2021 is the 100th anniversary of a miraculous round-the-world odyssey through war and revolution – a tale with a beguiling Cold War aftermath and several Seattle connections.
The author of this article, Tony Allison, studied Russian as an undergraduate at UW, and later received a master’s degree from the Jackson School of International Studies. He lived and worked in Russia for five years, and headed a Seattle-based Russian-American fishing venture. He first heard the story of the 800 rescued children in 1980, while living in the Russian Far East near Vladivostok. This article is adapted from a chapter in his book “America Bay: Russia and Its Wild East,” which he is currently working on.
Many Americans know about the mass starvation that ravaged Leningrad during World War II, when the city was cut off by the Nazis and approximately one quarter of the population perished. But few realize that hunger was also widespread during World War I. The Russian tsarist government had collapsed, and so had its war effort. By the spring of 1918, with Russian soldiers returning home en masse and the Bolsheviks nominally holding power, civil war was breaking out across the country. The situation became dire in Petrograd (formerly St Petersburg, renamed Petrograd during World War I, Leningrad in 1924, then St Petersburg once more in post-Soviet Russia). A wartime civilian aid group called the Union of Cities, with help from the Bolshevik city government, decided to send large numbers of children out of the city into rural areas where food was relatively plentiful. In total some 11,000 children were transported out of Petrograd in so-called “children’s colonies,” with the plan that they would return in time for the school year to begin in September.
Two of the groups, composed of over 800 children and their teacher-supervisors, were sent east by train to the lower Urals area, beyond the Volga River. The children were from a wide mix of social strata and backgrounds. Many siblings made the journey together. Their trains were sometimes delayed by military movements and rumors of destroyed tracks and bridges, but they reached their destination, a group of cottages in the countryside near the city of Chelyabinsk. There life went smoothly enough initially, as food could be purchased with money provided by the venture’s organizers and the children’s parents. Some of the children even stockpiled food to bring home to their relatives in Petrograd. The children made close friends with each other and fell into activities typical of a summer camp: games, music, hiking, flirting, and mild hijinks.
As the summer wore on, the Civil War intensified. Anti-Bolshevik White armies fought the Red Army on several fronts simultaneously. An array of anarchists, Cossack warlords, and foreign troops and mercenaries took the field, usually fighting on the side of the Whites but often pursuing their own agendas. Sometimes gunfire could be heard near the camp. Food sources dwindled, and the Russian currency held by the colony became nearly worthless. Even more ominously, the return route to Petrograd was now blocked by warring forces.
The children had brought only summer clothing, and the bitter Russian winter was setting in. It was decided to divide the children into smaller groups and to disperse them with teacher-supervisors to farms, villages, and nearby cities in the hope of finding food and shelter. Many did chores in exchange for food and lodging; others stole food wherever they could; some turned to begging on the streets.
Panicked parents in Petrograd sought news of their children, and formed a three-person committee to try to reach them overland. The group, consisting of two parents and a pastor working for the Swedish Red Cross, managed to traverse the raging war fronts and reach the children, but had no means to gather them back into one group or bring them to safety. They contacted the American Red Cross, which was active in Siberia and the Urals aiding war victims. Recently, an expanded operation had been established in Vladivostok, a Pacific port city on Russia’s eastern edge, in conjunction with the arrival of US troops there – the notorious, short-lived US military intervention in the Russian Civil War.
Riley Allen, a 34-year-old American who had recently arrived at Red Cross headquarters in Vladivostok, got news of the children’s plight. He had grown up in Seattle and began his career as a reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before taking a job at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, where he soon rose to the position of editor. Then, in 1918, he suddenly quit his job to join the Red Cross mission in Eastern Russia. According to Floyd Miller, who interviewed Allen many years later for his book Wild Children of the Urals, Allen justified his abrupt decision by declaring to his boss that “I think the world is in a mess and I want to contribute something toward setting it straight.” When Allen arrived in Vladivostok, he found it was not only controlled by Russian White forces, but it was also occupied by a shifting mélange of Japanese, US, Canadian, and other foreign troops.
Allen got permission from his supervisor, the renowned medical missionary Dr. Rudolph Teusler, to send Red Cross representatives to assess the children’s situation and their needs. His team managed to locate the scattered groups, and sent a devastating account of their impoverished condition back to Allen. Many children were near starvation, threatened by disease, and living in rags. Allen assembled a train-load of supplies, and sent it to the Urals accompanied by more Red Cross staff.
To the children and their teacher-supervisors, the sudden appearance of well-dressed foreigners bearing medical supplies, food, and warm clothes was, as they later recounted, a “fairy-tale.” But the problem of returning the children to their parents in Petrograd still appeared unsolvable. The railway to the west was still enveloped by civil war, and it was far too dangerous to risk transporting the children in that direction.
Allen decided to bring the children to Vladivostok – by then Teusler had left for Japan, and Allen was running Red Cross operations there. He thought they could reside in relative safety in Vladivostok under the protection of the American Red Cross until it was possible to return them home to Petrograd via the Trans-Siberian railway. He sent rail cars with the insignia of the Red Cross painted on their sides, in the hope that they would not be mistaken for troop transports and attacked on the long trip back across Siberia with the children on board. The recently-arrived US army troops provided armed guards for the trains.
By then the eastern sections of the Trans-Siberian railway had been largely taken over by the famous “Czech legions,” some 60,000 highly disciplined and armed former prisoners-of-war who wanted, with the blessings of the Western powers, to return to Europe via Vladivostok — in fact, assisting them was one of President Woodrow Wilson’s motivations in sending US troops to Eastern Russia. The Czech legions had helped the Whites take over several Siberian cities, and they imposed a regime of relative order on the rail line through Eastern Russia, boosting Allen’s confidence that the transport of the children could be undertaken. Meanwhile, Allen furiously began to make plans to receive and care for 800 mostly pre-adolescent children in the chaotic and war-torn milieu of Vladivostok. Allen’s chief assistant and right-hand man in Vladivostok was a tall, slender, idealistic 26-year-old named Burle Bramhall.
The children’s colony arrived in Vladivostok on three trains after passing through the vastness of Siberia and the Russian Far East. They had witnessed scenes of violence – some had seen the brutal execution of captured Red Army soldiers by Cossack renegades – but their own trains were not attacked. Allen and Bramhall, along with Red Cross staff led by the indomitable taskmaster Hannah “Mother” Campbell, managed to find and fix up barracks-like housing for most of the children and their teacher-supervisors on Russian Island, just to the east of Vladivostok. Some of the older children would reside in the city itself, where they could attend local schools. At one point Bramhall made a dangerous side trip to Harbin, in Manchuria, during which he was nearly killed, to convert currency to help finance Red Cross operations.
Campbell and her assistants saw to the colony’s material needs, and helped to arrange study and recreation programs. They even provided musical instruments, and several of the children formed a small orchestra that staged performances. One of the children was Leonid Yakobson, a music-loving Jewish boy who later became one of the most renowned Russian ballet choreographers of the 20th century, but whose career would suffer under Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaigns.
After the arrival of the children in Vladivostok, the chaos of the Civil War returned to the Trans-Siberian rail line. The Czechs gradually departed through Vladivostok, the Bolsheviks began to press eastward, and Japanese troops collaborated with White commanders and Cossack warlords in a struggle to control the rails. In April 1920, the Japanese army took control of Vladivostok. At this point, US military leaders, seeing the futility of their troops’ presence, were looking for a way to exit. Allen soon received orders to wind up American Red Cross operations as well.
The children’s colony had by now been in the Vladivostok area for an entire year while Allen and Bramhall pondered alternatives. Among other tasks, the Red Cross staff had to prevent the older children from roaming too freely around the city, where thousands of soldiers, diplomats, dislocated artists, railway men, aid-workers, and prisoners of war, both foreign and Russian, sought sustenance and entertainment. According to John Stephan, the eminent historian of the Russian Far East, “Vladivostok was a world unto itself, a unique blend of provincial Russia, treaty port Shanghai, and the American Wild West.” Stephan also noted the propensity of US soldiers to find Russian girlfriends, and, not infrequently, to marry them – so often, in fact, that Montana Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin was prompted to propose that the US “purchase a tract of land in Siberia where the couples might settle.”
Amidst this free-wheeling atmosphere and the continuous influx of refugees, cholera and other diseases were rife. One girl from the colony died and was buried in a small cemetery on Russian Island. The colony was divided in its political loyalties, and some of the adults challenged the merits of returning the children to Petrograd at all: surely, they said, during the two years since the children left, many of their parents had perished or fled Russia, and Petrograd was in any case still short of food.
While the colony was in Vladivostok, the Bolshevik Commissar for Foreign Affairs, in effect the Soviet Government’s Foreign Minister, publicly denounced the American Red Cross for “kidnapping” 800 Russian children, treating them in a “barbaric and inhuman” manner, and exploiting them as slave labor. The Commissar claimed that the children were kept in disease-infested dwellings and forced to drink from dirty wells used by horses. Allen, stunned by the accusations, wrote to the local representative of the Soviet Government in Vladivostok, who had visited the children several times, and asked him to refute these falsehoods. The representative sent back an official letter testifying that he witnessed the children residing in “good conditions,” that they were “well-fed, robust and happy… and the Red Cross is making all efforts to care for the health, education, and moral well-being of the children.”
Allen, despite the Soviet calumny, remained determined to deliver the children home to Petrograd. But with the US pulling its troops out of Vladivostok, it was now his task to shut down Red Cross operations and evacuate his employees. He and Bramhall decided that the only alternative was to bring the children home by ship, across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The US military, busy evacuating the Czech legions and its own forces, refused to provide a vessel. In desperation, Allen arranged to lease a Japanese freighter, and had it outfitted in Japan with sleeping areas, toilets, and other basic amenities. Dr. Teusler, Allen’s old boss and colleague, who was widely known and admired in Japan, was able to get much of the shipyard work done free of charge as a humanitarian gesture. Allen, Bramhall, Campbell, and other American Red Cross staff meanwhile prepared to accompany the children on their long and treacherous sea voyage home.
In July 1920, after a month of repair and refitting in Japan, the Yomei Maru, with a Japanese captain and crew, sailed into the harbor of Vladivostok. The children boarded together with their Russian teacher-supervisors, 17 American Red Cross staff members led by Allen and Bramhall, and some 80 former POWs from different nations who would perform menial jobs on the ship in return for passage to Europe. Altogether the ship was carrying nearly 1,000 passengers, including 782 Russian children; it was originally designed to carry a crew of about 60 sailors.
The Yomei Maru made a call in the Japanese port of Muroran to repair its failing plumbing system and take on provisions. The children disembarked briefly to meet with local officials and Japanese schoolchildren in a ceremony of cultural exchange and singing. Then their overloaded vessel slowly made its way across the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco. The children were greeted as celebrities, lodged for several days on shore, and treated to city tours and entertainment. The San Francisco Chronicle banner headline of August 3, 1920 read “Kiddies’ Ship Drops Anchor in San Francisco Bay.”
From San Francisco the Yomei Maru sailed south, passed through the Panama Canal, made its way north along the US East Coast, and arrived in New York. A child who had died at sea from an infection was buried in Manhattan next to a Russian church. While their vessel underwent minor repairs at a New York shipyard, the children were housed for two weeks at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island. Even more than in San Francisco, the Russian children and their around-the-world voyage were a public sensation. President Wilson sent them a letter of welcome. They were deluged with candy, hot dogs, and other American treats, and were invited to music performances, museums, fairs, and private homes. The teacher-supervisors struggled to keep track of their young charges in the gigantic, bustling metropolis.
The large population of Russian immigrants in New York, many of whom had arrived recently as refugees from Bolshevik Russia, took a particular interest in the children’s colony and its fate. Some argued vehemently against returning the children to their now-communist homeland, from which news of brutalities and repression emanated. On the other side of the political divide, Bolshevik agents and sympathizers chastised the Red Cross for even considering taking them elsewhere, and repeated Soviet charges that the children were being abused and imprisoned against their will.
A public rally for the children, staged at Madison Square Garden and attended by some 16,000 – many of them “Red” or “White” Russians – nearly deteriorated into an all-out brawl. Near the end of the rally, a tearful 16-year-old girl from the group took the stage and cried out, according to Allen’s later recollections, “We did not know such awful things were going to be said about the Red Cross. They have been good to us. They love us. And we love them.”
The top leadership of the American Red Cross issued contradictory statements, but seemed poised to deliver the children to France instead of to Russia. President Wilson’s note also mentioned France as the destination. Some of the older children wrote a petition to Allen insisting that they be taken directly back to Petrograd. Allen received the petition sympathetically, and remained resolved on delivering the children back to their parents as he negotiated with his superiors at the American Red Cross.
In mid-September, the Yomei Maru left New York and set sail for Europe. Bramhall reported to Allen that eight Russian children and nurses were left behind with relatives who had immigrated to the US, and two boys had failed to appear at the ship in time for departure. The Japanese owners were unwilling to consider bringing the Yomei Maru to Petrograd, fearing it could be impounded and the crew interned – after all, Japanese troops were still occupying large tracts of territory in Eastern Russia and sparring with the Red Army. After reviewing alternatives, Allen decided that the vessel would sail to a port in Finland, near the Soviet border and close to Petrograd. On the way, the Yomei Maru stopped in Brest, France to pick up more supplies and to drop off a few children whose parents had re-located to Western Europe.
In Finland, a newly independent country after more than a century as part of Imperial Russia, the colony was housed in a Tsarist-era resort. The children sent letters to their parents, hoping for confirmation that they were still in Petrograd and ready to receive them. As Allen, Bramhall, and the rest of the colony waited in tense anticipations, letters began to arrive from Petrograd. In November of 1920 the first group of 138 children walked across the Soviet border, with Allen and Bramhall looking on, to join parents or other relatives who had come from Petrograd to meet them. Some children were dispatched to parents who had been found in the now-independent Baltic states.
By February of 1921 the last of the children were transferred, some of them to a Soviet government agency that took responsibility for them, since relatives could not be found. The work of the Red Cross was over, and Allen and Bramhall headed home.
* * *
Allen returned to his newspaper work in Honolulu, where he became one of Hawaii’s most prominent citizens, an influential advocate of statehood (which he enthusiastically celebrated in 1959), and a vocal anti-racist and defender of Hawaii’s Japanese-American community. He was known for his social activism on behalf of the poor and for his personal generosity. He published short stories in Colliers and The Saturday Review, occasionally gave talks about his experiences in Russia, stayed in touch with Bramhall and Campbell, and sometimes visited his hometown of Seattle. In 1958 Allen was honored at University of Washington commencement ceremonies for having “won the highest respect in the mid-Pacific and in the United States” and for exhibiting “both a patriotic citizenship and an outstanding loyalty to his alma mater.” “I have two alma maters,” he was known to say, “the University of Washington and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Whatever I know, I learned from them.” At a Husky football game soon after Allen’s death in the fall of 1966, the crowd rose to sing to his memory the UW alma mater song he had composed with a classmate 64 years earlier. Allen was married for 40 years, but had no children of his own. “I don’t need any,” he would joke, “I have 800 children in Russia.”
Bramhall, after returning from his Russian adventures, found work as a financial specialist in Seattle, where his parents now lived, at the company that later became Rainier Bank. Soon he and a business partner founded their own investment banking firm. Toward the end of his career, Bramhall served as a financial consultant to state colleges and non-profit entities. He and his wife owned a large home in the affluent Windermere neighborhood, near the University of Washington, and both were involved in philanthropy with local institutions. He was a member of the prestigious Arctic Club and College Club, and served as a Board Member of Western Washington University in Bellingham. “I never heard anyone speak unkindly about that man regarding his activity or intent,” a business colleague later commented. Like Allen, Bramhall had no children of his own. Over time, especially after he retired, his thoughts turned increasingly to the 800 children he had helped to rescue in Russia.
The children initially wrote letters to Allen and Bramhall, but became fearful, in the context of Soviet-American hostility and the rise of Stalin’s dictatorship, of being seen as connected to America. So they generally kept quiet about their odyssey and stopped writing. Under Stalin, such a personal history could be grounds for suspicion, denunciation, loss of a job, or worse. Some children were sure that the Soviet authorities assumed the Americans had recruited them as spies.
Allen died several years after retiring from the Star-Bulletin, and just a year after Floyd Miller had interviewed him for his book about the Petrograd children’s odyssey (Bramhall came to Hawaii to take part in the interviews). Around this time, Bramhall decided that he had to see the children again. He and his wife took a trip to Russia in 1967, but Soviet officials refused to help them. In 1972, Bramhall, then 78 years old, booked another tourist trip to the USSR with his wife, still hoping to find the children. In Moscow, he called on the headquarters of the Soviet Red Cross, told the story of the odyssey, and asked if it would be possible to seek out any children who might still be alive in Russia, especially in Leningrad. The Soviet officials said they had never heard of such an episode, and had no records of anyone involved in it. They were skeptical about the memory of this elderly American tourist, and perhaps of his motivations.
Bramhall and his wife then traveled with an Intourist guide to Leningrad. They strolled through the streets and Bramhall stared at passers-by, trying to make out familiar faces of children who would now be in their 60s or 70s. One evening they attended a ballet performance at the famous Kirov Theater. Leonid Yakobson, the Jewish boy and aspiring musician of 50 years before, was the producer of the ballet; he was in the theater that night, but Bramhall didn’t realize it. Disappointed by his failure to find any of the children, Bramhall and his wife returned to Seattle.
But Bramhall’s trip in 1972 led, in a circuitous way, to the fulfillment of his quest. Earlier that year a Soviet journalist from the prominent mass-circulation newspaper Pravda had visited Seattle. He was told about Bramhall, met with him, and heard the story of the children’s odyssey and of Bramhall’s upcoming visit to the USSR. It was now the highpoint of detente, when US-Soviet relations were rapidly improving – President Nixon visited the USSR in 1972 and made friends with Chairman Brezhnev – and it was no longer as dangerous to recall past episodes of cooperation and friendship. Pravda published their journalist’s account of his visit to Seattle, which contained a brief recital of Bramhall’s story.
A senior editor at Pravda, Vladimir Bolshakov, became interested and contacted Bramhall in Moscow during his trip. He interviewed Bramhall in more detail, and promised to try to locate the children. Bramhall said he would return to the USSR once more if Bolshakov was successful. Bolshakov subsequently published his interview with Bramhall in Pravda, and asked any surviving children to contact the newspaper. Some sixty former children from the colony responded, and requested that Bramhall come to Leningrad again. Many of them sent Bramhall emotional letters expressing joy and wonderment that they could see him during his next trip. They hadn’t known if he was still alive, let alone that he had already made two trips to the USSR to seek them out.
Bramhall and his wife made one more trip to the USSR, in 1973, this time as official guests of the Soviet Red Cross. He received a medal of honor in Moscow and was welcomed as a hero. In Leningrad, he met with about 100 of the former children amidst tears, champagne, and endless toasts and recollections. He and his wife again attended a ballet performance at the Kirov Theater, and this time were publicly recognized from the stage by the revered choreographer Yakobson. The surviving children had endured the miseries and hunger of revolutionary Petrograd when they returned there in 1920-1921, the vicious Stalinist repressions and purges of the 1930s, the horrors of World War II including the mass starvation of their city, and the harsh Cold War era of the 1950s and 1960s. Some had become prominent figures in the arts, like Yakobson. Others were leading scientists, doctors, and engineers. Most had more modest fates. But, Bramhall learned, none had forgotten the Americans from the Red Cross to whom they felt they owed their lives.
During the decades since their rescue, many of the children had kept in touch with each other, and in at least two cases had married one another as they grew into adulthood. But by the 1970s none ever dreamed they would see Bramhall again. Yet here he was, luxuriating in their worshipful attention, inundated with gifts of flowers, candy, and Russian souvenirs while Soviet officials somewhat awkwardly presided over the encounters. Some of the former children even managed to smuggle Bramhall and his wife away from their Soviet minders, and took them to a dacha outside of Leningrad for a clandestine nighttime party.
Then they parted ways again, and the Bramhalls flew back to Seattle. “Children’s Savior Back Home,” blared a Seattle Times headline in an article recounting Bramhall’s celebratory reunion trip and the story of the children’s rescue half a century before.
Letters and photographs began to flow back and forth between the remaining children in Leningrad and Bramhall in Seattle. For translations and advice Bramhall relied on Leda Sagen, a Vladivostok-born immigrant who worked as a Russian interpreter for the University of Washington School of Fisheries and previously had been a professor of Russian at UW. Bramhall was working on a letter to one of the Petrograd children on the night he was murdered, five years after his triumphant return form the Soviet Union.
The front page of the Seattle Times the next day, August 3, 1978, announced that “Burle Bramhall, who relocated hundreds of Russian refugee children after World War I, and his wife were found murdered today in their home in Seattle’s Windermere neighborhood.” It was soon established that the killer was a deranged, sledgehammer-wielding young neighbor, who had been seeking psychological help. In an obituary carried by the Seattle Times several days later, the family of the deceased suggested “remembrances to the National Organization of Soviet-American Friendship,” among other causes.
* * *
Remarkably, shortly after Bramhall’s death the story of the Petrograd children experienced yet another vibrant renaissance, owing mainly to the tireless efforts of a quirky, warm-hearted Russian Jewish author-adventurer named Vladimir Kuperman. A journalist from the Russian Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, 400 miles inland from Vladivostok, Kuperman had written articles and books in the 1970s about the natural world and people who made their living from it. He had recently published a book about his experiences on a Soviet whaling ship in the Antarctic region. Now he was writing one about fishing in the North Pacific, and he landed a job on a Soviet factory trawler from Vladivostok that would be fishing off the West Coast of the United States. On August 3, 1978 his ship was scheduled to make a port call in Seattle to replenish its stores and give its crew a brief respite on shore.
In Port Angeles, northwest of Seattle, a Puget Sound Pilot boarded the trawler to guide it into the Seattle harbor. He had with him a copy of that day’s Seattle Times, which he left in the wheelhouse. Kuperman saw the news about Bramhall’s murder, but his limited knowledge of English allowed him only to grasp that a man with connections to Russia had been killed. The next day Leda Sagen, Bramhall’s former Russian translator, came aboard the vessel; she would often visit Russian ships calling in Seattle, especially if they were from her hometown of Vladivostok, and would help with interpreting chores and socialize with the captain and crew. Kuperman approached her about the article, and Sagen translated it for him. She said she had known Bramhall well, and had helped him to correspond with the Petrograd children, many of whom still lived in Leningrad and would be heartbroken by this news.
Kuperman switched his book topic from Russian fishermen to the Petrograd children on the spot. He spent the three days of his vessel’s stay in Seattle questioning Sagen and gathering all the information he could about Bramhall, Riley Allen, and the Petrograd children. Sagen said she would write to the children in Leningrad to give them the news about Bramhall, and also to tell them about Kuperman and his plans to write a book about them and their American saviors. She would send them Kuperman’s address in Khabarovsk. She warned Kuperman that he could expect a load of letters waiting for him when he got home at the end of his vessel’s fishing voyage.
When Kuperman finally reached Khabarovsk, there was indeed a load of letters from the Petrograd children waiting for him. They were full of questions about Bramhall and his death. Was he killed because of his connections to the Soviet Union? For his well-publicized rescue of Russian children? Or could the KGB be involved? They begged Kuperman to come to Leningrad. He could answer their questions, tell them about his visit to Seattle, and interview them for his planned book.
In short order Kuperman packed his bags again, apologized to his wife and two small children, and took a flight from Khabarovsk to Leningrad, some 4,000 miles away. He was responding not only to the urgency of the letters, but also to his realization that with the passage of time there would be fewer and fewer Petrograd children left alive to interview, and fewer still with clear memories of events that took place 60 years earlier.
Documenting and publicizing the story of the Petrograd children became the central focus of Kuperman’s life for the next 40 years. He made repeated trips to Leningrad, recorded interviews, examined letters, perused the children’s diaries, and studied old photographs. In 1981, with Cold War tensions heightened by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Kuperman boarded a Soviet fisheries research vessel in Vladivostok that was planning two port calls in Seattle. He was desperate to collect more materials about Bramhall, and to promote his concept of a joint Soviet-American film about the Petrograd children. At the time a trip to the US by air was unthinkable: it would have required permission from the Soviet Government, a hard-to-get visa from the US Embassy in Moscow, and travel costs far beyond Kuperman’s means.
Several weeks later, with his vessel moored on the Seattle waterfront, Kuperman was accompanied by two minders and Sagen and visited Bramhall’s former house in Windermere as well as his grave at a local cemetery. He took pictures to show the former children in Leningrad. The Seattle Times covered his visit with a lengthy, sympathetic article about his planned book and his proposed film project. A brief meeting was even arranged between Kuperman and the renowned film director Stanley Kramer (Judgement at Nuremburg, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), who was living in a Seattle suburb. Kramer seemed interested in a film that could help to bridge the antagonisms and nuclear threat of the revived Cold War, and Kuperman asked him to find out if Burt Lancaster would be willing to narrate the film – Lancaster was famous in the USSR for his role in a documentary about the Soviet-American alliance during World War II. Then Kuperman returned to his vessel, and sailed home once again across the Pacific.
The Soviet-American film project languished, but Kuperman relentlessly championed it in any way he could. He wrote imploring letters to Sagen, to the Americans he had met in Seattle, and to Soviet film producers in Moscow. Over the years he also worked on his book about the Petrograd children and the American Red Cross workers who saved them. His detailed two-volume account included a fictionalized romance between Allen and one of the young Russian teacher-supervisors, and other embellishments. It would, he hoped, be perfect for a block-buster Hollywood film – he later reported that Stanley Kramer had suggested this approach.
Kuperman also composed articles of a documentary nature, one of which was published in 1989 by a prominent journal in the Russian Far East. By then, Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformist policies of glasnost and perestroika had come to the Soviet Union. Now Kuperman could pursue his project more openly, and he could freely travel to the US. He asserted to anyone who would listen, his round face flushing and his normally quiet voice rising with emotion, that this was exactly the right moment for the joint film, to celebrate a new era of Russian-American reconciliation and friendship.
Meanwhile the Petrograd children were passing away. Kuperman had managed to enlist a Soviet studio to produce a short, amateurish but touching documentary film of 17 of the children, now in their 70s and 80s, traveling to key locations of their odyssey. Several were filmed visiting distant Vladivostok and the former tsarist resort in Finland, recounting in shaking voices the adventures of their youth. By then only about 80 of the children were still alive, and several were passing away each year. In 1990, Leda Sagen died in Seattle at age 90. In her Seattle Times obituary, Kuperman was quoted as calling her “a strong, courageous woman with a deep belief in worldwide peace and fellowship.”
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the Soviet Union slid from reform to disintegration, Kuperman was able to fly to the US to seek support for his joint film project. He traveled to Hawaii to examine archives and to interview people who had known Riley Allen. He came once more to Seattle, renewing old acquaintances and lobbying for the film. Once again, he encountered enthusiasts, and extracted promises to explore film possibilities, but found no solid backers. Stanley Kramer, who continued to express interest in the film, died in 2001 at the age of 87.
The joint film project began to fade, but Kuperman would not let it die. He decided to finish his book, have it translated and published in English, and then use it to interest US film producers in the emotional power and commercial potential of the story. His book, entitled The Incredible Odyssey (or The Children’s Ark), appeared in 2004 in Israel, where Kuperman had moved a few years before. It was published in Russian, under Kuperman’s pseudonym, Vladimir Lipovezky. It was published the following year in Russia to critical acclaim and received a prestigious literary award.
One of Kuperman’s American friends agreed to translate The Incredible Odyssey into English. Kuperman engaged a US literary agent to promote the translated book for publication, but no takers were found. Meanwhile, in Russia, other works about the Petrograd children had begun to appear. Olga Molkina, the granddaughter of two of the Petrograd children who married one another, had grown up with their stories and had been present as a young woman at Bramhall’s arrival in Leningrad in 1973 – the clandestine nighttime gathering outside of the city took place at her grandfather’s dacha. Her detailed historical account, over 550 pages, The Red Cross Is Above Us, was based on her grandparents’ recollections and documents and those of other Petrograd children. It was published in Russia in 2005, the same year as The Incredible Odyssey of Kuperman (Lipovezky). The last of the Petrograd children passed away the following year
Molkina, who lives in St Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), has served as the central organizer of a large group of descendants of the Petrograd children scattered across Russia and overseas. She travelled to the US to do research and collect documents, and supervised the creation of a historical website with articles, maps, documents, photographs and lists of books related to the odyssey of 1918-1921. She collaborated with other descendants and with Kuperman to arrange exhibitions in St Petersburg and other locations. In 2010 she traveled to Vladivostok with Kuperman to preside at a film festival and exhibition that was devoted to the entire year the Petrograd children had spent there under the care of Allen, Bramhall and other Red Cross staff. Finally, the story of the Petrograd children was becoming better documented and better known, at least in Russia.
Collaboration with American governmental agencies and individuals was also expanding. The US Consulate in Vladivostok, established with great fanfare in 1992, assisted in staging the festival and exhibit there. The US Consulate in St Petersburg provided financial support for a more complete and accessible website under the name of Molkina’s book, The Red Cross is Above US. A US scholar, Adele Lindenmeyr, a Dean at Villanova University and a historian of Russia, wrote articles, sought out new documents, and provided translation assistance for the efforts of Molkina and her colleagues – one result was a translation of a memoir by the captain of the Yomei Maru about the voyage with the Petrograd children.
But more recently, as US-Russia relations have frayed over conflicts in Ukraine and Russian election-meddling, cooperation in this and other areas has rapidly diminished. US financial and market sanctions against Russia has drawn angry responses in the form of vehement anti-US propaganda and diplomatic retaliations. In tit-for-tat diplomatic rows, in 2017-2018 the US closed the Russian Consulates in San Francisco and Seattle, and the Russian government closed the US Consulate in St Petersburg.
Ironically, as the 100th anniversary of the miraculous return home of the Petrograd children approached at the end of 2020, the Trump Administration announced plans to shutter the last two US Consulates in Russia, in Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg, ensuring that citizens of the two countries would have even fewer chances to interact with each other (a letter-writing campaign to reverse this decision is underway as this article is being written). It now seems that US-Russia relations have made a full, if wobbly, circle since the reunion of Bramhall with the Petrograd children in Leningrad in 1973, during a brief warming of relations in the depths of the Cold War.
Sadly, and poignantly, 2020 also brought the death of Vladimir Kuperman. He had suffered from deepening dementia in his last years, residing in a nursing home in a small Israeli town, and had increasing difficulty recognizing friends and family members. Then, the pandemic arrived. Vladimir’s younger brother Felix, a famous radio talk show host in Khabarovsk in the 1980s and 1990s, who had emigrated to Israel a few years before Vladimir, laments that he was unable to visit Vladimir in his final weeks. But he spoke to him on the phone every day, and Vladimir’s wife and children stayed in close touch. The announcement of Vladimir’s death spurred an outpouring of social media posts testifying to Vladimir’s generosity of spirit, writerly talents, and his dedication to the story he had labored over for 40 years. He had succeeded in bringing the shared humanity of the Petrograd children’s odyssey back to life through his writings and tireless travels, though he died still yearning to make it immortal through a joint Russian-American film.
Photos and Map (with permission of Olga Molkina):