YMCA On The Russian People & Democracy…in 1920!

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Let me take a moment here to speak a word of praise for the Russian army which has been so much slandered. The Russian army mobilized its initial war strength of 2,300,000 men in five days and forced the Germans to draw back from the French Front the regiments already at the gates of Paris. The Russian people rescued democracy for the world before they had found it for themselves.

Excerpt from Revolution from Within

A showdown occurred at the YMCA General Assembly in Newark, New Jersey in February 1920, when Mott and Colton delivered impassioned appeals not just to continue, but extend the international efforts of the organization.[i] If they could attain a consensus on continued efforts abroad, they intended to focus the decision toward a new Russian initiative. Both Mott and Colton felt that the YMCA’s expulsion and ban from Russia in 1918 was a tragedy, and they hoped pragmatic self-interest combined with an appeal to the American spirit of generosity and compassion would be enough to convince their peers at the YMCA conference to support the work in Russia.

Colton’s speech was carefully crafted and wide-ranging to address all of the possible objections that he and Mott were able to anticipate.

He began with personal stories of the trials being experienced by YMCA representatives in the Russian civil war, openly acknowledging how difficult and dangerous Y work was under these circumstances. He explained that the Russian people they encountered were not politicized; they simply wanted land, food, peace, and freedom. Colton warned the YMCA leadership how easily the Russians could misconstrue foreign activities as a patriotic threat: “They [the Russian people] do not all think in terms of revolutions. They are intensely patriotic. Mother Russia to them is infinitely more precious than the Vaterland has ever been to any German.”

Colton also echoed the neutral view on Bolshevism, positing that “dictatorship of the Proletariat” was merely the flipside of the former tsarist autocracy: both forms of government constituted a tyrannical rule. He bestowed no praise on the Bolsheviks as he crisply outlined the Machiavellian tactics they had used to manipulate the demoralized Russians and seize power.

In order to enlist sympathy among the YMCA leadership for the Russian people, Colton reminded them of the sacrifices the Russians had made in World War I on behalf of the Allies:

Let me take a moment here to speak a word of praise for the Russian army which has been so much slandered. The Russian army mobilized its initial war strength of 2,300,000 men in five days and forced the Germans to draw back from the French Front the regiments already at the gates of Paris. The Russian people rescued democracy for the world before they had found it for themselves.[ii]

Quite interestingly, Colton also spoke openly about the Germans’ treachery returning Lenin to Russia and laid much responsibility for the current situation in Russia on Germany’s “wolf in sheep’s clothing” tactics.[iii] If Colton was aware of other financiers’ involvement perhaps closer to home, however, he did not mention that in his speech.

The work that the YMCA and America needed to perform now in Russia was imperative for the expansion of democracy, international peace, and economic opportunity for America. Colton explained:

A settlement [end of the civil war under the League of Nations, international, peacekeeping mission in Russia] will be made soon, within the next few months, and then we must be ready with a far-sighted policy and prepared for definite assistance. There will be need for sane advisers, who can bring to this struggling democracy the benefits of our successful experience in democracy since 1776. There may be need for the maintenance of an armed force in Russia, such as we have had in the Philippines, for the temporary protection of democratic institutions against both monarchist and Bolshevistic extremists.[iv]

Of course, Colton’s prediction about a successful international peacekeeping mission inside Russia never did come to pass, but it is fascinating to look back today and see his complete faith that America would play a role as she has recently in Somalia, Serbia, and the Middle East. Equally fascinating was Colton’s next point—that America must “beat Germany to it” in reference to future trade and economic opportunity in Russia. He strongly counseled an approach that would insert judicious “commerce men” into Russia, not for quick exploitation, but for long term, sustainable trade and economic development.

The final point Colton used to hammer home the necessity of YMCA support to Russia—now—was Christian service:

Hand in hand with political advice and extensive trade must go the agencies that will develop higher moral standards, a sense of fair play, and the ideal of Christian responsibility for the other fellow—that unselfishness and generosity which has made our own nation loved and respected. There must be support for the Red Cross, for the Young Men’s Christian Associations in their programs for physical relief and moral development. For democracy will not be made safe for the world until the republican institutions of France and China, Germany and Poland, America and Russia recognize the principle of unselfish service as the foundation of international brotherhood of peoples.

Are we going to accept our responsibilities in Russia? Are we going to help Russia and save ourselves and our children and all the world from curses and strife?[v]

On Feb. 24, 1920, newly persuaded, the delegates unanimously supported the continued work of the YMCA Overseas Division, and particularly its role in Russia.

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[i] Proposed Program of YMCA Activities in Russia Revised from Newark Conference Report, June 1920, PBA Papers, Box 6: 1. Mott had participated in the Elihu Root Commission that President Wilson sent to Russian in 1917. During that stay, he also gained entrance to the Great Sobor where he saw, with great interest, new religious spirit.

[ii] Ethan Colton, “Speech prepared for Newark Conference.” Feb. 1920, PBA Papers, Box 6: 1. Page 2.

[iii] Ibid, Page 3. “In justice to the Russian people, I cannot refrain from naming another factor which aided disintegration. We have all read tales of German influence at the Russian court, of private wires to Berlin, of German spies acting as Russian generals. The Germans were fighting on both sides of the line. And when the Revolution came they began to fraternize, taking advantage of the simple peasant and beguiling him with sweet words about comradeship, while they surreptitiously moved the bulk of their divisions to the Western Front. They also spread Bolshevism not because they believed in the doctrine but because they saw its power to demoralize. They also put up posters saying: “Go on home and get your share of the land”. The German wolf in sheep’s clothing by treachery won its share of responsibility for Russia’s agony.”

[iv] Ibid, Pages 6-7.

[v] Ibid, page 7.

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