“This is the best research project I’ve ever had. It’s invaded my life in a very good way.” So says Birgitta Ingemanson, associate professor of Russian at Washington State University, about her current project transcribing and editing more than 2,100 letters written by an American woman, Eleanor Pray, in Vladivostok between 1894 and 1930.
The collection consists primarily of letters written by Pray and her sister-in-law, but also includes hundreds of photos taken by Pray of Vladivostok before the Russian Revolution and World War I. The array of letters and photographs provides glimpses of the city’s culture, politics, and merchant life from an American woman’s perspective. Vladivostok, which sits on a peninsula overlooking the Sea of Japan in the easternmost part of Russia, today has a population of approximately 750,000 people. When Pray was there in the early 1900s, Vladivostok had about 20,000 residents from many cultures and backgrounds.
Born in Maine and raised in New Hampshire, Eleanor Lord married Frederick Pray in 1894. Frederick’s sister, Sarah Smith, was married to an American merchant, Charles Smith, who ran a store in Vladivostok-“The American Store.” The Smiths asked the Prays to join them in Vladivostok and help run the store. Eleanor agreed to go for two years but ended up staying for 36.
While Pray remained a patriotic American, she loved the bustling merchant life of Vladivostok, which had a major port of entry and trade. She writes of days filled with playing tennis, translating English for other merchants, and watching the Russian Naval fleet on the bay from her house. Her husband held a post in Vladivostok with the U.S. Consulate for five years prior to the Russian Revolution.
Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Prays were forced to close down their store. Shortly thereafter, Frederick Pray died. Eleanor was heartbroken . Even though her daughter and her sister-in-law, whom she was extremely close to, left to live in Shanghai during the revolution, Eleanor refused to leave Vladivostok . She wrote that she did not want to lose the house she grew so fond of. “I cannot imagine living where I cannot see the two bays.”
During the seven years she lived in Vladivostok alone, she worked in a department store as an accountant and English translator. She volunteered for the Red Cross and YMCA by helping the Russian soldiers and hundreds of thousands of refugees on the eastern front who made their way to Vladivostok to board ships to flee the war-torn country.
Soviet rule shut down most independent merchants, and Pray soon found she had no work. She eventually joined her sister-in-law and daughter in Shanghai, but she never forgot her beloved Vladivostok.
Pray and her family endured a second world war while in Shanghai, where they were put in a prisoner-of-war camp. Pray survived the camps and ultimately moved back to America. She died in Washington, D.C. in 1954. Her daughter, aged 96, still lives in New England.
Birgitta Ingemanson has spent the last five years piecing together Pray’s life through her letters and photos, together with Pray’s granddaughter, Patricia Silver, who started collecting and organizing the materials in the 1970s. With the help of several WSU graduate assistants, Ingemanson sorted the letters in a database by themes and topics.
In September 2002, Ingemanson and Silver traveled to Washington D.C., where Ingemanson made a presentation at the Library of Congress on her research into Pray’s life and the history of Vladivostok. While Silver intends to eventually contribute the entire Pray collection to the library, she donated the first piece-an album of Pray’s photographs-to the library’s Photo and Print Department.
Identification with Pray runs deep for Ingemanson, who was born in Sweden but was drawn to Russia since she was a young girl. She has traveled to Vladivostok eight times and helped organize the exchange program between WSU and Far Eastern State University in Vladivostok in 1987. Ingemanson intends to co-edit a book on the Pray collection with Patricia Silver. Meanwhile, the collection and its insights into a period of history when many documents were destroyed by the Soviets will provide lasting valuable scholarly information and teaching materials for schools, as well as a supplement to archives and museum exhibits.
“Mrs. Pray was a remarkable, admirable woman,” says Ingemanson. “Her collection is what I’ll be working on for the rest of my life.”