By Maria Sakovich and Eugenia Bailey
Ninety years ago, on 1 July 1923, a special group of refugees on the American transport U.S.A.T. Merritt arrived at San Francisco. These 526 Russian men, women, and children had been part of a flotilla of some twenty Russian vessels (under the command of Rear Admiral Yu. K. Stark) which left Vladivostok in October 1922 when the city fell to the Bolsheviks. After a harrowing journey plagued by inhospitable governments, poor shipboard conditions, and typhoons which sank two of the not-very-seaworthy vessels and their passengers; a remnant of the original 7,000 refugees managed to make it to Manila in the Philippine Islands, where the American government had guaranteed asylum. Consultation by Governor General Leonard Wood with President Harding and the Secretaries of War and Labor enabled the homeless and stateless Russians to come to the United States under the terms of the recently enacted quota law. The American Red Cross helped to finance the trip.
Because the group was so large (the only one to come with American assistance), Angel Island immigration officials held and processed the refugees at Fort McDowell, an army installation on the west side of the island. Although great care had been taken to make sure that all were eligible to enter the country under the immigration laws, nineteen (possibly twenty-one) were excluded. Those who appealed the order had to wait at the immigration station until final decisions were made in Washington, D.C. Ultimately four were deported back to the Philippines.
Among the passengers were fifty families (forty-three of the children were under fifteen years of age), naval and army officers, engineers, two doctors, and a chaplain. The parents of one of the writers of this article, Paul and Mary Nikonenko, were among the refugees. Most, however, were young men, sailors and farmers, including a nineteen-year-old seaman, Prince A. Chagedaev. After the dangers and uncertainties of the preceding months, the emigrants had found safety. Several became movers and shakers of the newly emerging Russian community in San Francisco.