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Vanora Bennett: Russian Emigre Paris

About two hundred thousand White Russians who escaped from Russia after the 1917 Revolution, spreading westward across Europe, eventually came to live in France. By the mid-Twenties, Paris was the cultural and political centre of the diaspora.

Paris had Russian-language newspapers, a literary scene, a theatre, schools, night classes, orphanages, an old people’s home or two, a cathedral and many restaurants. They’d been declared stateless by the Bolsheviks, so their bureaucratic needs were not administered by the ambassador who took up residence in the embassy after France recognised the Soviet Union from 1924. But the last White ambassador, the sophisticated lawyer Vasily Maklakov, went on running the semi-official Offices Russes in parallel to the Soviet administrators, to cater to this large and desperate community - marrying them, burying them and certifying their Cyrillic-alphabet papers for the French authorities.

Many émigrés were gentlemen ex-officers who’d fought the Reds. Most were now broke. They were popular employees in the Paris car factories, since they were so hostile to Bolshevik-style trade union activity. It became a cliché that Paris in the Twenties and Thirties was full of former grand dukes working as doormen or waiters, princesses sewing or modelling for the rag trade and taxis driven by former White officers. The Union of Russian Cab Drivers had three thousand members just before World War II.

This dispossessed community, whose geographical heartland was the triangle of territory around the Russian cathedral in Paris - rue Daru, rue Pierre-le-Grand, and rue de la Néva (in the 8th and the 17th arrondissements) - lived in the past. The Paris émigrés didn’t want to accept their fate; they wanted to remain Russian and return home. Their night schools taught the children of exiles Russian literature and philosophy as well as engineering and other practical trades. The restaurants and cafes around the cathedral rang with nostalgic Slavic songs. Even the remnants of the defeated White Army lingered on, renamed ROVS (General Russian Military Union), until the eve of World War Two.

The sense of loss every Russian lived with festered, in a few, as a hatred of Communism so virulent that the opposite extreme of fascism – then taking shape in Germany and Italy and Spain – exerted a pull. For a few, this rage translated into violence. In 1932, a Russian immigrant called Pavel Gorgulev assassinated the French President, Paul Doumer, who, he said, hadn’t done enough for the White Russians.

In their turn, the Bolsheviks infiltrated White Russian organizations and compromised every political opposition movement. This left the Russian expatriate community riven by suspicion and double-dealing. It was impossible to tell who was with you and who was in the pay of the Soviet secret agents from the Cheka, later known as the NKVD (and later still as the KGB). Many prominent White figures were lured back into Russia where they were arrested and executed.

In 1930 a kidnap team from Soviet Moscow snatched and “disappeared” the head of what was left of the White Army, General Kutyopov. He was never seen again.  In 1937, the same fate befell his replacement, General Miller, a White Russian officer of German ancestry.

By the late 1920s, the turbulent Russian newcomers had outstayed their welcome in France and, as the Depression bit, they became highly unpopular with their Parisian hosts. The Second World War prompted many Paris Russians to carry on west to the USA, and the community more or less vanished. All that is left today is the Russian cathedral, a few tourist-spot Russian restaurants and many French citizens with Russian names – as well, of course, as the alternately mournful and mocking descriptions in the work of exiled writers from Bunin to Nabokov and Gazdanov and Berberova of this wistful, desperate, shifting, duplicitous world-within-a-world.

Vanora Bennett is a British author and award-winning journalist. Bennett Russian at Voronezh State University in the former Soviet Union and at Le Centre d'Études Russes du Potager du Dauphin, a centre established by White Russian emigres outside Paris, at Meudon.

She has published four historical novels since 2006, a travel book about Russia in 2003, and a non-fiction book about the first Chechen war in 1998. She reported from France and Africa, then spent seven years as a foreign correspondent in Russia and the CIS for Reuters and the Los Angeles Times, before returning to the UK as a leader writer for The Times of London. She left the newspaper in 2004 to write a new book and to study the Middle East. Bennett won an American Overseas Press Club award in 1997 for her work on Russia, and the British Orwell Prize for journalism in 2004.

Bennett's first novel, PORTRAIT OF AN UNKNOWN WOMAN , told the story of the German Protestant artist Hans Holbein painting the family of the English statesman Sir Thomas More, a committed Catholic, at the time of King Henry VIII's decision to take England out of the Church of Rome in the early 1530s. It was shortlisted for the 2007 Authors' Club First Novel Award.

Vanora Bennett’s latest novel, THE WHITE RUSSIAN, explores this little known – and compelling – Other Russia.