The Wisconsin-Russia Connection: More Than Just Cold Winters

For all the things Wisconsin is known for, “eyewitness accounts of Russian history” may not top the list. But as it turns out, the Library and Archives division of the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) maintains a unique collection of documents written by Wisconsinites who lived and worked in Russia and the Soviet Union at a time when relatively few Americans were traveling there, and who documented their experiences of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Purges of the 1930s, and other turning points in history. Nicholas (Nick) Seay, who received his master’s in REECAS in 2018, spent the fall 2018 semester diving into the unique Russian resources of the WHS and the Chazen Museum of Art and is now working to share these fascinating stories with the community. In fall 2018, Nick received a fellowship from IREX in support of his project, “The Wisconsin-Russia Connection.”

Stories from revolutionary Russia: Wisconsin’s unique archival collection

Nick Seay at the IREX US Russia Experts Fellowship Summit in January 2019

One of the WHS collections that Nick has been closely working with comes from International Harvester (IH), a Chicago-based company that in the early 20th century merged with several other companies in the region, including Wisconsin. During World War I, when the United States and Russia were allies, International Harvester supplied agricultural equipment to Russia and sold its machinery throughout the country. Following the February 1917 revolution in Russia and the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, Cyrus McCormick Jr., the president of IH, traveled to Russia as part of a diplomatic mission to investigate the situation in Russia and to develop relationships with Russia’s new government, the Provisional Government. His pictures and documents now comprise a fraction of the much larger IH collection.

Another Wisconsinite whose documents Nick has been researching is John Scott, a student at the University of Wisconsin who dropped out of school in 1931, during the Great Depression. Having received training as a welder, Scott went to Magnitogorsk, an industrial city in the southern Urals, where he worked in steel mills through most of the 1930s. He returned to the United States just before the outbreak of the Second World War, and wrote a book, Behind the Urals, about his time in Russia. A native of Madison, Scott’s personal papers are in the WHS archives, including an original draft of the book and interviews conducted in 1939 with representatives of the US Embassy in Moscow, where he inquires about the effects of the Purges in the 1930s on the steel mills in Magnitogorsk.

In conducting his research, Nick also came across a collection of photographs taken by Robert Colton-Johnson, an engineer and University of Wisconsin alumnus who participated in the North Russia Expeditionary Force. Also known as the Polar Bear Expedition, this force was part of the Allied intervention during the Russian Civil War; most of the personnel were recruited from Wisconsin and Michigan. Colton-Johnson arrived in the Russian North in late summer of 1918 as part of the invasion through Arkhangelsk and documented his experiences in dozens of photographs.

North Russia Expeditionary Force in Arkhangelsk.
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Another untapped source for a future research project includes six volumes written by Wisconsin sociology professor Edward Ross during his travels in revolutionary Russia. According to Nick, “Ross went to the country in late summer 1917 with the idea of writing a book on sociological conditions following the February Revolution, but then the October Revolution happened and Ross adapted his research to publish one of the first English-language accounts of this upheaval in January 1918.” Ross’s travel diaries, preserved at the WHS archives, include interviews with local governors, zemstvo leaders, as well as with Leon Trotsky. Ross traveled not only in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and Moscow, which were more common destinations for foreign scholars, but also all the way down to the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea, and through Central Asia. Ross’s diaries include descriptions of all of these excursions.

From Seattle to Brest-Litovsk: secrets of the “Root Commission,” Red Cross relief, and Soviet art

Nick’s interest in developing this project began with his research on the “Root Commission,” which was one of three diplomatic missions organized by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917. “It was meant to establish relations with the Provisional Government and support their war efforts because the American government was rightfully afraid of the Eastern front collapsing,” he clarifies. Starting from Seattle, crossing the Pacific, and landing in Vladivostok, the members of this commission traveled by train from Harbin, China to Moscow and Petrograd, taking photographs of the train and at stops along the way. International Harvester’s Cyrus McCormick, who was part of this commission, writes about ideas to establish YMCA fellowships for Russian engineers who would be able to come to the US to work and learn American work ethics before going back to Russia. Observing rifts in Russian society, members of the Root Commission hoped to remedy them by upholding what they viewed as traditional Christian values. McCormick documents meetings with officials of the Orthodox Church in Russia in July 1917, just four months before the Bolsheviks came to power and began their anti-religions campaign.

Raymon Robins, the head of a Red Cross mission during the Russian Revolution, was an early contact person for Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin right after the October Revolution. Robins’s official task was to distribute relief to the regions affected by famine and shortages during WWI and the Civil War, but unofficially he worked as a liaison between the US government and the Bolsheviks, at a time when the United States had not yet established diplomatic relations with Soviet Russia. Based on his close reading of correspondence between “Comrade Robins” (as he was referred to in the letters) and Bolshevik leaders, Nick concludes that Robins was meant to dissuade Bolshevik leaders from signing a separate peace with Germany, which would nullify all of Imperial Russia’s commitments to the Allies during WWI. After the treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed and ratified, Robins’ role as a negotiator was diminished.

Full diplomatic relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were established only in 1933; the second US Ambassador to the USSR was Joseph Davies, a native of Watertown who attended the University of Wisconsin Law School. During his tenure as ambassador from 1936-38, Davies collected works of art that are now part of the permanent collection of the Chazen Museum of Art, including icons and Russian pre- and post-revolutionary paintings. The Soviet government had confiscated artwork from private owners and then sold it at consignment shops in Moscow for foreign currency. Davies, who had an interest in Russian culture, seized this opportunity and purchased many paintings and icons, which he sent to Madison in the hope that these pieces could provide Wisconsinites with a glimpse into Russian life and culture. Nick is researching items in the Chazen’s Joseph E. Davies Collection in order to provide more background information and better contextualize the works from the collection. He is also looking for more opportunities to accompany visiting teachers and their students on tours of the collection.

UW-Madison students from course Lit Trans 234: Soviet Life and Culture through Literature and Art visiting the WHS
UW-Madison students from the course Lit Trans 234: Soviet Life and Culture through Literature and Art visiting the WHS

Outreach initiatives: reviving and revising Russian history for students

A major goal of this project is to make these invaluable archival and museum resources accessible and relevant to students. Nick asks, “How can we take abstract history of a far-away Russia and make it more relatable to high school students in Wisconsin?” One way Nick has been making history more real and palpable is by bringing high school and university students to the WHS archives, where they can see the materials themselves. In February 2019, for example, students in the UW-Madison course Lit Trans 234: Soviet Life and Culture through Literature and Art examined telegrams sent from Leon Trotsky and photos of the First May Day parade in Moscow. These experiences ultimately make it easier to imagine what Russia looked like in the early 1920s.

Through this project Nick also wants to challenge popular stereotypes about Russia that emerged during the Cold War by showing how some Americans at that time witnessed major events during and after the Russian Revolution. He emphasizes the pragmatism of the Wisconsin visitors: they were continuing “business as usual” and considered the removal of the tsar, for example, as part of a general anti-monarchy wave that was going across Europe. “Nothing was predetermined” — says Nick, — “and I want students to have open and critical minds when they study Russian history.”

Nick would love to connect with educators and students and tell them more about the “Wisconsin-Russia Connection” and arrange a viewing of Russian materials at WHS or the Chazen Museum. He can be reached at