When Belle Époque Paris absorbed Russian émigrés fleeing revolution

Paris in the early 20th century became a refuge for Russians, whose culture enriched the city, writes Helen Rappaport in “After the Romanovs.”

“After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris from the Belle Époque Through Revolution and War,” by Helen Rappaport, St. Martin’s Press, 317 pp.

Lost amid the horrors of war inflicted on the people of Ukraine since the Feb. 24 invasion have been the stories of Russian citizens fleeing their own country, fearing the effects of international sanctions and worsening autocracy. These refugees often come from Russia’s skilled and educated classes, and their situation echoes events from a century ago, when large numbers of Russians were displaced by the fall of the Romanov dynasty and the upheaval of the October Revolution.

What became of that wave of immigrants who flocked to Paris by the tens of thousands in 1917? How did these refugees – many of whom were from Russia’s monied and propertied elite and some of whom had been among the artistic, literary, and intellectual stars of that now-vanished world – adapt to life in France? These are the central questions explored in “After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris from the Belle Époque Through Revolution and War” by historian Helen Rappaport.

France was already well known to the Russian elite, who vacationed in Paris, often spending their seemingly bottomless wealth with abandon, usually becoming the favorite topic of gossip in the city’s salons and restaurants. “Everywhere in Paris,” Rappaport writes, “the tills of the exclusive parfumiers, furriers, fine art dealers, and antiques emporiums rang to lavish amounts of Russian money.” 

But when the old Russian world broke apart, when Tsar Nicholas II and his family were murdered as revolution convulsed the country, all those Russian grand dukes, duchesses, and other members of the aristocracy suddenly had to scramble and improvise for their very survival. Naturally, many hundreds of them fled to the city they’d known in happier times. Now they found themselves thrown upon old haunts like the Maison Russe or Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois, this time as needy supplicants instead of big spenders.

Rappaport presents masterful portraits of these refugees, many of whom were in the same position. As Rappaport notes, they had no idea how to handle money; “the Russian aristocracy had never carried cash or written checks; they had left that to their minions to deal with.” One former princess spoke for her set when she commented, “for you see, I had always had everything.” 

The pages of Rappaport’s book are wonderfully populated with exiles – from titled nobility such as Grand Duke Dmitri Pavolich, one of many Romanovs who made it out of Russia alive, to the anonymous women who embroidered garments for fashion designer Coco Chanel. Among the artists who fled the revolution was dance genius Sergey Diaghilev, leader of the Ballets Russes. There was “Mother” Maria Skobtsova, who survived the Russian Revolution, eked out a living in Paris serving the needy, only to end up in the Ravensbrück concentration camp during World War II, where she died just days before it was liberated by the advancing Russian troops. 

Among the authors who escaped to France was Ivan Bunin, “revered as a leading voice of the Russian intelligentsia and a master of the short story in the tradition of Anton Chekhov.” He and his partner Vera Muromtseva, like many of their fellow exiles, noticed the surge of immigration happening around them. “I like Paris,” Muromtseva wrote in her diary in 1920, “but I’ve hardly seen anything here except other Russians.” 

Even though circumstances forced these Russians to adapt to ordinary French life (stories abounded of former princes driving taxicabs), most of them aggressively resisted assimilation. And this had the side effect of invigorating the city and its arts. “All of this new intake flocking to Paris shared a passionate desire to protect and preserve their culture and their sense of Russianness – and the inspiration in art, music, and literature that sprang from it,” Rappaport writes. “This new injection of talent revitalized the émigré community of Paris, bolstering it with a sense of mission to preserve their heritage at all costs.” 

Readers familiar with earlier Rappaport books like “The Last Days of the Romanovs” or “The Romanov Sisters” will know to expect the subtle and fluid genius that runs through her latest. Rappaport not only crafts a lovingly detailed picture of the City of Light (as Gertrude Stein put it, “Paris was where the twentieth century was”), she also fills its parks and cafés and boulevards with an amazing cast of characters. Those dukes and princesses and writers and artists, in all their desperate struggles and passionate adaptations, come alive again in these pages.

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