From the Archives: Fighting for Russia

In the spring of 1917, Bessie Boies Cotton ’03, as a representative of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), was invited by the Provisional Government of Russia, which had replaced the tsarist government in February, to “establish clubs for working girls” and teach them how use the civil rights they had recently gained (Leighton, 10) . Bessie responded enthusiastically, believing that it was essential to show women how to “use [emphasis added] their democracy” instead simply giving it to them and hoping for the best (Leighton, 58). During her time in Russia, Bessie successfully started clubs in Moscow and Petrograd and organized an agricultural exhibition for peasant communities that travelled up and down the Volga River on a boat. Although this effort did not last long – the YWCA was forced to leave Russia in 1921 after being labeled an “American interest” by the Bolshevik government – Bessie was completely devoted to her task (Leighton, 57;60;67). After being evacuated from Russia once, Bessie returned via Finland and aided American troops stationed in Archangel, hoping to eventually return south (Leighton, 59).

The Bessie Boies Cotton Papers in the Sophia Smith collection at Smith College contain many of Bessie’s personal documents from her time in Russia – diaries, correspondence, reports to the YWCA – as well many images from her personal photo album. Some of these pictures seem to suggest that she was fairly close to, and possibly even involved in, the events of the October Revolution and the ensuing struggle for power; there are more than a few incredible shots of marches, barricades, and the aftereffects of street fighting. And in a certain sense, Bessie was near the events – near enough that one night she “[heard] twelve shots in front of [her] house” (Bessie Boies Cotton Papers Box III, Folder 2).

But these images do not shed as much light on revolutionary Russia as one might hope. One reason for this is the simple reality of revolution – the October Revolution was “in fact such a small action … that it passed unnoticed by the vast majority of the inhabitants of Petrograd” (Figes, 96). Bessie, an outsider and not a member of any Russian political party, would likely have found it incredibly difficult to distinguish between “important” events and day-to-day fighting.  More importantly, however, Bessie just simply did not care about the revolution, or any revolution for that matter. She told an American newspaper reporter that she and the other YWCA workers “[were] as callous to [the political and social crises] as [New Yorkers were] to traffic on Fifth Avenue” (Bessie Boies Cotton Papers Box I, Folder 7). Because of this attitude, almost none of Bessie’s other personal documents contain any significant references to or reflections on the revolutionary activity she saw.  Instead, her papers are wholly devoted to describing her efforts to help Russian women. Bessie’s most cherished goal was to create an “international fellowship of women” – work she considered even more important during an unstable revolutionary time (Leighton 26;35). So while the photographs she collected are indeed astounding, they are only the backdrop to the story of an even more impressive woman who risked her personal safety to try to guarantee a better future for Russian women.



Cotton, Bessie Boies. Papers. Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA

Figes, Orlando. Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991: A History. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014. Print.

Leighton, Elizabeth. “A Women’s Mission to Revolutionary Russia: Bessie Boies Cotton and the Young Christian Women’s Association.” Thesis. Mount Holyoke College, 1983. Bessie Boies Cotton Papers (Box I, Folder 6). Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA.


EEmily Paruolo Author Photomily Paruolo is a Comparative Literature major, her primary interest being the intersection of Western European ideas and Russian culture. She has studied both French and Russian for eight years and began studying German this fall. She hopes to study abroad in both St. Petersburg, Russia and Geneva, Switzerland next year.


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