World

Russia, Ukraine and the forgotten exiles of the 1920s

4 June 2022

7:00 PM

4 June 2022

7:00 PM

At the end of 1920, a mass exodus of Russians from their homeland after the Russian civil war created a humanitarian catastrophe. ‘Never in the history of Europe has a political cataclysm torn such huge numbers of people from their mother country and their homes’ remarked émigré journalist Ariadna Tyrkova Willams. In the West there were widespread concerns about how European nations would cope with the massive new influx of refugees.

Today, a century later, the war in Ukraine has prompted an equivalent number of politically disaffected Russians to leave their country – in barely half that time.

History seems to be repeating itself. And the great exodus of Russians in 1920 holds many parallels for the exiles of today – both from Russia and Ukraine – who will be facing the similar trauma of leaving their country behind.

Those who could manage to get out in the first days of the Bolshevik revolution were mainly members of the aristocracy. But in the autumn of 1920, as the last remnants of General Wrangel’s White, anti-Bolshevik forces were driven south, a vast wave of desperate and dispossessed civilians fled the country as well. These people left with little more than a few hastily packed bags and their last few tradeable possessions. They could be seen desperately begging and bartering for safe passage out of the southern ports of Odessa, Novorossisk, Sevastopol and Yalta – by any means available.

A thrown together fleet of old tsarist ships, merchantmen and French and British warships took the remnants of the defeated White Russian army and thousands of these civilian refugees across the Black Sea to Constantinople. For a while it became a Russian city, overcrowded with Russian refugees in transit to the European capitals of Berlin, Paris, Prague, Rome and London.


At the time it seemed like an invasion: 65,000 Russian refugees settled in Berlin and as many as 35,000 in Paris by 1926 – rising to 43,000 by 1930. But most Russians seeking refuge from the new and brutal Bolshevik order believed that their life in exile would only be temporary. Even as they had scrambled on board the boats for Constantinople they grieved at the thought of abandoning their Russian homeland forever and could not stop talking about how soon they might return.

As Ukrainian and Russian refugees may find now, life in exile proved harsh. Many were depressingly impoverished. And over time their hopes faded that the Soviet Empire would collapse as they succumbed to ‘that deep unutterable woe/which none save exiles feel’, as poet William Aytoun once wrote.

Meanwhile, one of the worst aspects of the Russian emigration of 1920–21 was the catastrophic loss to Russia of the best and brightest of the old pre-revolutionary Russian elite –­­ writers, philosophers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors and professional classes who had formed the bedrock of the old intelligentsia. In 2022, we can see this happening again, with the departure from Russia of many talented professionals and political dissidents opposed to Putin’s war in Ukraine. Many young men are fleeing, fearful of being conscripted into the army; others dread being trapped behind the new Iron Curtain that is now rapidly shutting off Russia from Western Europe and with it the opportunities for cultural, intellectual and political exchange.

This haemorrhaging of the best and brightest of young intellectual Russians could have serious repercussions. Business professionals, academics, scientists, doctors are now leaving Russia. And the loss of IT specialists in particular will be sorely felt in the country. The arrival of this latter group is rapidly turning Yerevan in Armenia into a Russian technical-hub-in-exile. One might hope that many of these highly skilled new Russian exiles will fare far better than their compatriots in the 1920s forced to wait tables and wash dishes in Paris. It seems unlikely that they will succumb to the kind of despair experienced by writer Ivan Bunin’s wife, Vera, who wrote with dread in 1920: ‘I never thought that I would have to drag out my life as an émigré’. But she did, as did so many of her fellow Russians who never saw their homeland again. Today’s emigres at least can stay in touch with home, thanks to the internet, where, in contrast, the people of the diaspora of the 1920s-30s, thanks to stringent Stalinist censorship, were starved of news of family and friends back home.

In contrast to the more proactive and positive Russians leaving now as a result of the war in Ukraine, the Russians forced out by the revolution who formed a community in Paris between the wars were worn down by unmendable and often petty, political divisions – a hangover from the tsarist days – but also by poverty and the reduced circumstances in which they found themselves. Although the French people had initially offered them a refuge with some compassion, feelings changed with the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s and the economic downturn in France. Resentment toward the large Russian community in Paris grew; there were accusations that they were stealing the jobs of French nationals and had become a drain on state welfare funds. With a serious economic crisis looming in Europe, this poses a warning for today. Might attitudes begin to change toward Russian refugees, as well as to the millions of Ukrainians who have flooded into Europe?

In the 1920s the Russian emigration was described as Zarubezhnaya Rossiya ­ – ‘Russia Abroad’ – by those who lived it, a concept that many clung to to signify the temporary nature of their separation from the homeland. But as the older generation died, their children slowly but surely assimilated, learned French and lost that desperate romantic longing to go back.

According to the UN as many as 2.1 million Ukrainians have returned to their country since fleeing the war. This allure of the homeland was familiar to Russian exiles in the past. For some Russians in Paris, the despair of exile became so profound that a few took the risk of returning to the Stalinist Soviet Union. But the Russia they had once known was of course now irretrievably changed. One of the most notable, and tragic, returnees was the gifted poet, Marina Tsvetaeva. A difficult personality, she had become increasingly isolated in Paris, where she had settled in 1925, finding it impossible to survive financially. Against her better judgment she was persuaded to return in 1939, in the hope that her poetry would be better appreciated in her homeland only to find herself cold-shouldered by the conformist Soviet literary establishment. During the war she was resettled in a writers’ colony in Central Asia. Here, rejected, financially desperate and broken, she hanged herself in August 1941.

We can only hope that the exiles of today avoid a similarly dark fate. While western countries have opened up their homes to fleeing Ukrainians they should remember that the process of assimilation and recovery will take far longer. The tragic stories of Russia’s 1920s exiles show how difficult that will be.

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