A group of 1918 American Red Cross volunteers are responsible for saving the lives of hundreds of Russian children who were cut off from their parents by war and revolution.
It was the time of World War I and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and conditions were harsh in the capital city of Petrograd, today’s St. Petersburg. Squalid living conditions, hunger and disease were rampant and the country’s involvement in World War I had cost millions of lives and severely disrupted Russia’s struggling economy.
In May of 1918, parents in Petrograd put thousands of their children on trains headed south to the Ural Mountains to enjoy a summer of fresh air and nourishing food. A group of teachers also took the trip, acting as chaperones for the young Russians. For some of these parents, it would be more than two years until they would see their children again.
At the end of the summer, most of the children returned to Petrograd. However, for almost 800 children who had journeyed east of the Urals, the trip became a nightmare when they were caught between fighting factions in the Russian civil war. Their three-month trip was extended indefinitely when train lines were cut, making it impossible for the children to get home. Ages 5 to 16, they had only summer clothes and were growing cold and hungry in the forests of Siberia as autumn approached.
Released prisoners of war from different countries trying to get back to their homes added to the dangers the children faced.The children and their teachers were forced to escape eastward across the forbidding expanse of Siberia.
At this time in history, the American Red Cross had volunteers doing relief work in more than twenty countries in Europe. Wounded soldiers were pouring into the Russian city of Vladivostok where inadequate treatment facilities awaited them. The country asked for help and the Red Cross rushed men and supplies from the United States. They equipped and operated hospitals for American and Allied troops as well as refugees, equipped and maintained an anti-typhus train and isolation hospital for typhus patients, distributed comfort kits to American and Allied soldiers and helped the soldiers communicate with loved ones back home.
A group of these American Red Cross volunteers in Russia heard about the children and set off to rescue them. Threatened by snow and ice storms, lack of food, boxcar fires, typhus epidemics, bandits, and gunfire of the civil war, the volunteers put the children on trains to Vladivostok, the beginning of a two-and-a-half-year journey that would take the children, the chaperones and Red Cross workers all around the world in an effort to return the children to their homes. They made sure the children were fed, had a place to stay, medical care, and schooling.
A former military barracks on Russky Island near Vladivostok became an icy winter home to the children until the summer of 1920. Traveling over land back to Petrograd was still impossible, so a cargo ship was refitted and the Red Cross workers, along with almost 800 children and 50 Russian teachers, set sail for the United States and San Francisco.
From there the group set sail for the Panama Canal, New York, France, the Baltic Sea, Finland, and finally back to Russia. On February 6, 1921, the New York Times reported the last of the children had crossed the Finnish border and returned home.
This brave group of volunteers became true guardian angels to the lost children of Petrograd.