Lew and cook in Minsk YMCA recreation hut, February 1918


Lewis Dunnington was 27 years old and enrolled in the University of Chicago’s prestigious Divinity School when World War I changed the trajectory of his life. Recruited by the Young Men’s Christian Association to work with soldiers on the front lines, Lew would travel thousands of miles and witness history unfold before his eyes.

Lew family send-off, Kalamazoo, MI, Sept. 25, 1917

When the United States entered the First World War in April of 1917, it was clear that they could not spare American troops tofight the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire) on the Russian front. Instead, the head of the American YMCA, John Mott, proposed pivoting from taking care of prisoners of war on both sides of the conflict to providing recreation huts for Russian troops on the front lines to keep them from deserting.

Headed for Russia

On the Nippon Maru

The YMCA pitched its mission as “the Social Gospel of applied Christianity” of service to the United States by aiding demoralized Russian soldiers. Lew was in this first wave of recruits, known as secretaries, personally chosen by Mott from the country’s elite universities. They were described as “very high quality” and “the best of their generation” much like the Peace Corps of a later time.1 I could find no description of their actual training regimen beyond basic language instruction. It seems that candidates were chosen for their character and ability to improvise rather than specific skills. After meetings with Mott and some orientation in New York City, Lew left his hometown of Kalamazoo, MI on September 25, 1917 for San Francisco where he would meet up with 25 other secretaries bound for Russia.

They sailed on the Nippon Maru via Honolulu and Tsuruga, Japan to Vladivostok. From there, the secretaries took the Trans-Siberian Railway for a 12-day trip to Moscow, arriving on November 4, 1917.

Hello Moscow

Lew’s 1917 passport

Whatever plans they had made were upended when they arrived in Moscow.

Tsar Nicholas II had entered World War I on Russia’s behalf in 1914 but was then violently overthrown in February, 1917, in part over public dissatisfaction with the shortages and suffering brought by war.

Many soldiers refused to leave the trenches and many more were going home as the struggle for land and the means of production played out among the opposing political factions.

The provisional government led by Alexander Kerensky had allowed YMCA personnel and supplies to move freely within the country to curry favor with the Allies, but neither Lew nor his superiors realized just how fine a tightrope Kerensky walked.

That tightrope snapped on November 7, 1917* (see end note) when armed Bolsheviks moved on the Provisional Government headquartered in the Winter Palace in Petrograd. Kerensky fled the country and the Russian Revolution had begun.

“Ten Days that Shook the World”

Lew and his fellow secretaries found shelter in a Red Cross hospital when they first arrived in Moscow on November 4, 1917 and then moved to a mansion at 26 Smolenski Blvd as the armed fight for political control raged outside their door. The mansion’s owner had fled the country but hoped that an American flag flying outside the door would prevent it from being destroyed.

The 25 secretaries subsisted on the provisions of the U.S Consul who had left the county as the chaotic situation grew increasingly violent. They dared not leave the compound for more than a week.

The secretaries’ only avenue of communication was for one of their party, John Prinz, to travel back east on the Trans-Siberian railroad to a point where he could wire their situation to the American Consul in Vladivostok. (see Prinz note below.)

This improbable plan succeeded but it was a one-shot, one-way deal and they neither expected or received a response.

To make matters worse, the YMCA leader of Russian operations was not in Russia when the revolution broke out. His successor did not return to the country until March of 1918, so the secretaries on the ground had to figure out their next move entirely on their own.

They formed a council and decided that they would spend a little more time in Moscow getting language instruction and then head out to execute their mission of supporting Russian troops as well as they could on their own.

John Prinz, seated center, with YMCA Welfare Committee at Pestchanka POW camp, Tschita, Trans-Baikalia

Prinz note – John Prinz was a Dutch national working for the International YMCA who arrived in Moscow with Lew in 1917. He was assigned to replace the American YMCA secretary coordinating the care of prisoners of war in Siberia, hence his choice to carry the Moscow group’s communications east. Prinz’s travel papers disappeared with his luggage at the Moscow train station but he was able to improvise an official seal from the label of their canned tomatoes and a YMCA envelope with an American flag printed on it.

Coincidentally, Prinz also returned to the US on the same ship as Lew in August of 1918. They went their separate ways after that but Prinz eventually settled in Tacoma, Washington where he wrote an article for the Tacoma News-Tribune describing his adventures in Russia in 1917-18.

The material for this note was taken from the article John Prinz wrote for the News-Tribune on December 3, 1967 which he sent to Lew on Mercer Island, Washington where he had retired in 1960.

On to Minsk

By the end of November, 1917, Lew had made a journey of 445 miles to Minsk, in Belarus. This was the main city on the Russian/German front, located within 6 miles of the trenches. Russian troops could rotate back to Minsk for 6 days of relative safety and relaxation after 15 days at the front.

Lew found accommodation in Minsk at the Hotel Europa and began work immediately. The Bolsheviks had allowed delivery of building materials for a recreational hut as well as sports equipment, projectors, books, and other material for soldiers’ enjoyment.

Invitation to YMCA Soldiers’ Club for cinema, singing, and snacks December 2, 1917 in Konskoi Square, Minsk

Lew set up programs in Minsk for the soldiers even before the hut was finished. He left behind a poster (see photo) from December 2, 1917 advertising singing and cinema at the new soldier’s club with free tea and snacks to follow.

But nothing proceeded smoothly. Also in December of 1917, Lew was notified that the local Bolshevik garrison decided they needed the Europa where Lew was staying as their headquarters. As he lay in bed covered in a flax seed poultice, suffering with pneumonia and a fever of 102°, a party of revolutionaries charged into his room with their six rifles pointed at his chest.

With cries of “Zdrasvitche tovarish,” Lew was able to convince the revolutionary commander that he had been sent personally by President Wilson to aid in their uprising. They spared his life and allowed him to remain in the hotel rent-free.

In his sermons and writing, Lew described the violence and lawlessness that reigned during that time with victims of unprosecuted murders being left to lie in the snow. He declared that the Smith & Wesson .44 he wore outside his tunic was the only reason he survived during that time.

The Hut

Lew (on right) introduces volleyball to Russian troops, February 1918

Getting the hut build was always problematic. In an interview recorded by the YMCA after his service, Lew said that they found a few willing soldiers but even they would do very little work.

“Finally,” he stated in the interview, “we secured two army officers to come and speak to the men with the idea of injecting a little spirit into them. When the officers started speaking, the men seized them and buried them alive.” The YMCA staff dug the officers out of their grave before they perished but progress was slow. 2

I never understood exactly what his official position was or who he was responsible to, but Lew had a local fixer in Minsk he called “Dave.” Dave told the workmen that President Wilson called Lew to tell him that the President would appear in person if the hut could be completed by January 20. The ruse apparently worked because the hut was finished on schedule.

Lew (eighth from left) with Russian troops, February 1918

Lew (with hatchet in the middle) and staff in front of Minsk YMCA hut, February 1918

The attached photos show the completed hut with its clientele and staff of 11 that included cooks, a barber, janitor, nurses, and teachers.

The hut functioned for barely a month before the Central Powers launched an offensive against Minsk. On February 15, 1918. Russian citizens and military personnel evacuated and Lew was scrambling for his life again.

Bugging Out

That was the last Lew saw of his hut. His man Dave got him space on a vastly overcrowded special train for a three-day trip to Moscow by announcing him as the American Consul. Lew credits the gift of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby by one of his translators as being his salvation on a truly hellish transit with 12 passengers in compartments built for six and soldiers filling all the corridor and toilet space.

Having signed a peace treaty with the Central Powers in March of 1918, the new Soviet government would no longer abide the YMCA presence in Russia.  72 YMCA personnel regrouped in Samara about 600 miles east of Moscow where they decided to continue east on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok to chart their next move.

This 6,000-mile journey took more than 3 weeks because 67,000 Czech troops who had been fighting alongside the Russians were also trying to get to Vladivostok in order to board ships that would take them back to the European front where they could continue fighting the Germans.

Lew in China, awaiting redeployment to France, Spring 1918

The ships never materialized and fighting broke out between the Czechs, the Bolsheviks and other factions struggling for political control of the country. For several months in the spring and summer of 1918, the disciplined, dedicated Czech fighting force controlled towns along the entire Trans-Siberian Railway.

The YMCA wound up supporting the Czech troops stranded in Vladivostok as Lew and more of the secretaries arrived on the Russian east coast.

While the YMCA was deciding what to do with their secretaries, Lew was able to travel for a couple of months as an unofficial sight-seer to Chinese YMCA facilities in Peking, Hankow, Nanking. and Shanghai as well as several cities in Japan.

Back Home, eventually

By the summer, the YMCA had decided to transfer most of its secretaries to serve in France for the remainder of the war. Lew left Vladivostok by ship in July of 1918 for a short leave at home with his family in Grand Rapids, Michigan before being shipped further east to finish his YMCA service at a Russian prisoner of war camp on the French German border.

His YMCA service term ended in France shortly after witnessing the spectacle of thousands of American troops marching past the Place de la Concorde in Paris on July 4, 1919.

Reverse of Lew’s 1917 passport

Reverse of Lew’s 1917 passport

Visa insert Lew’s 1917 passport

Visa insert Lew’s 1917 passport

What Maybe Shouldn’t Have Been in the Autobiography but Was

In his Russian adventures recounted in “The Light That Did Not Fail,” Lew tells of meeting a man on the train during his initial trip from Vladivostok to Moscow in late October, 1917.

The man identified himself as Yankl Sverdlov and claimed to have been the brother of the Bolshevik leader Joseph Sverdlov who was serving time in a prison camp in Siberia with Joseph Stalin. Lew described a heavy leather satchel, purportedly filled with gold, that “Yankl” said he had gotten from America for the coming revolution.

Several months later, on January 18, 1918 Lew reported that this same man invited him to attend the Constituent Assembly in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) where delegates from all over Russia were to vote on the future government of their country.

Lew wrote that he did, in fact, attend this meeting and that he and journalist and activist John Reed (played by Warren Beatty in the movie “Reds”) were the only Americans in attendance. He described listening to Lenin declare that the ends of Bolshevik rule justified any means required to get there. He also claimed to have personally met Stalin, Trotsky, Sverdlov and other Bolshevik leaders.

There are a number of elements that make these meetings difficult to confirm.

  1. The Sverdlov who went on to become the chairman of the Bolshevist All-Russian Central Executive Committee was named Yakov, not Joseph. He had three brothers and two half-brothers, none of whom were named Yankl or Joseph. 3
  2. The Constituent Assembly meeting at Tauride Palace in Petrograd was 430 miles from where Lew was supervising the completion of his recreation hut.
  3. The Bolsheviks had armed guards who opened fire on 40,000 workers, students and civil servants who were demonstrating outside Tauride Palace before the meeting began, killing ten. 4
  4. In his book Lenin, the Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror, Victor Sebestyen has Lenin sitting in a mezzanine box with no mention of him addressing the assembly. The Bolsheviks were vastly outnumbered and once their main proposal had been voted down, before 11 PM, the Bolsheviks walked out and Lenin ordered the guards to lock the doors after the deputies had left and not allow entry to anyone the next day. He had cancelled the Assembly.
  5. In Romantic Revolutionary, A Biography of John Reed, Robert Rosenstone writes that American journalists John Reed and Louise Strong were sitting in the press box above the podium with other international journalists.  5
  6. Sebestyen says that American journalist Albert Rhys Williams was also there and that this was the first occasion for John Reed to meet Lenin.

I have a hard time imagining a YMCA secretary from an organization that the Bolsheviks have condemned being introduced to the great man and his circle at such a crucial event.

What Maybe Should Have Been in the Autobiography but Wasn’t

Lew and Lottie on Mackinac Island 1914

There is no mention in Lew’s autobiography that he had married Lottie McNaughton in Grand Rapids, Michigan on June 24, 1916. This would have been the same time that he was doing graduate work in history at the University of Chicago. In his autobiography, Lew refers returning to “his room” in Chicago one evening with no mention of any conjugal arrangement.

I assume Lew met Lottie at Kalamazoo College where they were both enrolled. According to an account in the local newspaper, Lottie remained with her parents in Grand Rapids while Lew pursued his graduate studies.

My grandmother Helen Dunnington (Lew’s second wife) and family trees in Ancestry.com also mention a son that was born to Lottie in 1917 who died in or soon-after his birth. It’s not clear to me whether Lew was present at the birth or whether he had already left for his YMCA work.

Then on December 20, 1918, Lottie died of influenza in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Lew had been in Michigan on leave in September of 1918 after his stint in Russia, but newspaper accounts indicate that he was completing his service for the YMCA in France from November 1918 through July of 1919. My assumption was that he would have learned of her death by telegram but there is no reference to her life or death in his autobiography.

*Note – Russia remained on the Julian calendar in 1917 which was 11 days behind the calendar used by the rest of the modern world. I have used the modern calendar for all dates. The “October Revolution” starting on October 25, old style translates as November 7 for the rest of the world.

1 Donald Davis, Eugene Trani, “The American YMCA and the Russian Revolution,” Slavic Review, Sep 1974, Cambridge University Press p 474

2 Kauz Family YMCA Archives, University of Minnesota: https://archives.lib.umn.edu/repositories/7/archival_objects/226111

3 Wikipedia Yakov Sverdlov
4 Sebestyen, Victor, Lenin, the Man, the Dictator ,and the Master of Terror, Pantheon Books (2018) p 382
5 Rosenstone, Robert, Romantic Revolutionary, a Biography of John Reed, Knopf (1975) 312