After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris

28 September 2022

A book review of Helen Rappaport’s After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris From the Belle Epoque Through Revolution and War (St. Martin’s Press, 2022).

Paris is “full of Russians at present.” That was how a recently-minted European correspondent for the Toronto Star began his report that appeared on February 25, 1922—by an odd coincidence almost one hundred years prior to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked attack upon neighboring Ukraine on February 24 of this year. The correspondent was an eager young journalist and writer from the American Midwest, Ernest Hemingway, who had only arrived in Paris the previous December. He went on to inform his readers that the Russians were “drifting along in Paris in a childish sort of hopelessness that things will somehow be all right … No one knows just how they live except by selling off jewels and gold ornaments and family heirlooms that they brought with them to France.”


Most of the Russians whom Hemingway had encountered were refugees fleeing the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the civil wars that ensued after the Bolshevik takeover in Russia. Many arrived without jewels, ornaments, heirlooms, or much else. Describing “just how they lived” in Paris is precisely the task British freelance-writer Helen Rappaport sets for herself in After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris from the Belle Epoque Through Revolution and War. Rappaport’s work revolves around a series of portraits of the personal lives of several dozen Russians who found themselves in Paris during the first four decades of the twentieth century, with key personalities appearing and reappearing across a loosely chronological narrative.


Between October 1917 and mid-1921, Paris became the destination of choice for thousands of refugees from Russia. By 1930, according to one source, the Russian community living in Paris reached about 43,000 members, with another 9,500 living in the suburbs. Yet, as her sub-title suggests, Rappaport starts well before the post-1917 surge in Russian refugees, during Paris “belle époque”—the last decades of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century up to the outbreak of World War I. Vibrant manifestations of Russian cultural life flourished during Paris’ belle époque. It was also a time when ostentatious Russians—Romanovs as well as others of aristocratic stock and the just plain wealthy—made the city their personal playground.


After early chapters on the Russian impact in belle époque Paris, Rappaport’s middle chapters, the heart of her story, show how the wave of émigrés arriving in Paris in the years following the 1917 Revolution transformed the city and its Russian community. Although “penniless and traumatized but grateful to have escaped the Russian civil war” when they arrived, most Russians fared better during the 1920s than the 1930s. During the latter decade, the worldwide economic downturn not only fragilized the émigrés’ already fragile circumstances but also gave rise to the view that they were stealing jobs from the native French. Rappaport’s story ends with the German occupation of 1940, as the lights in the City of Lights went out—or at least dimmed considerably.


Broadly speaking, the émigrés Rappaport portrays fall into three groups: 1. The Romanov family and aristocrats. 2. Artistic, intellectual, and cultural figures. 3. ‘Everyday’ Russians. Russians in Paris were known for being disputatious, turning “quarreling into an art form,” Rappaport writes. They were too diverse, though, to be labeled “White Russians” in the sense of uniformly monarchists, political reactionaries or counter-revolutionaries who favored the restoration of the Tsar. But one of the few threads linking the heterogenous community was that almost all Russian émigrés were vehement and outspoken anti-Bolsheviks.


Numerous Russians were otherwise apolitical. Some were socialists and liberal democrats who had supported the 1905 Revolution in Russia and the Provisional Government that came to power in March 1917, after the abdication of Romanov Tsar Nicolas II. Despite internal differences, moreover, Russian émigrés in Paris remained culturally and emotionally attached to Mother Russia, even though in the eyes of most the Bolshevik regime had rendered their country unrecognizable. Furthermore, almost all émigrés found themselves in difficult financial straits. Rappaport gives special attention to the plight of former aristocrats and nobles forced to eke out a living, a favorite subject of the press at the time.


An esteemed Russian general worked as a valet, opening car doors for rich Americans.


The book’s individual portraits are the fruit of Rappaport’s dazzling excavation of a wide array of original source material, much of it focused on the Romanovs and others from Russia’s highest social strata. Rappaport also draws on the extensive paper trail created by Russian writers, artists, and cultural figures, leaving a source gap for the everyday Russians who found themselves in Paris—“few voices of ordinary Russians have been recorded,” Rappaport indicates. In what is probably the book’s most original contribution, she valiantly seeks to fill this gap.


Rappaport’s narrative sometimes succumbs to the ‘TMI’ syndrome: ‘Too Much Information,’ the often-irresistible tendency of authors to utilize too many of the details they unearth, giving much of the book a gossipy flavor. But her book gained unanticipated resonance earlier this year after Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, which triggered another wave of emigrants out of the Russian neighborhood and into Western Europe, including France—a century after Hemingway reported on the exiles who had arrived in Paris, fleeing the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.


Russians in Belle Époque Paris

Rappaport’s initial focus on Russians during the Parisian belle époque of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century serves as a valuable contrast to the émigrés who lived more precariously and arrived in the years following the 1917 Revolution. The belle époque was, Rappaport writes, a “golden age of rapprochement” between Russia and France, with Russian literature and culture attracting great interest and attention throughout France. For Russian aristocrats and those with considerable wealth, Paris in 1900 was the “capital of Russia out of Russia,” a “home away from home, a safe haven in winter from the bitter cold of the northern Russian climate and the rising threat of revolution that was increasingly targeting their class.”


Romanov grand dukes gained notoriety during the belle époque for taking advantage of all that Paris had to offer, with the gossipy French press eagerly following their salacious adventures and misadventures. Grand Duke Vladimir—Tsar Nicholas II’s most senior uncle—stood out among them, earning the sobriquet “Le Grand Duc Bon Vivant” for indulging in what Rappaport terms “libidinous and sometimes violent behavior” while making little effort to hide his “colossal appetite for food and wines, and his extravagant spending habits,” which included lavish tips. Grand Duke Vladimir was also a generous patron of the arts.


In a city considered Europe’s cultural capital, Grand Duke Vladimir’s best-known beneficiary, Sergey Diaghilev, dominated the Parisian cultural scene during the twentieth century’s first two decades. In 1906, Diaghilev pulled together an unprecedented cross section of Russia’s best artwork since the eighteenth century. Until that time, icon painting had been the primary Russian art-form known in France. Diaghilev also set out to familiarize Parisian audiences with innovative new Russian music beyond Tchaikovsky, “the only Russian composer with whom they were familiar.”


But Diaghilev was best known for creating the magnetic dance company Ballets Russe, which stormed the citadel of high Parisian culture by introducing an exotic form of dance frequently described as “crazy” or “mad.” Diaghilev hired his former teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov as a conductor for the Ballets Russe and introduced the Parisian public to Vaslav Nijinsky. Imparting a “new direction and style” to the art of ballet with his “soaring flights,” Nijinsky elevated the male dancer to an equal footing with the ballerina. His 1910 performance for The Firebird Suite drove audiences into “raptures,” Rappaport writes. The next day, Paris talked of nothing but the “soaring angel.”


Those who made it to Paris were hopeful that the city would offer something better than the harsh Bolshevik rule and civil wars back home. But survival in the early 1920s was hard. 


Russian writers and artists of the belle époque era, forced to flee Tsarist Russia in search of greater freedom of expression, frequented the legendary cafés of Montparnasse more than a decade before Hemingway made Montparnasse his own personal playground. Dubbed “penny universities” which taught “bohemian lifestyle, contempt for the bourgeois, sense of humor and heavy drinking,” Montparnasse cafés were refuge points for impoverished Russian writers whom Rappaport describes as “rebels, misfits and down-and-outs”; and for creative artists “long on talent but short on money and struggling to become established.” According to a popular view at the time, the more “Bohemian” a Montparnasse patron looked, the more likely he was to be Russian.


Paris before World War I was also full of rival anti-Tsarist political groups and factions: Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, anarchists, social revolutionaries, and Jewish trade unionists. Vladimir Lenin, unlike the stereotypical disheveled Russian revolutionary, lived conventionally with his wife and mother-in-law in Paris from 1909 to 1912, where he kept a low profile and stayed away from Montparnasse cafés. Focused obsessively on the cause of revolution in Russia, Lenin “despised the sloppy, bohemian lifestyle of some of his fellow political exiles” who in his view had allowed Paris to divert them “too easily” from the cause.


After World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, many aristocrats, writers and artists headed back to Russia. Artist Marc Chagall left so quickly that he was unable to lock his studio, leaving a stack of paintings inside which he never saw again. A substantial number of the émigrés who remained behind in Paris sought to enlist in the war. But it was the events of 1917 in Russia, beginning with the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March, followed by the Bolshevik Revolution in November and ensuing civil wars, that precipitated the sweeping transformation of the émigré community in Paris at the heart of Rappaport’s story.


Fleeing the Bolsheviks for Paris

The wave of refugees arriving in Paris between November 1917 and March 1921 came from a “much wider cross-section of [Russian] society, with loyalties to a wide range of political parties, social classes, and religions,” Rappaport writes. Most had left Russia through Odessa, in Crimea, sailing under abysmal conditions to Constantinople. Those who made it to Paris were hopeful that the city would offer something better than the harsh Bolshevik rule and civil wars back home. But survival in the early 1920s was hard.  The ‘help wanted’ ads in the French press were “full of menial jobs that required none of the skills that the cream of the former intelligentsia had to offer.” A “great deal of valuable Russian talent and expertise failed to find an outlet.”


Because of French employment regulations and the requirement of French nationality, only a small portion of Russian doctors, dentists, lawyers, and university lecturers were able to find work in their professions in Paris. Some circumvented the rules by working exclusively for the Russian émigré colony. French-speaking Russians sometimes managed to find jobs in banks and offices as clerks and bookkeepers. Those with English language skills were able to work in hotels and department stores with English-speaking clientele. An esteemed Russian general worked as a valet, opening car doors for rich Americans. One of the more enterprising Romanovs, Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich, suddenly destitute, found a way to exploit his single remaining asset: he was a “handsome, seductive ladies’ man, and women fell for him with predictable regularity.”


One of those women was Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, who was then dominating the Paris fashion world. The gossipy French press followed the affair closely while dismissing Chanel as a “little shop girl.” Chanel No. 5, Coco’s most famous brand, took off while she and Dimitri were linked romantically, making a fortune for Coco. Dimitri’s lack of money probably doomed the relationship. He was just like other dispossessed Russian grand dukes, Coco concluded, “diminished, almost emasculated by their poverty in exile … tall and handsome and splendid, but behind it all—nothing; just vodka and the void.”


Ivan Bunin’s stories of “aging, solitary people in emigration” distilled the grim realities of everyday life in Paris


Most male refugees were forced to take “fairly low-grade and drab jobs,” such as washing dishes, waiting tables, cleaning windows, working in factories or, especially, driving a taxi. In an environment where just about everyone needed to find new means to survive, Russian taxi drivers were the “aristocrats of the émigré work force”; many were actual aristocrats. For women—sewing, millinery, and knitting proved to be the “quickest, easiest and most immediate route of out of poverty.” The economic plight of the émigrés arriving in Paris in the early 1920s was reduced to an aphorism: “The men drive taxis and women sew for a living.”


Taxi driving was “greatly to be preferred for the autonomy and independence it allowed.” The French public, Rappaport indicates, perceived Russian taxi drivers as more dependable than their French counterparts. The French automotive assembly line became a mainstay for those Russian men not lucky enough to land taxi-driving opportunities, especially at the Renault factory at Billancourt. Paid only about two dollars a day in the late 1920s, at a time when Ford workers in the United States were earning a stunning five dollars per day, many Russian auto workers saw the assembly line as “only a stopgap on the way to something better—in most cases, taxi driving.”


Women gravitated to all levels of the fashion trade. One of the most enterprising was Grand Duke Dimitri’s sister, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna. Although destitute, Maria was skilled at needle working and started fashioning clothes. After her brother introduced her to Coco Chanel, she opened a shop with its own brand name, and for a while sold exclusively to Chanel. Younger Russian women, especially those from an aristocratic background, became fashion models. But scores of Russian women earned a “pittance doing piecework at home.” In his 1933 work Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell described one such woman living in the hotel where he resided who “worked sixteen hours a day, darning socks at twenty-five centimes a sock, while [her] son, decently dressed, loafed in the Montparnasse cafés.”


In 1924, France officially recognized the Bolshevik Regime, by then known as the Soviet Union, much to the dismay of the Russian émigré community. Russian writers and intellectuals were further dismayed that their French counterparts, whose support and patronage they needed in their “fight against the communist suppression of freedom of expression,” were all-too-often “fascinated by the new, and politically fashionable, socialist experiment in Russia and keen to champion what they saw as its progressive policies.” By the late 1920s, Russian writers, in a “constant battle between a longing for the inspiration of Russia and the need to be free,” encountered a “tide of indifference” in which their work was viewed as “rooted in the past and reactionary.”


The most prominent Russian writer in Paris was Ivan Bunin, a master of the short story in the tradition of Anton Chekhov, whose stories of “aging, solitary people in emigration” distilled the grim realities of everyday life in Paris. In 1933, Bunin won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first Russian to do so. It was undoubtedly the “single most important event in the cultural and literary life of the Russian emigration,” Rappaport writes, but an event that infuriated Soviet authorities back in Moscow. Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, a popular female satirist who wrote short stories under the name Teffi, tuned into the “sense of abandonment and despair shared by so many newly arrived Russians.” Teffi wrote about “her dismay at how the emigration had divided rather than united people, how hardship and uncertainty about their status had eaten away at them like a malady and eroded the grandeur of spirt once admired in them.”


From Hard Times to Worse in 1930s Paris

By 1930, the “charm and seductive romance of ‘Russianness’ had begun to wear thin.” The economic downturn following the 1929 stock market crash not only reduced the need for foreign labor in Paris but also precipitated a “xenophobic backlash” against émigrés, with right-wing, nationalist French politicians assailing Russians as a “drain on resources at a time of economic hardship.” A volatile period of strikes and demonstrations in 1930s Paris, followed by food shortages, brought “painful reminders” of 1917 to the fearful emigrants, who “prepared for another Armageddon.” Rappaport documents a wave of suicides which overtook some of the community’s most vulnerable members in the latter portion of the 1930s, the “only answer to dealing with the wounds of separation and cultural disinheritance that stubbornly refused to heal.”


Upended Anew

The German occupation of Paris, which began in June 1940, was a grim time for the Russian emigrant community, marked by “extreme poverty and hunger for most.” By August 1940, “all the old émigré life of Russian Paris had been closed down with the enforced disbanding of cultural, educational and charitable bodies.” Some Russians remained but more sought to flee again, with Spain and the United States being the preferred destinations. A few even went to Berlin to fight against Stalin’s Soviet Union.


Rappaport’s account belies Hemingway’s notion of a “childish sense of hopelessness” prevailing among the Russians who found themselves in Paris in the period between the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the German invasion of France. Rappaport uses the term “stoic endurance” to describe how everyday Russians survived during their Paris years. “Stoic endurance” also aptly describes both the resourceful adaptations of many Romanovs and the painful reflections of the writers, poets and artists depicted in this fascinating account.

Cover image: St. Martin’s Press, 2022 (Fair Use)

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