November 01, 2018

The White Émigré Epic

The Russian Civil War (1917-1922) between Reds and Whites impelled waves of emigration from the former Russian empire through the gates of Europe. While the exodus began soon after the November 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, it turned frantic in late 1920, as a White Army defeat in the South became imminent. Soldiers and supporters dared not leave their fates to the victors, and General Pyotr Wrangel oversaw a herculean evacuation from Crimea.

Then, in 1921, Vladimir Lenin revoked the citizenship of all Russian expats abroad, instantly making more than three-quarters of a million people stateless. A century ago, just like today, European countries were loath to accept the refugees, particularly since most of Europe was still recovering from the devastation of World War I. Yet since repatriating the refugees to Bolshevik Russia meant certain persecution and likely death, the situation, combined with waves of émigrés from the Armenian genocide in Turkey, prompted the League of Nations to create so-called Nansen Passports,* which allowed exiles to legally cross borders and make a new life for themselves abroad.

They were followed by hundreds aboard two so-called “Philosophers Ships” bearing a who’s who of Russia’s greatest minds. Expelled by order of the Bolsheviks, these giants of the intelligentsia joined their compatriots in an exile most expected to last just a few months. But months turned into years, years into decades, and the longed-for return never came.

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