CLEVELAND-RUSSIAN RELATIONS. Political, cultural, commercial, and personal relations between Cleveland and Russia (as the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the contemporary Russian Federation) commenced in the early 20th century. The development of such relations coincided with both Cleveland’s rise as a major American city and an increased interest in Russia within the United States amid the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Significantly, the history of relations between Cleveland and Russia has been frequently characterized by the city’s role in facilitating détente between Moscow and Washington. Cleveland's special role can be observed throughout this lengthy history, from CYRUS EATON’s diplomatic overtures to Nikita Khrushchev and Anastas Mikoyan to the CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA’s famous 1965 tour of the Soviet Union.
Before the 20th century, Cleveland’s primary connection with Russia came through the immigration of large numbers of Imperial Russian subjects. They were mostly non-Russians, such as JEWS, POLES, and FINNS, but they were also joined by a few RUSSIAN radicals who opposed the tsarist government. Many early immigrant CARPATHO-RUSSIANS, who arrived from Austria-Hungary, held a deep affinity for Imperial Russia and a significant number even adopted Russian identities. Their Russophile sentiments are perhaps best expressed in the establishment of Cleveland’s preeminent Russian landmark, ST. THEODOSIUS RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CATHEDRAL in TREMONT. Cultural exchanges between Cleveland and Russia began before WORLD WAR I. Renowned ballerina Anna Pavlova performed in Cleveland five times between 1910 and 1922, while Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes came to Cleveland during their first US tour in 1916 and returned again in 1917 with Vaslav Nijinsky.
The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent civil war of 1917-1922 had a major impact on Cleveland. First, the success of the Bolsheviks inspired radicals at home, such as CHARLES RUTHENBERG, who ran for mayor of Cleveland in 1917 and won nearly 30% of the vote. The MAY DAY RIOTS of 1919 and the explosion of a bomb at the home of Cleveland Mayor HARRY L. DAVIS (who was not present at the time of the attack) soon catapulted Cleveland to the center of national attention during the height of the First Red Scare. Notably, Ruthenberg would later attain the distinction of being one of three Americans buried at the Kremlin Wall in Moscow. Additionally, as a result of the revolution, the city received a new influx of Russian immigrants, the so-called White émigrés. Opponents of the Bolsheviks and members of the professional class, these new immigrants, although scattered throughout the city, provided valuable contributions to its cultural, intellectual, economic, and spiritual life. Some, such as longtime GEORGIAN-born St. Theodosius pastor FR. JASON KAPPANADZE, became major leaders within the community. Others became influential in Cleveland’s culture scene, such as DANCE instructors Sergei Popeloff, NIKOLAI SEMENOFF, and Serge Nadejdin. Conductor NIKOLAI SOKOLOFF, who emigrated from Russia before the Revolution, became the first conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra in 1918. Still others left behind vivid first-hand recollections of the Russian Revolution and Civil War, such as Constantine Benderoff, father of nurse Olga Benderoff, and FRANCIS SOMMER, a GERMAN-born linguist who married a Russian émigré woman. St. Theodosius became the spiritual center of the Russian émigré community in Cleveland and remained for many years so until the establishment of St. Sergius in PARMA after WORLD WAR II.
After the victory of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War, the party’s leader, Vladimir Ilych Lenin introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP), a program that brought together socialist and capitalist principles to bring the country back on its feet. The 1920s in the USSR was characterized by this policy, which enabled a more liberal environment both in politics and the arts. It also enabled more contacts with the West, including with the U.S. and Cleveland, despite Washington’s refusal to recognize the Soviet government during the 1920s. In 1922, poet Sergei Yesenin arrived in Cleveland, accompanying his then-wife dancer Isadora Duncan. Only a few years later, in 1925, the radical avant-garde futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky came to Cleveland and delivered a fiery poetry recitation at Carpenters’ Union Hall in the CENTRAL neighborhood on 2226 East 55th. The trip was part of the poet’s larger tour of the US, which also included New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. He later recorded his experiences in his book My Discovery of America. A decade later, this visit would be followed by a trip to Cleveland in 1935 by Odessa-born satirists Ilf and Petrov as part of their Road Trip across America. Soviet cultural interest in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio was not limited to prominent literary figures. In the world of film, Lev Kuleshov’s 1924 Soviet comedy The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks featured as its title character a Harold Lloyd-esque YMCA president from the Cleveland suburb of BRECKSVILLE. Not all the contact was unidirectional. Many famous Cleveland residents visited the USSR, including poet LANGSTON HUGHES, who visited Moscow and Soviet Central Asia, and MARGARET BOURKE-WHITE, who photographed the country extensively.
The death of Lenin in 1924 led to a major power struggle within the Soviet Union, and by 1928, Georgian-born Joseph Stalin had defeated his opponents and emerged as the leader of the Soviet state. Seeking to aggressively industrialize the mostly peasant nation at any and all costs, he imposed catastrophic collectivization in the rich grain-producing regions of Ukraine, southern Russia, and northern Kazakhstan, causing widespread famine. In addition to this violent assault against peasants and steppe nomads, Stalin also sought advice from the West, especially the U.S., in his bid to expand the country’s industrialization. The USSR had long been fascinated by American capitalist innovation, and Lenin himself expressed admiration for the production methods of Henry Ford and Frederick Winslow Taylor. This interest in American innovation in the avowedly anti-capitalist USSR continued into the Stalin era. The recognition of the Soviet state by President Franklin D. Roosevelt opened the door for greater possibilities between the two countries, which were realized by two of Cleveland’s leading engineering companies. In 1933, Moscow invited ARTHUR G. MCKEE & CO. for technical assistance on the creation of Magnitogorsk, a Soviet Pittsburgh or Gary, Indiana in the Urals. For the construction of the largest automobile plant in Europe and the accompanying “workers’ paradise” of Avtozavod in Nizhny Novgorod, the Soviets invited the AUSTIN COMPANY. The son of the company’s president, Allan Austin, traveled to the country with his wife and served as the youngest of twenty American supervising engineers involved in this project. His letters have left historians with invaluable insights into this mammoth collaboration between Soviet communists and American capitalists. The sense of partnership between the US and the USSR was further cemented by the alliance of the two nations against the Axis powers in the Second World War.
In the aftermath of World War II, a chill descended on US-Soviet relations as the Cold War commenced. As a major industrial, commercial, and cultural center linking the East Coast to Chicago, Cleveland was considered a prime target for the Soviets in the case of a nuclear war. The city conducted CIVIL DEFENSE drills and the government installed seven NIKE MISSILE BASES in Cuyahoga County, the remnants of one of which can still be seen today in the Cleveland suburb of BRATENAHL, along the Lake Erie shoreline. The USSR’s imposition of communism on the countries of Central and Eastern Europe also brought a new influx of refugees to Cleveland, replenishing existing ethnic communities. The most significant group among them were large numbers of HUNGARIANS who fled the Soviet invasion of Hungary in the aftermath of the 1956 revolution. Their presence reinforced Cleveland’s position as the largest Hungarian population center in the world outside of Hungary, after Budapest. However, amid the height of this Cold War tension, there were also those in Cleveland calling for détente with the Soviet Union. The most prominent of these individuals was the Canadian-born Cleveland industrialist and philanthropist, Cyrus Eaton.
Alarmed by the prospect of nuclear war, Eaton believed that dialogue between Washington and Moscow was absolutely essential for the future of humanity. An apprentice of JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER, he had a close friendship with Samuel Harper, the son of University of Chicago President William Harper and the first major American scholar of Russia. He owed his understanding of Russian affairs to Harper and he was likely also aware of earlier business efforts by Cleveland businesses in the Soviet Union. When, in 1955, the State Department invited a group of Soviet journalists to meet a “real capitalist,” they directed them to Eaton, whom they met at his Acadia Farms in Northfield, OH. From this experience, Eaton saw the possibility of real cooperation with the Soviet side, and he even donated two of his prize-winning Scottish shorthorn bulls to the Soviet Union for its cattle production. This step was followed by a visit to the USSR by Eaton with his wife Anne in 1958. It was here that Eaton found a true partner in the new Soviet new leader, Nikita Khrushchev. The Ukrainian-born First Secretary was a reformer who preferred to focus more on the domestic economy than on defense spending. He rose to power following the death of Stalin, whom he denounced in an earth-shaking “secret speech” to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956, the same year in which journalist Doris O’Donnell of the CLEVELAND NEWS visited the USSR. Khrushchev also saw the possibility of cooperation and peaceful coexistence with Washington and, like Eaton, favored out-of-the-box thinking to achieve this objective. According to his son, Sergei, just as American hawks condemned Eaton as a “communist sympathizer” for his pro-détente positions, so did Kremlin hardliners condemn his father for his “naïve” willingness to speak to a capitalist. Truly, Khrushchev saw a kindred soul in Eaton, and even consulted with him and his wife in moments of disappointment with Washington, such as the U-2 spy plane incident.
Eaton’s 1955 gift and his 1958 visit to the USSR planted the seeds for the events that would follow. During his time in Moscow, Eaton became especially fond of the troika, a Russian sleigh carried by three white horses. Noting his love of troikas, Khrushchev arranged for the Cleveland industrialist to receive a troika of his own. The gift was delivered from the USSR to Eaton at Acadia Farms by Anastas Mikoyan, Khrushchev’s top advisor and Moscow’s no. 2 man, during his visit to Cleveland in 1959. Like Khrushchev, Mikoyan had also developed a good friendship with Eaton. However, his arrival in the city was faced with throngs of angry Hungarian demonstrators, many of whom were refugees from the 1956 revolution. They viewed Mikoyan as a symbol of Soviet oppression, despite the fact that he had opposed using force in Hungary. Nevertheless, the Soviet Armenian statesman, his son Sergo, and Soviet Ambassador Mikhail Menshikov fell in love with Cleveland and with the Eatons’ hospitality. Mikoyan joined Eaton and his wife for a bumpy ride on the new troika and, according to journalist George E. Condon, he reportedly became emotional at the sight of Cleveland’s TERMINAL TOWER, which reminded him of the tower at Lomonosov Moscow State University. The misty-eyed Mikoyan’s mustache allegedly “twitched” as he raised his arm in “comradely approbation” and reportedly declared “Now you’re talking! This is my kind of town!” Eaton wanted to have Khrushchev visit Cleveland as well. However, such an idea was ultimately unrealized due to opposition from the State Department.
There was détente in the cultural sphere as well. In April and May 1965, the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by GEORGE SZELL toured the Soviet Union as part of the State Department’s cultural diplomacy program, initiated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The orchestra performed concerts in Moscow, Kiev, Tbilisi, Yerevan, Sochi, and Leningrad. The orchestra was enthusiastically received by Soviet audiences and was hailed by TIME magazine as “one of the biggest successes in the history of the cultural exchange program” between Moscow and Washington. Some of these performances, notably those in Tbilisi and Yerevan, were entirely unplanned. However, the popular demands of Georgian and ARMENIAN audiences proved impossible to resist and the orchestra was pulled in the direction of these small, hospitable, music-loving Caucasus republics. The orchestra was no stranger to the Soviet Union. In 1935, it had presented the US premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, based on Nikolai Leskov's 1865 novella. Although Stalin disapproved of this opera, the Cleveland Orchestra’s then-conductor ARTUR RODZINSKI loved it and praised it as “the best opera written in this century.” He traveled to Moscow and attended its premiere in 1934, while on a trip to the USSR to conduct concerts for the Borodin Festival in Leningrad. For his part, Shostakovich had attended Rodzinski’s concerts and loved them. He was more than happy to entrust the US premiere of his opera to Rodzinski, provided he secure the rights from the Soviet state. Rodzinski vied to be the first conductor to present the work in America, facing competition from his own mentor, Leopold Stokowski, who sought to secure it for Philadelphia. With the aid of Vladimir Drucker and Arthur Rubinstein, Rodzinski managed the gain the rights for the Cleveland Orchestra to premiere Shostakovich’s opera. Starring soprano Anna Leskaya as Katerina, it premiered in Cleveland’s SEVERANCE HALL on January 31, 1935, to a sold-out crowd that included (among other prominent attendees) George Gershwin. After a second performance on February 2, the orchestra took the production to New York City, where it became the first non-resident opera performance at the Metropolitan Opera.
In the 1980s, amid the concerns regarding the prospect of a growing American-Soviet confrontation, residents in the liberally-minded East Side communities of CLEVELAND HTS. and SHAKER HTS. initiated grassroots efforts for détente. Their timing was impeccable. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev ascended to the Soviet leadership and heralded a new period of reform in the USSR with his twin policies of glasnost (political openness) and perestroika (economic restructuring). In 1987, Cleveland Hts. residents voted to declare their city a “nuclear free zone,” while both Cleveland Hts. and Shaker Hts. established a SISTER CITY association with the city of Volzhsky, Russia, near Volgograd in 1988. A Rose Garden and accompanying sign featuring American and Soviet flags was erected on the east end of Horseshoe Lake in Shaker Hts. to commemorate this momentous occasion. The agreement between Cleveland Hts.-Shaker Hts. and Volzhsky ultimately paved the way for Cleveland’s historic Sister City partnership with Volgograd at the end of Gorbachev’s tenure in 1990.
The end of the Cold War, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the rise of the internet and social media since the 1990s, have intensified the contacts between Greater Cleveland and Russia. As a result of the influx of new immigrants from the post-Soviet space (see: SOVIET AND POST-SOVIET IMMIGRATION), the Cleveland area today maintains the highest concentration of post-Soviet immigrants in the state of Ohio. This development alone provides new possibilities for even greater understanding between East and West than ever before. On May 3, 2019, the Russian flag flew over Cleveland City Hall as the City of Cleveland officially recognized Russian Community Day, with a delegation of representatives from Volgograd in attendance. The event was the result of the work of long-time Russian community leader Kenneth Kovach, the President of the Greater Cleveland-Volgograd Oblast Alliance. Now, amid renewed tensions between the governments of the United States and the Russian Federation, events such as these play a crucial role in promoting greater understanding between both countries. They also reinforce Cleveland’s longstanding historical record as a bridge between Moscow and Washington.
Pietro A. Shakarian
The Ohio State University
Sergei Khrushchev, interview by Pietro A. Shakarian, Cranston, RI, May 3, 2019.
Austin, Richard Cartwright. Building Utopia: Erecting Russia’s First Modern City, 1930 (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2004).
Bourke-White, Margaret. Shooting the Russian War (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1942).
Condon, George E. “The Muscovite’s Delight.” In Cleveland: The Best Kept Secret by George E. Condon, 1-5 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1967).
Gleisser, Marcus. The World of Cyrus Eaton (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2005).
Hughes, Langston. I Wonder as I Wander: An Autographical Journey (New York: Rinehart & Co., 1956).
Ilf, Ilya Arnoldovich, and Evgeny Petrov. American Road Trip, translated by Anne O. Fisher, edited by Erika Wolf (New York: Cabinet Books, 2007).
Khrushchev, Sergey Nikitich. Nikita Khrushchev: Tvorets ottepeli [Nikita Khrushchev: Creator of the Thaw] (Moscow: Veche, 2017).
Mayakovsky, Vladimir Vladimirovich. My Discovery of America, translated by Neil Cornwell (London: Hesperus Press, 2005).
O'Donnell, Doris E. Front-Page Girl (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2006).
Sommer, Francis Erich. Idyll, War, and Revolution: Across Russia in Ten Historic Years (Cleveland: Cleveland Public Library, 2011).
Telberg, Ina. "Russians in Cleveland" (Master's thesis, WRU, 1932).
Zakharov, Aleksandr Nikolaevich, ed. Letopis’ zhizni i tvorchestva S. A. Esenina, Vol. 3, Book II (Moscow: IMLI RAN, 2008).
View image of Anna Pavlova and Mikhail Mordkin advertisement. Courtesy of the Plain Dealer Archives.
View image of Russian-language advertisement for poetry reading by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Novy Mir newspaper, New York, NY, 26 September 1925. Courtesy of Natalie Rybachikova, Moscow.
View image of Cyrus Eaton on a troika gifted by Anastas Mikoyan. Courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection.