Once Labeled Traitors, White Russians Renew Their Homeland Ties
The door is open for children of the Russian nobility, formerly enemies of the Red Army
MOSCOW — THE winners of wars tend to make sure they are seen as heroes and the losers as villains. In the Soviet Union, for most of a century, this rule was strictly followed in the writing of history and in the arts. Eventually, the idea took root in people's minds.
Now that the Soviet empire in its turn has crumbled, the losers of the Russian civil war, fought from 1918 to 1921, can be publicly heard and seen in Russia.
In the local book shops, one can now buy the memoirs of the White Army generals against whom the Red Army fought; the Russian nobility has opened a school for its children; and some artists have found in the ordeals of the civil war a source of inspiration.
In one of Moscow's main exhibition halls, a young painter, Dimitri Beliukin, recently presented a compassionate vision of the exodus of the rear guard of the White Army from the Crimea 75 years ago.
Altogether, some 800,000 people fled the Russian Revolution and the civil war that followed it in the late 1910s and early '20s. They went to Turkey, Serbia, and Germany. They went to France and Belgium and their colonies. After World War II, many went on to the United States.
They were labeled traitors by the government, and they never saw Russia again. But now the doors of the past are opened for their children and grandchildren.
One recent winter afternoon, Lisa Roussel summoned up her courage and pushed open the elegant art-nouveau front door of what used to be her family residence on the Black Sea shore of the Crimea. This woman, born in France to Russian emigres in the 1930s, held an old photograph and kept whispering such things as, "I don't recognize anything; I remember it as bigger." Overwhelmed, she had forgotten that she herself had never seen this place. She was unaware that she was confusing her memories with those of her parents.
But all her life she had heard about "Cieli," the old Tartar name for the family property. From her parents, she had inherited the sterling-silver plate bearing the name, one of the few things they had managed to take with them into exile.
"Cieli" is still engraved by the front door, but today on a copper plate. And inside, the elegance of the remote past has long ago given way to the bare necessities of a Spartan rest home: metal beds and wooden tables covered with old newspapers.
For an emotional moment, head nurse Raisa Kuznetov, despite her 34 years of work in a Soviet sanatorium, forgets that a revolution had occurred 75 years ago and addresses Mrs. Roussel as "our mistress."
Roussel insists, though, that she has no claim to the property and is simply in search of her family's roots. Most White Russians who visit the old motherland are only undertaking a personal pilgrimage.
Irina de Pahlen, an energetic Belgian baroness, can't stop gathering twigs and flowers, abundant in the Crimean landscape - some rosemary here, some frangipani there.
"I have come here to breathe, to smell. It's completely sentimental," she says. "I have been swamped by all these Russian stories by my mother to the point that I used to dream of these smells in my childhood." She goes on taking more pictures, asking more questions in an accented but fluent Russian that her children do not speak anymore.
Indeed, the second and third generations of the Russian emigration have largely integrated into the countries of their exile. "The White Russians lived out of their suitcases until 1939," says Vladimir Shidlovsky, "but after the war, the people of my generation, we understood. We opted for integration." Mr. Shidlovsky's father attended an elite school for courtiers in St. Petersburg, fought in the White Army, then fled the Crimea in 1920.
A few years ago, Shidlovsky went in search of his family's lost estate in Voronezh, in central Russia.
"There is nothing left," he says. "The house was burned down. The land is very poor. It was nevertheless very moving when the secretary of the collective farm there told me that his grandmother had worked for us. If I were 20, I would do something here, but I'm 72. It's too late."
The few people who had some personal, even if remote, memories of Russia, passed away just as Russia at last became accessible again.
Very few White Russian go beyond sentimental short trips. Some buy apartments in Moscow or St. Petersburg to cultivate their double culture by keeping a foot in Western Europe or the US and Russia. A few hundred live here on a medium-term basis, many of them working for multinational companies.
"We are extremely sought-after by the 'head hunters,' " says Michel Lebedeff, Russia director for the French oil company Total. "We are not only bilingual, we are bicultural and thus operate as an interface between Cartesians and Slavs."
Whether they are lawyers, bankers, or experts for international organizations, the Western expatriates with Russian backgrounds meet in an informal club of their own. At the time of carnival, they gather for a blini party (Russian pancakes), and in the fall for a pelmeni meal (Siberian ravioli). In between they exchange tips and contacts on how to conduct business in Russia.
A few have taken the plunge, going into business for themselves here, but the number of White Russian entrepreneurs remains very small. Rostislav Ordovsky-Tanaevsky, an ambitious and daring young Venezuelan, has developed a successful chain of fast-food restaurants and a set of photo-processing outlets. His love affair with Russia runs so deep that he even married a Russian ballerina, and he has done well by mixing a sense of duty to his family's motherland with his business acumen.
Alexander Fedoroff, whose father was a Russian Orthodox priest, seems to fulfill two goals: to be faithful to his forefathers and enjoy the adventure that living in Russia today is for a young American. He has taken to building log cabins.
A bit like carrying coals to Newcastle? "Not at all," he replies, undeterred by the cool reception he has gotten so far. "In North America, we carve the wood in a way that doesn't let the water get in. In Russia, they don't and their 'izbas' rot quickly." He says he feels obligated to "the people who have brought me up a Russian in America, particularly my father," to live in Russia and "do something useful here."
But renewing ties with the ancestral homeland has its limits even for Sasha Fedoroff, who like most White Russians is in no hurry to take Russian citizenship, even if he were offered it.
With citizenship would come a Russian passport, and Moscow is still using up old Soviet stocks. The children and grandchildren of those who lost to the Reds are not eager to carry a passport that still carries on its cover the hammer and sickle, hated symbols of the Communist Soviet Union.