Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


One of the most unusual foreign settlements in the Great Plains in the nineteenth century was a utopian socialist commune established by Russian exiles on former Osage Indian lands near Cedarvale in southern Kansas. Its inspiration goes back to members of the Russian intelligentsia, led by Alexander Herzen and Michael Bakunin, and their reception of the ideas of French socialists such as Fourier and German romantic philosophers during the 1830s and 1840s. This generation of thinkers was followed by one of activists, inspired especially by Nicholas Chernyshevsky and Peter Lavrov (the "sons" of Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons), who sought implementation of basic reforms and socialist ideals based on the example of Russian peasant collectives. But this was not easy to accomplish in an autocratic empire, even during the relatively liberal reign of Alexander II (1855–81). Some, therefore, went in search of greater freedom for experimentation abroad.

One of these was a former army officer and surveyor of Baltic German background, Vladimir Geins. Due to American sympathy toward Russia during the Crimean War and Russian support of the Union during the Civil War, literature about the United States was abundant. Geins and his wife set out for the "land of social opportunity" in 1868, first settling in Jersey City, then joining an established commune in Missouri as Wilhelm and Maria Frei, which was soon Americanized to William and Mary Frey. Owing to disputes among the group and the opening up of Osage land, the Freys, with a few other American and Russian followers, moved to Kansas in 1871 to found the "Progressive Communist Community" at Cedarvale.

Though small(fifteen members at the most)and relatively remote, it became well known for its mixture of Russian atheistic populists and American Christian socialists, its adherence to "modern" ideas such as vegetarianism and, for a few, nudism, and its promotional and educational efforts. In 1875 Frey began publishing The Progressive Communist, a monthly newsletter that circulated to other communities such as Oneida and Brook Farm. The Kansas commune was also distinguished by some of its members, such as Ukrainian writer Gregory Machtet, Nicholas Chaikovsky, who played a leading role in the Russian Revolution in 1917, and Vladimir Dobroliubov, the brother of Chernyshevsky's associate.

In 1879 disagreements and financial pressures came to a head, and the community dissolved. The Freys lived for a short time at the New Odessa colony in Oregon, then spent their remaining years in London, from where William carried on a widely publicized correspondence with Leo Tolstoy. Machtet and Chaikovsky returned to Russia to write of their experiences and suffer long periods of forced exile in Siberia.

Norman E. Saul University of Kansas

Frey, William. Papers. Manuscript Division, New York Public Library, New York. Saul, Norman E. Concord and Conflict: The United States and Russia, 1867–1914. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996.

Yarmolinsky, Avrahm. A Russian's American Dream: A Memoir on William Frey. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1965.

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