war that parents in St. Petersburg loaded thousands of their children and chaperoning teachers on trains headed a thousand miles southeast to the Ural Mountains, where they would be safe and well-fed, sheltered from the conflicts in the region around the Russian capital city of St. Petersburg.

Most of these children returned home at the end of the summer of 1918, but nearly 800 of them were trapped in Siberia as the civil war spread east. During battles between the Red and White Armies, the train line to the west was severed and the children, dressed in summer clothes, were facing hunger and the threat of winter without adequate clothing.

We now know a remarkable story about how these children were rescued by the American Red Cross. In the fall of 1918, Red Cross volunteers working in the Russian Far East heard rumors about hundreds of abandoned children dressed in rags and foraging for food in Siberian forests. The volunteers set out to find these children and, when they were located, put them on trains eastward to the port city of Vladivostok. Once in Vladivostok, the children were taken to a former barracks on nearby Russky Island where they remained until the summer of 1920. On the island, they were under the protection of the American Expeditionary Force that was deployed there to protect American military equipment loaned to Russia during World War I.

Riley Allen with one of rescued children,
on Russky Island off Vladivostok.
Photo: Vladimir Lipovetsky

As the American troops prepared to leave, the Russian children’s fate became an issue. At this point, the American Red Cross once again stepped in. A Red Cross volunteer, Riley Allen, arrived in the Russian Far East to report on developments there as a journalist, but when he learned about these children, he decided to help them. A Japanese cargo ship was refitted and used to transport 20 American Red Cross volunteers, 780 children, and their 50 teachers to California, where they arrived in August 1920. During the next six months, the children and teachers were brought back to St. Petersburg by way of Finland – a journey that had literally taken them around the world!

This remarkable story is now being told for the first time by Russians who want to make the rescue mission known. Most of the children involved in this adventure never spoke about their experience as they grew up because contact with foreigners was dangerous in the Soviet Union. One of the authors who wrote about this rescue mission is Olga Molkina, whose book has been published in Russian, but not yet in English. She said: “The Americans who worked in the American Red Cross were simple people, and those lost children were someone else’s. They didn’t have to do anything, but they did.”

NOTE: This post is based on an article by Kathy Lally entitled “A Red Cross Rescue of Russian Children,” published in the January 7, 2012 issue of The Washington Post.