For Russian aristocrats, Paris was a glittering playground for expats – until 1917

Russian exiles in Paris From the Belle Époque to the Revolution and the War

By Helen Rappaport

The last boats to weigh anchor from Crimea were crammed to the gunwales with refugees. Space was so tight that many crossed the Black Sea in the open, with nothing to protect them from the driving rain. As his ship docked not far from the domes of Hagia Sophia, singer Alexandre Vertinski thought only of what he had left behind: “All the palm trees, all the sunrises, all the sunsets in the world, all the exoticism of distant lands, all that I have seen, all that I have admired, I would give for a single cloudy, rainy and watery day in my homeland.

These scenes are eerily reminiscent of those that unfolded recently as more than three million refugees fled the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Yet, in fact, they took place a century ago, when the cornered White Army staged a final evacuation of at least 136,000 subjects from the former Tsarist Empire. Constantinople would serve as a transit point for the estimated one million people who fled the Bolsheviks after 1917, but it was to Paris and Berlin that many headed as they rushed to rebuild their lives.

Helen Rappaport’s “After the Romanovs” traces the Russian encounter with Paris from the city’s glittering years as an expatriate playground before World War I to the darker reality of life in exile after the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks. For turn-of-the-century artists and intellectuals, Paris stood out as a destination of choice. But after the revolution, it became synonymous with the loss of the native audience that had given their work both purpose and meaning. “We live on a volcano,” observed the writer known as Teffi, “and everything is flying…in the wrong direction.”

As Rappaport, the author of “The Romanov Sisters” acknowledges, the émigrés represented a wide range of political views, social classes and religious beliefs. Its main objective, however, is the freefall of the super-rich aristocracy into penury. Banished from Russia in 1902 for having married the divorcee Olga von Pistohlkors, the Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovitch settled his family in a Parisian house which Olga had furnished with “her favorite 18th century furniture: fine arts and antiques, Gobelins tapestries , Louis XV furniture, sculptures, miniatures, bronzes, marbles and beautiful paintings. In 1913, the family returned to Russia. But in 1921, Paul had been executed by the Bolsheviks and Olga was back in Paris, having sold jewelry to get her to escape. Rappaport closely follows the family’s struggles as Paul’s daughter Maria turned her embroidery skills into a fashion line, and Paul’s son Dmitri tried his luck with a series of heiresses.

Political discord was the order of the day, although Rappaport spent more time on the swashbuckling machinations of militant monarchists than on the emergence of radical right-wing sentiments among the émigrés or the plan of the “hated” liberal “Alexander Kerensky for fostering progressive forces that could overthrow the Soviet Union from within. Nursing hopes of regime change made life in exile bearable. But did the émigrés ever have a chance of overthrowing the Bolsheviks? What impact did they have on European political and artistic culture as the Second World War approached? Rappaport’s highly descriptive and often garrulous story strays decisively from the larger, more pressing issues that naturally arise through its narrative.

With new waves of refugees now pouring onto European shores, “After the Romanovs” offers little cause for optimism. Those seeking safety beyond the borders of their native lands might yearn to return and resume their former lives. But as the fate of those fleeing Bolshevism shows, dreams of restoration often turn to ashes.

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