The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 changed Bortkiewicz’s life. Being a Russian he was initially under house arrest and later to leave Germany. Going through Stockholm and Finland he finally reached St. Petersburg. He did not stay there but travelled to Kharkov, where he established himself as a music teacher, whilst at the same time giving concerts alone or together with the Czech violonist František Schmitt (better known as Frank Smit [1892-1960]) who was a pupil of Otakar Ševčík. During his years in Kharkov he composed his cello concerto opus 20(dedicated to Paul de Conne [1874-1959]), and the violin concerto opus 22 (dedicated to Frank Smit).
The cello concerto was premiered in 1923 in Budapest, while the violin concerto was premiered in Prague in 1922 by its dedicatee František Schmitt (Frank Smit).
The end of World War I saw the beginning of the Russian revolution, which forced the composer and his family to flee the family estate of Artiomowka owing to occupation by the communists. In June 1919 the communists fled in the wake of the White army and Bortkiewicz was able to return and help to rebuilt the family estate, which had completely been plundered. This, however, was short-lived. In the summer of 1919 Bortkiewicz engaged a manager for the estate. With his wife, Bortkiewicz traveled to Crimea: “All hotels were overfilled in Sebastopol. We spent the night in a private house, shipped out and reached Yalta.” There they found furnished rooms with a balcony on Darsan Hill with a magnificient view of the city and the harbour of Yalta: “I rented a piano and even started composing. My nocturne opus 24, no. 1 came to my mind druing a wonderful moonlit night.”
Soon the circumstances changed dramatically. Bortkiewicz’ mother, her daughter Vera and her husband, fled from Charkov to Novorossysk. Bortkiewicz’ mother and Vera’s husband fell ill with typhus fever, of which both died in the chaos of Novorossysk.
In the autumn of 1920 Enlgish, American and Italian warships came to Yalta to pick up soldiers of the army of General Wrangel and refugees from all over Russia: “Thanks to my knowledge of languages, I took on the job of an intermediairy. To start with I sold my own personal valuables to foreign officers, then jewels, rings, broches of my friends.” Bortkiewicz became friendly with Thomas.W.G. Settle (1895-1980), lieutenant on an American destroyer (problably the USS Whipple): “He bought jewels from me, I got golden dollars and golden Turkish pounds.” Bortkiewicz dedicated his piano album Der Kleine Wanderer, opus 21 to Thomas Settle.
Bortkiewicz sought to escape from Yalta and succeeded on 22 November 1920, after spending two nights under the open sky, to obtain passage on the merchant steamer Konstantin: “Now was the time for us to push through at any cost. For hours we stood at the stairs. Finally, we were successful in squeezing through, we showed our passenger tickets, and were on board. We breathed a sigh of relief, as we saw our luggage, our last property and wealth, swinging in the air on a cable of a mighty crane. My wife occupied a cabin with a few ladies. I remained on the upper deck without a place. The Konstantin was overfilled to bursting point with people and luggage, there was not even a spot free on the upper deck.” Refugees were standing, packed so tightly that they could not move. Many of these people suffered from thirst, having received no food and little water for several days: “The Black Sea, which was often stormy and treacherous at this time of the year, was as calm as a large pond. It was a miracle! Even the smallest storm would have washed us away from the upper deck, and the entire overloaded ship might have been lost.”
Sergei and Elisabeth Bortkiewicz arrived in Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey) on 24 November 1920. By then, more than a hunderd and fourty ships with Russian emigrants had anchored near the city. Bortkiewicz was one of the nearly 146.000 Russian refugees that were aboard these vessels. Levantine boatmen came in boats and offered bottles of water, loaves of bread, chocalate and other delicacies in exchange for wedding rings, watches and fur coates. “But we had to be thrifty and turned our eyes away from temptation. I had 20 dollars in my pocket, that was all. My 1,5 million Russian roebel were totally worthless! We had only a couple of suitcases with clothes, a little underwear and my manuscripts.” Bortkiewicz and his wife had to spent 10 days on the Konstantin, before they got permission to go on land.