Horrible Tales of Cruelty to the Russian Church Students.


Youths Beaten, Starved and Kept in a Rat-Infested Dungeon on a Diet of Bread and Water -- Policemen Find Them in a Filthy Condition -- Affidavits That Support Grave Charges.


The officers of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children have at length decided to make an investigation into the management of the Graeco-Russian Seminary, at 1713 Powell street, near Filbert. For a long time past – in fact, since the church was badly gutted by fire, nearly two years ago – there have been rumors that the management of the seminary is not what it should be, and that the young boys brought here from Alaska and Russia to study and fit themselves for the ministry have been cruelly and inhumanely ill-treated.

The students have been pictured as leading lives worse than those of slaves. A lack of food, a want of proper accommodations and brutal treatment are said to have been their lot, and far from home and friends, they have been at the mercy of the instructors.

Death would be far preferable than life to most of them if one half of the stories related by those who claim to be cognizant of the workings of the seminary are true. The matter will now be fully ventilated in the courts, for the officers of the humane society took the initiatory step yesterday afternoon by arresting E. P. Alexine, the Superintendent, and Paul Ligda, the Assistant Superintendent, on a charge of "causing children to suffer."


The warrants were issued from Judge Worley’s court and Policeman Comstock, accompanied by Secretary Holbrook of the Children’s Society, went to serve them.

Alexine and his assistants were greatly surprised when informed of the mission of the visitors. They were at first incensed, but believing that silence is golden on such occasions remained silent. The officers then told them that it was their intention to remove all the boys to the Central Station, to be there held as witnesses pending the trial. It was reported that there were fourteen boys in the seminary who would bear witness to the ill-treatment they received, but only twelve of them were found.

When informed that they would for the first time being receive shelter at the hands of the municipality the boys appeared happy. Without a moment’s delay they attired themselves for the trip to the Station-house, and with evident pleasure they formed in line to march with their rescuers. On the way to the prison they chattered gayly among themselves, and seemed to enjoy the chance afforded them to gain a glimpse of the outside world and breathe air purer than that of the seminary. At was at first feared that some of them might attempt to escape, but not a move was made in that direction.


They marched together in solid rank, and for all outward appearance would be mistaken for boys bent on a day’s outing, rather than going to the City Prison to breathe its fetid atmosphere and view the sickening and heartrending scenes hourly enacted there.

After Alexine and Ligda had been charged, the boys were assigned to quarters in the "bird cages." They talked among themselves and seemed to rather enjoy the change from life in the Greco-Russian seminary. The prison bars were to them things of wonder. They tested the strength of the iron bars of the cell. First they tried to pull them out. Failing in that they sought to kick them away. Again they met with defeat and next they climbed up them like monkeys.

While the boys were enjoying themselves, Alexine and Ligda were fuming and fretting. They did not appreciate life in the Central Police Station and when a short time later they secured their release on $500 bonds they passed from the prison with a sigh of relief.

While the story that the boys were not properly fed may be untrue, it is a fact that the food furnished them at 5 o’clock did not go to waste. The "bootleg" coffee quickly disappeared and the remainder of the stew from the noon hour meal found a dozen stomachs ready to receive and appreciate it. A sparrow would have had but half a meal if given all the boys left behind them.


The arrest is the outcome of a series of troubles that during several years past, have disturbed the peace of the Russo-Greek Orthodox Church. Vladimir, the Bishop of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, has never been popular with his parishioners. Stories of his conduct with teachers and students in the seminary leaked out, and a clique of Russians, headed by Nicholas Faodorff and Dr. Nicholas Russel, proceeded to make things lively for the Bishop, whose baptismal name is Vasile Sokolowsky. He was charged with being arrogant and despotic and a disgrace to religion; inasmuch as he had committed crimes so revolting that they could not even be hinted at in a public print.

Meetings were called at which Vladimir was denounced, and a mighty pressure was brought to bear on the head of the church to have him dismissed, which effort was, however, unsuccessful. While the row was at its height a fire occurred in the church building on Powell street that came near destroying the edifice. Vladimir’s opponents publicly accused the Bishop of causing the fire while in a drunken condition, and he retaliated by telling reporters that his enemies had set fire to the church in the hope that he would be incinerated.


The charges against the Bishop were made in affidavits duly attested before Notaries Public, which affidavits are now for the first time made public. It will be impossible to give the nature of the gravest charge contained in several of the affidavits. Nicholas Koutcheray deposed that Vladimir induced him to run away from his home in the city of Warsaw, Russia. The Bishop brought him to this city together with eleven other boys from Russia and several more from Alaska. He was promised that he should receive an ecclesiastical education.

The treatment that Koutcheray received while a resident of the Bishop’s house was infamous. He became a veritable slave; the Bishop having reduced him to a state of terror by telling him that the slightest disobedience on his part would insure his confinement for life in the House of Correction, an assertion which Koutcheray in his ignorance of American law believed was possible. After a long period of suffering Koutcheray took advantage of the Bishop’s departure for Alaska to escape. He found friends who cared for him.

Sidor Povartchuk, who was employed at the bishop’s residence, deposed that the boy students were poorly clad, badly lodged, all fed and treated harshly.


"Immediately after meals," stated his affidavit, "they used to come to the kitchen and ask for a piece of bread, feeling hungry." The affiant was a witness to the ill treatment of Nicholas Koutcheray, and on one occasion Povartchul was moved to remonstrate with Vladimir, saying: "Your Holiness, it is not the proper way to deal thus with a boy whom you have taken under your charge. The best for you will be to send him back to his parents.

Another affidavit-maker was William A. Allen, who came to this country with the Bishop under contract to teach English and gymnastics in the school. He testified that he was subjected to infamous treatment, and to his knowledge Vasille Martish, Alexander Bobovsky and E. E. Korneluk suffered also. In a letter dated August 17, 1890, Allen informed his friend Faodorff that the Bishop had given him $200 and promised to pay his bills if he would return to Russia and would keep silence concerning his life in the cathedral, which offer he had accepted. He begged Faodorff to destroy the papers he had given him, saying that if they were made public the Russian Government would eat him up.

Alexander Vanno is another youth who in his affidavit complained of the Bishop’s conduct.


In the affidavit of Nicholas Faodorff, formerly a mechanical engineer in the Russian navy, and who, being imprisoned in St. Petersburg for the propaganda of the holy Gospel, became a religious refugee in order to escape the three years’ imprisonment on the island of Solovetsk, to which he was sentenced by the Consistory of St. Petersburg, it was stated that he came as a missionary among the Russians of this city. He detailed how the insults of the Bishop directed against the Russians of this city aroused the indignation of his countrymen. He stated also that he visited the church and the school and became convinced of the truthfulness of the charges brought against Vladimir by the pupils of his school and his ecclesiastical subordinates.

The affidavit says: "The boys were poorly fed and clothed, lodged in the most unhealthy apartments, were overworked and generally neglected. The Bishop, on account of his despotic character, maltreated them in every way except some of his favorites. I have seen the boys whose bodies literally swarmed with vermin and who were dirty and ragged. I have heard them complain that they were imprisoned in closets full of rats. The rumors of far more serious character have been afloat. * * * When the boy N-- K-- left the church the Bishop officially denounced him as a thief on the ground that he left the church dressed in his daily suit of clothes, which, according to the Bishop, belonged to the church. In bringing officially before the Russian Consulate such a grave charge against the boy, charges amply sufficient to stop his career, and this in the vilest malicious language, the Bishop evidently forgot that on one hand he abducted the boy from Russia dressed in something of his own, and that on the other that he could not leave the church and walk out on the streets in that state of nature."


Further on the affidavit states that Vladimir hired Vladimir Michailoff, "a desperado freely indulging in liquors and vice, shunning work and looking for some easy way to make a living," who "committed a murder in St. Petersburg," to assassinate Dr. Russel, and gave him a revolver for that purpose. The Bishop, according to Faodorff’s affidavit, paid at various times over $300 to Michailoff to commit the murder, but that worthy finally denounced the Bishop to Dr. Russel and his friends. After that the Bishop sent Michailoff East to get him out of the way.

The affidavit also accuses him of sending to Russia several boys who could have testified to his brutality.

Faodorff is now teaching school in Alaska.

Among those who opposed Vladimir was Joseph Levin, a priest in the Bishop’s church, who lives at 527 Shotwell street. His opposition caused his dismissal from the church and he is now prosecuting a lawsuit against Vladimir.


It was he who a few weeks ago called the attention of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to the treatment of the boys, his complaint being followed by a letter written by his attorney and worded as follows:

San Francisco, May 16, 1891.

To the Secretary of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to ChildrenDear Sir: Having had occasion to-day to visit the houses of Vladimir, the Bishop of the Russo-Greek Church, 1713 Powell street, who is about to depart for Alaska, I discovered about a dozen boys of from six to fourteen years of age, who one and all complained to me that they were confined there without sufficient food, and whose physical appearance bore ample testimony to the fact that they were strangers to soap and water and decent or sufficient clothing. Some of the boys appealed to me to release them from their captivity, and I promised them I would do something for them.

"It is assuredly a matter which appeals strongly for the investigation and attention of your society, as the condition of those children is certainly deplorable. They are ignorant of their rights and of the fact that they are in a free country, and have no natural protectors or guardians in this country. Being myself the attorney for a person having an action at law against this Bishop, I do not like to move in this matter myself, because he might charge me with sinister motives in so doing. Trusting the matter will meet your immediate attention, I am, yours respectfully, Edward Myers."

Policemen Charles Holbrook and Comstock of the society visited the school and found that the children were sadly neglected. There were fourteen boys huddled together in a small dormitory, the filth of which was frightful and from which the odors that arose were sickening. None of the boys were over fourteen years old and all seemed to be in mortal terror of Alexine, Ligda and the Bishop.

They said they were beaten, starved and otherwise ill treated. A warning was extended and the policemen departed. On Wednesday they paid an unexpected visit. Their warning had not been heeded so the arrest was decided upon.

One of the boys, Nicholas Savchinikoff by name, aged thirteen years, and an orphan, who was brought here from Alaska three years ago, stated that Ligda made a brutal attack upon him, and seizing him from the floor held him high above his head and then dashed him to the floor. This was only an example of numerous attacks of a similar nature.


The other boys were Nicholas Mercurieff, aged 11 years; James Corcoran, aged 13 years; Nicholas Bellkoff, aged 11 years; Willie Kaznakoff, aged 14 years; Peter Hellstead, aged 10 years; Andrew Kaveutk, aged 14 years; Peter Dimitrieff, aged 14 years; George Kochergin, aged 12 years; Paul Kokoranin, aged 10 1/2 years; Nicholas King, aged 12 1/2 years; and Elias Nalk, aged 13 1/2 years.

The methods of punishment, they said, were striking them on the head violently with the bare hand, pulling their ears, pulling the short hair at the nape of the neck, and confining them in a dungeon infested with rats for hours at a time on a diet of bread and water.

Both of the teachers indulged in these practices, and Vladimir, it is said, had a stout cane with which he was wont to jab them in the stomach until they became sick. An instance was related of a boy who was confined eight days in a dungeon on bread and water. The boys said the sheeting and pillow cases on their beds were changed once every two weeks, while they bathed every ten days and their underclothing was changed every week. None of them wanted to return to the school.

A visit was paid to the Bishop’s residence last night, but Ligda vouchsafed no explanation for his conduct, and declined to allow an inspection of the dormitory and dungeons.

The San Francisco Examiner, Friday Morning, June 12, 1891, p. 3


(From a sketch in the prison by an "Examiner" staff artist.)

Reprinted in the Holy Trinity Cathedral LIFE, Vol. 4, No. 6, February 1997.