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Russian steamer Shilka enters Elliott Bay and causes excitement on December 21, 1917.

HistoryLink.org Essay 2676 : Printer-Friendly Format

On December 21, 1917, a ship flying the Russian flag unexpectedly steams into Elliott Bay. Russia, a United States ally in World War I, had been thrown into confusion by the overthrow of its government in the Bolshevik Revolution a month earlier. The Russian Revolution had upset World War I alignments, because the new Russian leaders seemed supportive of the German enemy. The steamship Shilka, itself torn by uncertain leadership, had sailed out of Vladivostok with 63 crewmen a few weeks earlier.

Questions Were Asked

Despite wartime patriotism, Seattle had an active bevy of dissenting radicals including Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies), socialists, and other labor groups. Immediately, rumors circulated throughout the city. Was this the ship of an unfriendly power, sent to foment a Bolshevik disruption on American shores? Had crewmen come to aid local radicals? Were these Russians and erstwhile Allies somehow here to help Germany? Was the hold truly filled with vegetables and licorice root as claimed, or did it contain munitions and $100,000 in gold destined for dissidents? Had a mutiny taken place at sea, and, if so, who was in command?

Customs agents, Justice Department officials, and civic leaders pondered how to deal with this alien, mysterious ship, its crew and cargo. The ship was put under naval guard. But citizens who were sympathetic or merely curious had questions as well. Reports that a crewman would attend a meeting in the Wobbly hall drew several hundred. Late in the evening, a fully uniformed Daniel Teraninoff strode into the hall.

Perplexed and Under Arrest

Teraninoff was perplexed. His ship was on a simple mission with legitimate cargo, he explained. He could not understand the uproar. Indeed, Vladivostok citizens had recently cheered an American ship that entered that harbor. Leaving the meeting to a chorus of "The Red Flag!" Teraninoff was promptly arrested. Authorities released him the next morning when they could find nothing to charge him with.

American officials were plagued by doubts as to their own authority and how to proceed. A search of the vessel turned up nothing more exciting than some out-of-date weapons, an unusual alcoholic beverage spiced with red peppers, and a curious ship-length tunnel that proved empty and led nowhere. Although the press conjured up a few more doubts from these revelations, hysteria was giving way to mere interest. A few local police replaced the naval guard surrounding the ship, and the federal attorney was advised to conduct only normal investigations and not to seize material or personnel without higher approval.

Finally, the ship's captain, Boris Bedel, and a civilian who spoke English gave an interview that dismissed all the fears. Customs Collector Roscoe Drumheller confirmed that there was nothing unusual aboard and that the cargo truly was licorice root, beans, and peas. Guards were released and the goods unloaded for overland shipment.

Russian Sailors Enjoy Seattle

During the remainder of their stay, Russian sailors drew friendly attention as they walked Seattle streets and shopped its stores. The Chamber of Commerce gave them an automobile tour and reception. Local labor leaders framed a message to Russian workers for the crew to deliver.

On January 8, the Shilka steamed out of Elliott Bay carrying steel, pig iron, and iron products. Some 200 well-wishers lined the pier to bid farewell, and the Russians responded with three cheers for the United States.

The mysterious invasion ended in peace and harmony.

Sources:
The Seattle Times Magazine, February 16, 1975; Arizona and the West, Spring 1978.


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Related Topics: War & Peace | Labor | Maritime |

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