Lewis & the YMCA in Russia

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Russia After the War

Soldiers in Russia
Soldiers in Northern Russia
The end of World War I did not bring an end to combat in Russia. The October 1917 Revolution started a civil war in Russia, and foreign powers soon began military intervention on behalf of the “White” (anti-Bolshevik) armies to protect their military interests and keep Russia in the war. Increasing unrest among the general population across Russia and Eastern Europe led to other violent uprisings as smaller areas across Russia began declaring themselves independent states, including Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.


Watson Lewis arrived in Northern Russia during this chaotic time in late 1918. He stayed for nine months in Archangel and returned in February 1920 to Vladivostok, where he stayed for several months more before being relocated to Harbin, Manchuria. During his time in Russia, Lewis experienced what few Americans were able to see firsthand.


 Working In Russia

The YMCA’s work in Archangel and Vladivostok was varied. In the cities, the Y provided many types of activities, including English classes and garden clubs. Lewis focused on teaching physical education to boys, including baseball and track and field. Lewis spent some of his time recording the experiences of Russian and American soldiers in Northern Russia. A long letter to his wife shortly after leaving Archangel for Europe briefly shows the activities of American and British military groups brought in to fight the Bolshevik army and details how Russian soldiers were treated by British commanders after an attempted mutiny. Additional letters during this time tell his wife about rumors, political changes, and other local information that was not being reported by American newspapers.

Men in front of YMCA building
Men in front of YMCA building


Around the beginning of April 1920, Vladivostok was attacked by a squadron of Japanese troops. Lewis witnessed the attack and aftermath, noting:


They butchered without mercy. Even the Korean school school house was burned, and no one knows how many Koreans were killed. And then they [the Japanese military] send dispatches to America that the Russians attacked them. How outrageous.
    – letter to Mildred Lewis, April 24, 1920


Not long after this attack, Lewis was reassigned to Harbin, Manchuria, which was further away from the areas under dispute between the Russians and the Japanese.

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Playing baseball in Archangel


Other YMCA units in Russia also provided reports to the main American office describing their efforts across the country. Some Y secretaries worked in dangerous conditions near the front, working with soldiers and prisoners of war and often alongside the Red Cross.