Being a Short History of the Anglo-Russian Gymnasium

Balaclava, Russia - 1920
Constantinople, Turkey - 1920-1927
Varna, Bulgaria - 1928-1935

by Arthur Frederick Coffey

Carried on under "The Russian Relief and Reconstruction Fund" 1920-1927,
"The Child Relief Fund" 1928-1935

During the years 1918-19, two men who were with the Allied Forces in Archangel, North Russia, were much impressed by the growing need for work among the refugee children of Russia.

On their return to England in the latter year, one of the two set to work to organise a Committee and collect funds, while the second one went out to Southern Russia to try and form some idea of the need there and to determine what kind of work was practicable.

The Committee was at first formed under the wing of the Y.M.C.A., but as its work took shape it was deemed wiser that the organisation should become an entirely separate one.

From the beginning almost to the end, two men who were prominently connected with it - the one as Secretary and the other as Treasurer - were the late Colonel John Ward and Colonel J Josselyn, both of whom had been in Russia during the Great War and its aftermath.

The actual work commenced in the summer of 1920 in Sevastopol in the Crimea, and took the form of providing meals for needy children and clothing for adults. A similar work was also carried on from a set of railway coaches that followed up closely behind the Army of General Wrangel and which included in its staff a woman doctor and a trained nurse.

Shortly afterwards, a School in which the children were boarded, clothed and educated was opened at Balaclava, and very soon some 70 children representing the neediest and the most urgent cases were in residence there.

No one who was not in Russia at the time can have any idea of the Gethsamene and the Calvary that was trodden by so many children's feet in those days and the years that succeeded them. Half-starved, insufficiently clothed, ill and nervous, those children - some having seen their parents killed before their eyes; others, for the time being at any rate, separated from their loved ones - made an appeal to us that would have moved any heart. A photo of this little group of children taken at the times gives but a poor idea of their miserable condition.

But a short time elapsed and the evacuation of the Crimea by General Wrangel's Forces led to the departure of our little band also. One day the cruiser "Diantes" entered the harbour and presently our children with their poor belongings were hurried away from Motherland and kindred to comparative safety.

On arrival in Constantinople, after a temporary resting place in the Refugee Camp at Touzla, the children were ultimately settled, the girls in an old Greek monastery on Proti, the first of the Princes' Islands, and the boys in the buildings of the Russian Summer Embassy at Buyuk Dere on the Bosphorus.

Dining Hall at Buyuk Dere on the Bosphorus

The numbers increased considerably on arrival in Constantinople, and there were ultimately between seven and eight hundred under our care.

At a later date both Schools were accommodated in the buildings belonging to the Lord Mayor's Fund for Armenian Orphans at Eren Keuy on the Asiatic shore.

Eren Keuy

At first we had quite a lot of trouble in regard to the health of the children. Many of them had had the dreadful typhus, and all were so run down that they readily contracted any disease that was going. At first it was quite a common thing to have 75% of our number down with some form or other of sickness, but later, as a result of good feeding and sane, simple rules of living, they became so fit and strong that our little sick-room stood empty for weeks at a time.

While some children remained in the School during the whole of its life, particularly from among those who came with us from Russia, others remained for comparatively brief periods, proceeding to join their parents in the various places to which they had wandered.

At the beginning of 1928 it was decided to transfer the School to Bulgaria and it was removed to the town of Varna where it remained until it was closed down in September 1935.

We have been fortunate in the fact that we have always been near the sea, a factor which played no small part in securing the health of the children.

During the whole of its existence the School has been the counterpart of a gymnasium in Russia, its programme in Turkey conforming to that of the Modern School, and in Bulgaria to that of the Semi-Classical.

Education was given in all subjects through the medium of Russian because it was felt to be wiser to give the children a Russian education, and Russian teachers were more readily available.

This education was supplemented by any other features which were thought to be advantageous.

Thus, both among the boys and the girls every encouragement was given to the playing of games, and they had a practical addition to their studies in such subjects as shoemaking, carpentry, tin-smithing, dressmaking, laundrywork, cooking, photography, typewriting, shorthand, book-keeping, first aid and the like.

The School Leaving Certificate, both in Turkey and in Bulgaria, was the equivalent of Matriculation, and it was accepted as such by all the Universities to which the more fortunate among the children went.

About 60 of the girls are trained Hospital Nurses, having received their Diplomas at such Hospitals as the American Hospitals of Beirut, Constantinople and Paris; the Edith Cavell Memorial Hospital of Brussels; the Bulgarian Red Cross Hospital in Sofia, and the Infants' Hospital, Westminster, and Whipps Cross Hospital.

Others of our old pupils are doctors, priests, engineers, teachers, and so on. Probably about 25% have been able to obtain Higher Education in some form or other.

While they all, as refugees, have some difficulty in obtaining the right to work in the various countries to which they have gone, their material condition is, on the whole, quite good.

They are now scattered in many different countries - Canada, the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Argentine, Paraguay, Australia, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Palestine, Persia, Lebanon, Manchukuo, Turkey, Bulgaria, Roumania, Jugoslavia, Poland, Germany, Latvia, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, France, England and Soviet Russia - but wherever they may be they been so much better fitted for life by their experiences in our School.

No attempt was ever made to make the children less Russian. They were encouraged to follow the Faith of their fathers, to love their country, to know its history and to live for its service.

Russian Dancer at Proti

The money for their support, apart from the small amounts that their parents were able to contribute in some cases, has come almost entirely from Great Britain.

Some 1,500 children have passed through our School from first to last, and the average cost (bearing in mind that while some of them have been with us all the time, the remainder have stayed shorter periods, varying from a few months to a few years) has been about ?50 per child. We have also helped some of them through the University.

The above is only an approximate figure, but can this sum be weighed in the balance for one moment against the results - health, sanity, fitness, capacity, hope - obtained through our work despite many shortcomings and deficiencies.

Not only have the children been helped, but many adult Russians also. Their parents, in those cases where they were still alive, have been freed from anxiety in regard to their children and set free to work for themselves, and, in addition to this, not a few refugees have found employment with the School, either as teachers or in some other capacity.

The School has closed but the work goes on. Whether in the countries of their adoption, or, as we still hope, one future day in their own mother-land, these children, through our effort, have been fitted to play their part in life worthily, capably and honourably.

Photographs from the period can be viewed at:

Anglo Russian Gymnasium, Proti (Kinaliada), Princes Islands in Turkey,

Scenes from Varna, Black Sea Coast, Bulgaria in the late 1920s

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