WINCHESTER – 75 years ago, the Board of Selectmen proclaimed June 22, 1942, to be Aid to Russia Day.
It is no wonder that Winchester was sending aid to England during World War II. It was New England’s mother country and the last major European power checking Hitler’s westward progress.
But Winchester had an extremely small local Russian population and thus fewer sentimental ties. Nevertheless, when Russian War Relief (RWR) was organized in 1942, it also gained strong support locally as well as nationally.
Part of the reason was military. During World War II, old prejudices against Russia were overcome by the overriding concern of defeating a common enemy and the realization, as former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union Joseph E. Davies told a Boston audience, that “We must never forget that we have been the beneficiaries of their [Russian] agonies. When they fight for their homes they fight for ours.”
Perhaps a greater reason that RWR succeeded in Winchester was the residents who managed it, particularly the two seemingly tireless, dedicated women who started it, Elena Sorokin and Carlene Samoiloff.
Samoiloff (1900-1985) was not Russian but actually a Winchester native, daughter of Hermann Dudley Murphy, a leading light in the local art community. As a young woman she studied dance, developed an interested in Russian theater, and became the first and only American to tour with Stanislowski’s Moscow Art Theater.
During the Theater’s world tour of 1922, she appeared on stage in Boston and there met a young Russian, Alexander Samoiloff (1902-1977), who was acting as an extra while working on an engineering degree at Harvard University. They married in 1928 and moved into the Murphy home on Highland Avenue.
Elena Sorokin (1894-1975), on the other hand, was a native Russian. She met her husband, Pitirim Sorokin (1889-1968) while a student at the University of Petrograd. After emigrating, she received a doctorate in botany at the University of Minnesota. After her husband moved to Harvard University, where he founded the Sociology Department, the couple settled on Cliff Street in Winchester in 1932.
Neither couple held sympathies with a communist regime. Alexander Samoiloff left Russia as a teen during the 1918 civil war. Prof. Sorokin narrowly escaped execution for anti-Bolshevik activities. But RWR was not about governments but rather helping victims of Axis aggression.
In June 1941, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. Though they ultimately failed, their attempt to conquer Russia took a tremendous toll in loss of lives and in human suffering. Millions needed medical care. Millions upon millions were homeless. There was a desperate need for supplies, warm clothing, and food.
RWR began in New York a month after the invasion. In December 1941, a gala benefit was held at the Boston Arena. Pitirim Sorokin was one of the speakers. Political leaders, stage and film stars addressed a huge crowd. Telegrams were read from the mayor, governor, and Pres. Roosevelt.
“When the beautiful stage star Tamara asked for funds – seconded by Mischa Auer, Claire Trevor, Tony Martin and others – pandemonium broke loose,” the Boston Globe reported. “Money was practically floating around and when it was counted, together with the receipts from the ticket sales, it amounted to approximately $35,000.”
Elena Sorokin joined the Massachusetts RWR executive committee. Carlene Samoiloff, expert at marshalling support, served on events committees and arranged publicity. She was interviewed on the radio along with the actor Paul Lukas on the subject of acting and RWR in March 1942. That April, she arranged for Katherine Hepburn to make a radio appeal in behalf of RWR and appeared in a newspaper photo with Hepburn at the microphone.
Not surprisingly, Sorokin and Samoiloff were asked to start up a Winchester branch of RWR, announced in April 1942.
“All the help we can give Russians right now will greatly increase our future chances to win this war,” Sorokin wrote to potential sponsors.
The women were able to gather a strong group of supporters into an executive committee. Though Cedric Seager and then Harrison Chadwick (both public figures) were its first chairmen until each left for the Army, it was Sorokin and Samoiloff who were the real driving forces within the group.
The initial meeting for a group of sponsors and other supporters was held at the Samoiloff home on May 3. Although the main business was to outline the purpose and scope of the drive and gain input, the event was also a concert featuring the Princess Marie Poutiatine singing a selection of Russian art songs and pianist Leonard Bernstein, then a student of Serge Koussevitzky, playing Scriabin and Copeland. (Koussevitzky, Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor and honorary chairman of the Boston RWR, was a friend of the Sorokins).
Aid to Russia Day
Money was not actually “practically floating around” for the local RWR. It required a lot of personal appeals, publicity, planning, administration, and coordination with local and regional groups to make the RWR a success.
When a nation-wide fundraising campaign and day of tribute was planned for the anniversary of the invasion of Russia, the Board of Selectmen helped out the local RWR by proclaiming June 22, 1942, to be Aid to Russia Day.
“Whereas Russia and the United States … are allied in a common battle against Hitler and the Nazi theory of the master race and its aggression and absorption of other nations; and whereas assistance and relief to Russia is today one of the most important problems facing the United Nations…whereas the nation-wide committee of Russian War Relief…plans to observe the first anniversary of the invasion of Russia by Nazi troops as a national day of tribute to the courage of the Russian Army and people; now therefore, the Board of Selectmen of Selectmen of Winchester designates Monday, June 22, 1942 as ‘Aid to Russia Day’ and urges that the citizens of Winchester make every effort to do their part in sharing and securing aid and support of the Russian War Relief Organization through its national and local committees.”
The Winchester Committee joined nation-wide campaigns to collect family survival kits for five million Russian families; held regular drives to collect warm clothing, both new and used, to ship to Russia; gathered medical supplies; and raised money through tag sales, garden shows, and special events. Also, it had a store and headquarters on Main Street where “authentic articles made by Russian peasants,” plants, cookbooks, and sundry items were sold.
Prominent among local RWR events were screenings of Russian films at the Winchester Theater, the purpose being educational as well as financial. The first films, in June 1942, were “Our Russian Front” and the “Girl from Leningrad.” The Winchester Public Library also showed Russian films, free to the public (but donations were accepted).
A special event occurred in 1943 while Elena Sorokin was acting as an interpreter for a group of visiting Russian officers and crew members, hosted at such places as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Harvard Club. Sorokin arranged a dinner in their honor at the Unitarian Church and herself arranged the menu.
Within six months, Winchester contributed about $2,500 and 18 fully packed laundry bags of clothing. In January, the chairman of the state RWR Committee on Organization wrote to Sorokin, “I always feel that the Winchester Committee is in the A-1 group and has very few peers in Massachusetts.”
That December, the state committee invited the Sorokins, Samoiloffs, and five other committee members to a reception to meet Eleanor Roosevelt when she spoke in Boston about the British response to the war on the Russian front.
In June 1943, in keeping with the nation, the Board of Selectmen proclaimed a Tribute to Russia Day and again called upon the generosity of townspeople.
That year, the films continued. “Mission to Moscow” reportedly added impetus for sending warm clothing to the 38 million homeless men, women and children then facing their third winter of war. The fire station, theater, churches, library, and public schools cooperated with the collection of donated clothing.
In 1944, Sorokin received personal thanks from the wife of Ambassador Andrei Gromyko for the clothing sent to Russia by Americans.
“If you only knew how they need them,” she reportedly said.
RWR continued its activities through the end of the war. It remains a prime example of the ability of Winchester residents to dig deep, pitch in, and respond to a crisis, as well as the ability of its townswomen to organize campaigns and rally the town round in support.