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.

Significant Russian émigré communities formed in Berlin, Paris and Yugoslavia, to say nothing of San Francisco, Turkey, and China. It was a vast, worldwide movement of people, estimated at between one and two million persons. And of course it cannot be fully described in a single tome, let alone a single article. So what follows is but a distilling of this momentous historical shift through the lives of a handful of individuals. History, after all, begins and ends with individual stories.

Belgrade Builders

Situated at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, Belgrade (which translates as “white city”) was the capital of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. That kingdom, renamed Yugoslavia in 1929, was ruled for most of the interwar period by Alexander I, a scion of the Russophile Karadjordjevic dynasty. He gladly harbored the up to 100,000 Russians who – some at his invitation – chose his country, including the exiled General Pyotr Wrangel. The capital became ten percent Russian.

For the new country, the immigration was a godsend because it filled its need for people with advanced skills in specialized fields. And Russians were especially abundant and helpful in the Construction Ministry. Nikolai Krasnov distinguished himself as the foremost contributor among this cadre.

Some three decades earlier, a relative of General Wrangel had given Krasnov his first job: chief architect for the city of Yalta. In that capacity, Krasnov built marvels on the peninsula as he built up the city. The lot of Krasnov and his fellows was perhaps best encapsulated in his premier Crimean creation, the Livadia Palace – the getaway built for the Romanov royals that would, in 1945, host the famous Yalta Conference. A regal edifice, lost to the Reds, it was transformed into an international showpiece for Stalin.

“I became addicted to Krasnov after having studied many of his drawings for jewelry and orders of knighthood, and, after that, being a member of the team of experts that did the reconnaissance of the Royal Compound complex, which gave me a particular insight into his work,” said Dragomir Acović, a Serb who compiled a 2017 commemorative album of Krasnov in book form. “Afterwards, I prepared several exhibitions dedicated to his work.” 

In exile, Krasnov lived in Malta before moving to Belgrade, where he spent the remainder of his life. His seventeen Yugoslavia years put a capstone on his remarkable career, as he amassed one transformational project after another and left a patrimony of treasures that today are among Serbia’s proudest symbols: government buildings, the interiors of the national parliament building, the Church of St. George in Topola, the Royal Palace, and countless more. So profound was his gratitude to his new country that he adopted the Serbian form of his name, Nikola.

When Alexander was assassinated in 1934, Krasnov drew up plans for the ceremonial public display of the catafalque. Krasnov’s own death came five years later, shortly before Yugoslavia fell to the Nazis and then, after the war, gave way to Tito’s communist dictatorship.

Meanwhile, Wrangel was laying other foundations. In Sremski Karlovci, he created a broad resistance organization called the All-Russian Military Union, known by its Russian initials ROVS, to sustain the anti-Red struggle and maintain readiness should the Soviet regime falter. In addition, Sremski Karlovci became the seat of a new church organization intended to unite the exiles in religious practice. It was called the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

Between the White Army remnants and ROVS, there was demand for buildings and infrastructure. The Balkan emigration contained numerous peasant soldiers, and the cadet corps in Yugoslavia was a source of employment for many of the destitute who had no prospects after landing in Constantinople. In the town of Prčanj (present-day Montenegro), the convalescent home for White Army veterans was at one point reportedly the second largest in Europe, and also had a cemetery. The Yugoslav communists tore out the cemetery in 1979, however, and the residential building has been reduced to a dilapidated eyesore, but is still inhabited.

Belgrade also had such a veterans’ home – the work of the prolific émigré architect Valery Stashevsky. A St. Petersburg transplant, Stashevsky came to Yugoslavia to work in the same state agency as Krasnov. He eventually started his own architectural firm and staked out a lucrative niche in the use of concrete. But two of his projects benefitting local Russians held pride of place.

In 1924, construction began on the Church of the Holy Trinity in Belgrade’s Tašmajdan Park. Thanks to Stashevsky, the émigrés could finally commune in their own church, built with Russian hands. Soil from the land they had left behind was placed inside, as were banners from tsarist military engagements.

Wrangel, meanwhile, left Yugoslavia for Brussels in 1927, to work as a mining engineer; he died just 14 months later. He was initially buried in Belgium, but in accordance with his wishes, his body was exhumed and reinterred at “the Russian Church” in Belgrade. And there it has remained, despite the ravages of World War II and the Tito autocracy.

In a letter to Wrangel’s mother, Maria, dated July 1, 1930, Stashevsky provided a brief autobiography, apparently in response to requests for two planned books about Russians in Yugoslavia. “I dare to express assuredly that my activity is so modest that if you, Baroness, choose to regard it as nothing, no harm will come from that,” he wrote.

Stashevsky’s understatement of his contributions notwithstanding, he mentioned his current project in the biographical part of the letter: a chapel in the Russian section of Belgrade’s New Cemetery dedicated to the miraculous image of Our Lady of Iveron. The chapel was a replica of a beloved shrine in Moscow near Red Square that had been destroyed by the communists in 1929. For more than half a century, the Russians of Belgrade had their atonement for the sacrilege committed on the Iveron sanctuary back home. The Moscow one was rebuilt in the 1990s, and, after falling into disrepair, Stashevsky’s Iveron chapel in Belgrade was restored and rededicated in a 2014 ceremony celebrated by secular and religious leaders of both countries.

World War II and the post-war communist takeover of Yugoslavia again forced the country’s  Russian émigrés to make a fateful choice. Some refused to uproot themselves once more. Others, like Krasnov’s daughters, went abroad. Today, the architect’s descendants live in Canada. As for Stashevsky, he left behind a puzzle. Some sources assert that he moved to Morocco. Others posit a more sinister fate, in which he was abducted by NKVD agents, returned to the Soviet Union and executed. Whatever the case, he and Krasnov, along with numerous other Russian builders, bequeathed a magnificent legacy to Yugoslavia.       

Russe Blanc

The 14th arrondissement of Paris is home to some compelling dead people. Besides the morbid allure of its catacombs, it is the location of Montparnasse Cemetery, where icons of French culture such as Sartre and de Maupassant are buried. Yet in this arrondissement a slice of Russian émigré culture is also being kept very much alive thanks to Nicolas Novikoff. His Zakouski (“appetizers”), is, according to Le Figaro, the last restaurant in Paris operated by a White émigré, as opposed to an ex-Soviet.

The 60-something Novikoff is descended from Russian nobility, and his family’s coat of arms looms over the counter. Novikoff himself was among the last graduates of the Cadets of Versailles, a military boarding school founded by White émigrés in partnership with their French hosts. The school lasted until the late 1950s.

His grandparents left Sevastopol in 1919 and went first to Constantinople and then to Nice before alighting in the French capital. His grandfather, the grandson of a hussar colonel who had held a position close to the tsar, drove a taxi. In fact, so many White exiles became Parisian cab drivers that their numbers gave rise to an oft-told joke:
A Russian newcomer in need of a ride momentarily forgot that he was in Paris and shouted “izvozchik” (Russian for cabbie). No sooner had he uttered the word than several taxis pulled up, a Russian behind the wheel of each.

Despite the hardships of emigration, there was opportunity in France, which had lost an enormous swath of its workforce to World War I. Jobs in the Renault factory were particularly prized. Historian Andrei Korliakov wrote, in Russian Emigration 1917-1941, that Whites from Serbia and Bulgaria who worked the mines were attracted to France, where they earned a better wage. Korliakov noted that the Russian émigrés were diligent and highly regarded by their French employers. According to one story from the era, a Soviet trade representative who was touring a French company was shown a cadre of White Russians. “These are my best employees,” the French boss proudly proclaimed.

Religious life in the capital centered on Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, built on the Rue Daru in 1861. It was the nexus of another independent offshoot of Russian Orthodoxy and thus competed with the Yugoslavia-based ROCOR for the loyalty of the faithful in exile. Because the leader of this church, Metropolitan Eulogius, decided in 1930 to transfer affiliation to the patriarch of Constantinople, it has long kept its distance from the Muscovite center of the faith. And with the exodus of Russians from Berlin to Paris starting in the mid-1920s, the Rue Daru was transformed into the center of Russian Orthodoxy in Western Europe, even as Paris itself, along with Prague, became the main hub of émigré life for Russians on the continent.

While Novikoff’s cabbie grandfather was plying Parisian streets in search of fares, his grandmother was whiling away the workdays as a theatrical costume seamstress. This line of work would prove helpful to her grandson, and it also put her in the thick of another realm in which émigré Russians contributed mightily to French cultural life: the arts. Aside from their activity in the world of drama, they also revolutionized French cinema of the 1920s with their studio Films Albatros, which continued making movies throughout the 1930s. And when the automotive giant Citroen sought a painter to accompany an expedition to Africa, it bypassed thousands of French artistes in favor of émigré Alexandre Iakovleff, whose subsequent African canvases gained him widespread acclaim. Even the sewing trade of Novikoff’s grandmother proved lucrative. Korliakov wrote that demand for Russian embroidery and needlework among the French spawned an industry of its own.

Novikoff’s path to proprietorship of Zakouski wends through this eclectic world of stage and screen. “When I was young, I wanted to be an actor,” he said. “My grandmother told me, ‘That’s all fine and good, but what are you going to do if you want to eat?’ She was involved in the cinematic sphere, so I knew Gregory Peck’s uncle. My grandmother made shirts for [very famous French actors]. I’d been immersed in this world… but I needed to do something that could put food on the table. Back then, though, I didn’t really know what to do for a living.”

At the invitation of a friend who owned a small restaurant, Novikoff helped out. Eventually he decided that his cultural acumen and Russian upbringing made an ideal match for running his own culinary business.

The décor and ambience at Zakouski are a time machine that reveals sundry bits of the White Russian émigré story. A picture of Tsar Nicholas II hangs overhead. Icons of the Virgin Mary share wall space with scenes from Russian cabarets of yore, a testament to Novikoff’s previous career. In his cabaret days, he served such stars as Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, and Paul Anka. The sounds of tzigane – a genre of songs played by the Gypsies of Eastern Europe – waft through the bistro on some nights. The influence of tzigane music in Russia was strong, and France has taken to it in modern times.

As a restaurateur and third-generation White Russian, Novikoff is heir to a culinary heritage in France that thrived even in his grandparents’ time. According to Korliakov, Russian restaurants and stores selling Russian foodstuffs blossomed in interwar Paris, not just among the émigré community, but also among even the most discerning native connoisseurs. Inside the front cover of his book is an old map and directory of all the Russian businesses in Paris at the time. One of them is Zakouski, but the previous establishment with that name was a wine and food products store in the neighboring 15th arrondissement.

Today, Zakouski is both eatery and evocation of Paris’ interwar community of White Russians. Novikoff summarized his dual identity as Frenchman and White émigré in true theatrical fashion: “My soul is Russian, and my heart is French.”

Botkin’s Berlin

The White Russian émigré experience in Berlin is divided into two distinct time periods: before and after 1923. Before, Berlin was the center of European life for Russian exiles, with a population of 500,000 or more. The Charlottenburg neighborhood was nicknamed Charlottengrad because of its huge concentration of Russians, and the Kurfürstendamm was jokingly referred to as NEP-sky Prospekt. Cultural life thrived, as publishing, art, music, theater and culinary offerings veritably reproduced what the émigrés remembered of home. Practically every Russian literary great of the 20th century lived in or passed through Berlin in the early 1920s. But in 1923 the economy of Weimar Germany crashed, and Berlin’s status as a haven for fleeing Russians suffered irreparable damage.

One of the few who saw almost the entire epoch unfold was Sergei Dmitriyevich Botkin. A first cousin of Tsar Nicholas II’s personal physician, Botkin spent some fifteen years in Berlin as a jack-of-all trades intermediary between White Russians and the German authorities. He had come to Berlin in 1919 as an envoy of the exiled White government. In short order, he became an international relations oddity, accorded diplomatic status by the Germans without having a Russian government for which to work.

Russian exiles in Berlin received assistance from a complex patchwork of organizations, but the most important one was the Russian Delegation, which Botkin headed. “Botkin was well-positioned to help them survive in a new and sometimes hostile environment,” said Robert C. Williams, who wrote Culture in Exile, the seminal work on Germany’s White Russians. “He stayed on because he had found his calling.”

But the situation Botkin faced in Berlin became delicate as Germany and the Soviet Union, sharing a sense of grievance in the aftermath of World War I, developed cooperative relations. Especially after the 1922 Treaty of Rapallo, the Soviets began pressuring the German government to curtail Botkin’s privileges and access.

From 1924 to 1936, Botkin was also the chairman of the St. Vladimir Brotherhood, a primarily welfare-dispensing agency founded by an Orthodox priest. Because it existed in Germany prior to World War I, it had land, buildings, and money. This fact also made it a target of the Soviets. In the late 1920s, the Kremlin repeatedly tried to confiscate Brotherhood assets via German courts, requiring Botkin to fend off the litigation. But soon the service orientation of the Brotherhood gave way to right-wing politics, and the views espoused by the members of the organization often put Botkin at odds with them.

However, mundane matters of administration were not Botkin’s only concerns. A bizarre situation thrust him into an uncomfortable limelight. In 1920, a young woman was fished out of a Berlin canal after a failed suicide attempt. In 1922, after two years in a mental hospital, she began to divulge an astoundingly detailed knowledge of the royal family, asserting that she was Anastasia, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, who had miraculously escaped the 1918 slaughter in Yekaterinburg. Botkin at first doubted her claims but changed his mind after meeting with her.* He even began sending money from Berlin to help pay for her care. But the revelation of the woman’s identity came in 1927 following a newspaper exposé and publication of a book confirming the report. She eventually went by the name Anna Anderson and gained notoriety as the foremost Anastasia impostor. Her claim was disproved by DNA testing after the Soviet collapse.

The decline of the Berlin community of Russian émigrés during the late 1920s compounded the difficulties of Botkin’s work. Countless former White Army fighters had fled to Berlin, many of whom lived in refugee camps outside the city. In 1925, the German government threatened closure of the camps unless the émigré organizations stepped up to keep them going. Botkin himself was also feeling pressure to cede the handling of the community’s affairs to the League of Nations.

Things only got worse. As the world economy collapsed in the late 1920s and early 1930s and millions of Germans became unemployed, the availability of jobs for the Russian exiles shriveled. The subsidies for Botkin’s organizations dried up as well. Nevertheless, he hung on until the Nazis administered the coup de grace in 1936. Botkin had been abroad for health reasons, and in his absence a character assassination campaign besmirched him as an “extreme Francophile,” thus inimical to Nazi intentions. He was barred from re-entering Germany, and his job as chief of the Russian Delegation was given to a Nazi sympathizer, Vasily Biskupsky.

Botkin had a daughter named Nina, who married a Russian nobleman. Her husband died in Los Angeles in 1956. Botkin spent the final years of his life in Paris and is buried in the cemetery of St. Genevieve des Bois (alongside countless other Russian émigrés). His living descendants include a granddaughter and great-granddaughter in Paris and a great-grandson in the United States.

By the time of Botkin’s expulsion from Germany, the size of the White émigré community in Berlin had fallen to just 10,000 or so, and among them the far right dominated. “Few other émigrés,” writes Williams, “could find in the Third Reich either a place of refuge or a center of culture in any way resembling that offered by Berlin ten years before.”

That Russian community of the final period of the interwar years has proved problematic for efforts to fairly assess the White cause (see box, opposite page). It is undeniable that numerous monarchists and far-rightists collaborated with the Nazis and spread anti-Semitic views. The would-be assassin of exiled Kadet leader Pavel Milyukov,* Pyotr Shabelsky-Bork, did in fact join the Nazis. And influential Russian writers and thinkers fed Germans’ estrangement from the West, leading to the denigration of the cultural and political heritage of Western Europe as a wretched anachronism. The holdout Russian refugees in Berlin thus ended up trading one tyranny for another.


“We in Crimea and Serbia have forgotten about Nikolai Krasnov. That’s unfair,” said Serbian biographer Dragomir Acović. “No one can let that happen… The cost of our forgetfulness is forgetfulness of ourselves.”

But more than just Krasnov has been forgotten.

In 2018, as European leaders fret about the assimilation of hundreds of thousands of immigrants, it is worth remembering that this happened before, almost exactly a century ago. While the national origin, religion, and skin color of the refugee populations then and now may differ, both were fleeing civil war and persecution, and both would far rather have stayed put. Because the awful reality is, as the chronicler of the Russian emigration Robert C. Williams poignantly put it, “from the permanence of the exile experience itself there was no exit.”  

About Us

Russian Life is a 29-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567