Refugees, Exiles and Émigrés: Russia Abroad and the Semantics of Displacement

By Eilish Hart

Following the 1917 Revolution over a million Russians fled to Europe to escape the turmoil of the ensuing Red Terror and Civil War. Although often referred to as Russian émigrés, these people were actually the first wave of European migrants to be legally classified as refugees. The reason they are now referred to as the Russian émigrés can largely be attributed to their own efforts at shaping their identity as a community.

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Cover of the émigré journal ‘Chasovoi’ from 1932 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Russian refugees, or at least the members of the intelligentsia among them, were keenly aware of the semantics surrounding their displacement. The label ‘refugee’ came with connotations that they sought to disassociate themselves from, but the circumstances under which they left Russia also drove an awareness of themselves as victims of the Bolshevik regime. While displacement caused an identity crisis among Russians in Europe, self-identifying as émigrés and/or exiles allowed them to reconcile with living abroad.

Russians fleeing the revolution were the beginning of a pan-European refugee crisis that developed in the wake of the First World War. Allied humanitarian organizations were among the first to provide aid for Russian refugees. In 1921, the League of Nations responded, appointing Fridtjof Nansen their High Commissioner for Refugees, responsible for negotiating the resettlement or repatriation of displaced Russians.

That same year the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (a precursor to the USSR) issued a decree that resulted in the mass denaturalization of former citizens of Imperial Russia.[1] Rendered stateless, Russian refugees were left without legal protection, representation or valid travel documents. In response, the ‘Nansen Certificate’ (or ‘Nansen Passport’) was issued in 1922, which served as an international travel document for displaced Russians, granting them official refugee status.[2]

For many Russians, displacement and statelessness caused an identity crisis because they could not conceive of themselves as refugees and rejected the connotations of this label. They were demographically diverse, including many well-known members of the Russian intelligentsia, religious figures, White Army personnel, and members of the former Tsarist and Provisional governments – all of whom still strongly identified with their pre-Revolutionary socio-economic status.

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A Nansen Passport belonging to a Russian refugee (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Furthermore, most of those who left Russia believed that the Bolshevik regime would soon collapse. They saw their displacement as temporary and were anticipating being able to return home soon. For many, the Nansen Certificate came as a blow. Writer Nina Berberova recalled receiving a Nansen Certificate upon her arrival in Paris in 1925, ‘Here we received a document given for those who are stateless, people without a homeland….[3] While the refugees still regarded Russia as their homeland, the Bolshevik Revolution and the Nansen Certificate had rendered them officially homeless.

With the help of their Nansen certificates Russian refugees settled in major European cities like Berlin, Paris, London and Prague. To combat the loss of their legal status as ‘Russians’ and shed their refugee identities, they took it upon themselves to fashion a cultural identity for ‘Russia Abroad’. Drawing on the cultural legacy of the nineteenth century, which connected exile to temporary banishment, they were able to construct a collective cultural identity as transitory ‘exiles’ or ‘émigrés’.

The intelligentsia preferred the terms ‘émigré’ and ‘exile’ because of their historical and cultural connotations. Recalling famous exiles of the nineteenth century allowed displaced Russians to connect themselves to a historical legacy. When Vladimir Nabokov’s family fled to the Crimea following the Revolution, he took inspiration from the romantic image of nineteenth-century poet Alexander Pushkin’s exile experience.[4] The collective noun ‘emigration’ also provided an underlying sense of cohesion.[5]

Having reframed their identities as a community of temporary ‘exiles’ rather than refugees, the Russian émigrés soon embarked on a self-imposed mission to preserve ‘real’ Russian language and culture abroad, in order to counter Bolshevism’s erosion of it back home. The notion that they would return to Russia, bringing real Russian culture with them, was foundational to émigré identity.

To preserve Russian language and culture the émigrés formed isolated communities in most major European cities. Unlike most refugees, they showed little interest in integrating into their host countries and few of them sought naturalization. They were united in their expectation that the Bolshevik regime would collapse and they could return to Russia. As such, Historian Marc Raeff argues that they really did constitute a ‘society in exile’ because they were committed to living a ‘Russian life’ in Europe.[6]

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Émigré journal ‘Mir i Isskustvo’ featuring a class photo
from the Russian University in Paris (1930) (Source: Russians without Russia Press Archive)

The Russian émigrés founded their own publishing houses to print books and journals, they opened Russian schools and Orthodox Churches, shopped at Russian grocery stores and frequented Russian cafés. The concentration of Russian émigrés in the Berlin’s Charlottenburg district even earned it the nickname ‘Charlottengrad’ in the 1920s. The proliferation of Russian institutions in communities abroad essentially allowed the Russian émigrés to go about their daily lives entirely in Russian.

In addition, Russian émigrés could rely on a wide variety of journals, newspapers and books published abroad in their native language. To counter the Bolsheviks’ post-revolutionary spelling reform, many of these publications continued to use nineteenth century orthography. This emphasis on preserving Russian language also meant that literature played a key role in the cultural identity of ‘Russia Abroad’. As the Bolsheviks developed notions of Soviet culture in the 1920s and 1930s, the émigrés framed their own cultural output as a continuation of ‘real’ Russian cultural traditions and values, which they intended to restore upon their return to the homeland.[7]

The reality that the Bolshevik regime was there to stay was slow to sink in. Few Russian émigrés ended up returning to Soviet Russia and as such, they were unable to fulfil their cultural mission. As time wore on, Russia Abroad evolved from a society in exile to a permanent diaspora. Nevertheless, shaping the semantics of their displacement allowed Russians abroad to create an identity that gave their community structure and purpose. Their self-awareness and opposition to Bolshevism even led to the development of a parallel Russian culture abroad.

Eilish Hart is an MA candidate at the University of Toronto’s Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs. She is currently based in Kyiv, Ukraine where she is working as an intern for digital media NGO Hromadske International and conducting research on how return migration and forced repatriation shaped the resettlement of Kyiv after the Second World War. Find her on twitter, @EilishHart.

References:

[1] George Ginsburgs, “The Soviet Union and the Problem of Refugees and Displaced Persons 1917-1956,” The American Journal of International Law 51 (April 1947), p. 329.

[2] John Glad, Russia Abroad: Writers, History, Politics, forward by Victor Terras (Washington & Tenafly, NJ: Birchbark Press & Hermitage Publishers, 1999), p. 235

[3] Nina Berberova, The Italics are mine (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969), p. 218.

[4] Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (New York: Picador, 2002), p. 548.

[5] Robert H. Johnston, “New Mecca, New Babylon”: Paris and the Russian Exiles, 1920-1945 (Kingston & Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988), p. 7.

[6] Marc Raeff, Russia Abroad: A Cultural History of the Russian Emigration, 1919-1939 (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 5.

[7] Ibid.

Full Image Attributions:

Image 1: By Fram Museum [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Image 2: By Unk. [Public Domain], via Wikipedia Commons.

Image 3: By Fiodor Sumkin [Open Access], via Russians without Russia Press Archive

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1989, Memory and Me

By Carmen Levick

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Romanian flag with emblem of the socialist cut out (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Memories are funny things: they come and go, they seem true but you discover they are rather fabricated, they haunt you when you least expect it. A few years ago I embarked on a quest to piece together my own history and to outline a road to a truth, to my truth which, according to Jean Baudrillard, ‘has vanished into the virtual through an excess of information’.[1] What follows are my own, individual memories of the days before and immediately after the 1989 Romanian revolution.

16 December 1989

School holidays. It is unusually warm outside and my grandmother tells me that when the trees are in bloom in winter that means a new beginning. I have recently turned 14 and I am really looking forward to changing from a pioneer to a young communist because when you are a young communist you don’t have to wear your tricolour tie to school. I have been waiting for eight years for this moment and I cannot wait to go back to school! This must be the new beginning my granny is talking about! But we have to get through the winter holidays first…

17 December 1989

Exciting morning! I am getting ready to go out and get in the queue for my winter holiday presents from the Party. Every winter, just before what people in the West call Christmas, but we just call winter holidays, kids my age and younger have to queue in front of the universal shop (not the only shop in the village, but the only one where there is actually something on the shelves) for our yearly presents: five oranges, a piece of chocolate and a tin of Globus meat.

It is the only time in the year when we are supposed to see oranges and eat real chocolate but we live on the border with Hungary so it’s easier to get hold of this stuff during the year. I have been queuing for about four hours now and I am glad it’s not snowing. The queue is advancing slowly and this is usually a lively affair but today things are different. The parents who joined their children in the line are whispering. In the evening, Ceausescu is on TV telling us that hooligans in Timisoara are destroying the city but that he has everything under control. Well, that’s good.

18 December 1989

Mum and Dad start whispering too. I feel that something important is happening and I would like to know what it is but nobody is talking to me. I am not allowed to use the phone as especially today it has more ears than usual. We visit some friends in the evening and I finally find out that Ceausescu does not seem to be that much in control as he said on TV. Apparently people are dying in Timisoara and corpses are thrown into the river Bega and into sewage canals. But nobody has really seen anything as the city is in lockdown. People are making stories up!

21 December 1989

Ceausescu is back from Iran and a large assembly of people is brought together in Bucharest in front of the Party’s Central Committee building. We are watching on TV as he addresses the crowd from the balcony, condemning the hooligans in Timisoara and talking about our bright future. But something is wrong! We start hearing boos and Ceausescu is flustered. He stops talking and tries, clumsily and without success, to calm the people. Suddenly the TV programme is cut. White noise.

The following days we are glued to the TV. On 22 December, at 12.08 Ceausescu and his wife flee Bucharest. The army is firing into the people. Tanks are crushing people in the streets. But then, suddenly, there are flowers on the tanks and in the barrels of the guns and the army is with us. Hugs and kisses. Ceausescu is gone! At night people are still dying. Who is shooting? The army are fighting ghosts. But people are dying so somebody must be shooting. The night is lit by tracer bullets. It is Christmas indeed!

On Christmas day Ceausescu and his wife are caught. After a mock trial they are executed. It’s horrible they did this on Christmas day and live on TV. But we are still happy and go on with our Christmas dinner. Democracy is looming on the screen. We will have proper elections and it’s going to be so good. Like in the West. And hopefully now the Americans will finally arrive. In early January there is a small miracle: the shops are full of food and other wonderful objects. We don’t have the money to buy any of them but we are window-shopping and loving it. From here things can only get better!

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Photo of the Romanian Revolution of 1989 in Cluj-Napoca, of the kind of images remote from many but via TV screen. (Source: Răzvan Rotta/Wikimedia Commons)

This was my revolution: the way I experienced it as a 14-year-old. But did we actually have a revolution? Nothing happened where I lived. We watched all the gruesome stuff on TV. It was as if this was happening in another country, in another reality. It is almost impossible to try and piece together what happened that December in 1989. Subsequent representations of the Romanian Revolution have all struggled with the construction of their narrative and many of them needed to turn to surreal imagery in order to fill in the empty spaces between death and politics.

In his chapter The Timisoara Massacre, Baudrillard notes that many Romanian eyewitness accounts speak of being dispossessed of the revolution by only seeing voluntary traces of it on screen. They are ‘deprived of the living experience they have of it by being submerged in the media network, by being placed under house arrest in front of their television screens. Spectators then become exoterics of the screen, living their revolution as an exoticism of images’.[2]

While there was at least one factual event —at 12.08 Ceausescu left the building of the national parliament— almost everything else should have been questioned and challenged by us, the armchair revolutionaries. And, although at first we got stuck in the mirage of the image of freedom —which, if deep-frozen before, was now over-spilling its banks— the years following the revolution prompted an abundance of questions about truth and authenticity.

We preferred ‘the exile of the virtual, of which television is the universal mirror, to the catastrophe of the real’.[3] But what was real? After the revolution, stories started to pop up everywhere: about what happened, who got killed, who escaped and if they were heroes or collaborators, who shot all those people, who were the terrorists? The more intellectual faces of the previous regime were now ready to take over and give us freedom and democracy.

One of the first plays to question the official events of the revolution and attempt a reconstruction based on the reactions of ordinary people to the events of 1989 was, interestingly enough, not a Romanian play but a ‘play from Romania’: Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest. It was written in the first months of 1990 when Churchill went to Romania with a group of theatre students from London’s Central School of Speech and Drama to work with acting students in Bucharest and to try and find out more about the events of December 1989.

Structured in three acts, Mad Forest presents a before and after event, two weddings (Lucia and Florina’s) enclosing a rendition of what happened in December 1989, through seemingly unmediated (although English) voices of ordinary people, many accidentally involved in the events. What is fascinating about this work, is that even this very early play uses as a basis for its second act the narrative and imagery of the media revolution.

The characters telling the story: doctor, translator, housepainter, flowerseller, student, painter, soldier, Securitate man[4] and bulldozer driver, are all impersonal types, set against the main characters of the play, who give a sometimes painful but extremely visual account of the events. They piece together what everybody knows as being the official version of the revolution, with more personal, unseen events: ‘STUDENT: Then I saw students singing with flags with holes in them and I thought, surely this is the end’.[5]

Churchill gives voice to a Securitate man without turning him into a villain or a victim. Much like the other witnesses, he relies on the TV for his truth, which is now ruled by disorder as he himself notes: ‘Until noon on 22 we were law and order. We were brought up in this idea. I will never agree with unorder.’[6] His view of order and disorder challenges but also reaffirms Baudrillard’s conclusions about instating ordered democracy in Eastern Europe: ‘In Eastern Europe, where there was something (communism, but this was precisely disorder from a global point of view), today there is nothing, but there is order. Things are in democratic order, even if they are in the worst confusion.’[7]

Bio: Dr Carmen Levick is a lecturer in Theatre at the University of Sheffield’s School of English, having previously taught at University College Dublin following the completion of her PhD in their Theatre Studies programme. Carmen’s research focuses primarily on representations of revolution in theatre, Shakespeare in performance and physical theatre. She is currently working on a monograph mapping the performative representations of revolution in Eastern Europe, and recently presented a talk at the University of Sheffield’s Festival of Arts and Humanities entitled ‘Performing Stones: Memory, Forgetting and Communist Monuments’. You can follow her on Twitter at @Carmen_Levick.

Full photo attributions:

CC BY-SA 2.5 pl, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1237708

Photo of the Romanian Revolution of 1989 in Cluj-Napoca taken by Răzvan Rotta, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Photos_of_the_Romanian_Revolution_of_1989_in_Cluj-Napoca_taken_by_R%C4%83zvan_Rotta

References

[1] Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994, p. 54.

[2] Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994, p. 56.

[3] Ibid., p. 57.

[4] ‘Securitate’ refers to the secret police agency of the Socialist Republic of Romania.

[5] Caryl Churchill, Mad Forest, London: Nick Hern Books, 1990, p. 36.

[6] Ibid., p. 42.

[7] Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994, p. 29.

Fulton and Fátima: 1917 in the Mind of Catholic Cold Warriors

by Brooke Sales Lee

You might certainly wish for divine intervention, were you a right-wing dictator, circa 1946, who had spent the war making deals with both the Americans and the Germans. For Portugal, that was exactly what the regime got, facilitated by certain eager Americans.

In 1954, Bishop Fulton Sheen announced to Americans across the eastern

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Bishop Fulton J. Sheen

seaboard that the ‘birth of the modern world’ took place on 13 October 1917. His popular television show, Life is Worth Living, showed the auxiliary bishop of New York striding grandly across his small set in full clerical dress, explaining that on that day in Moscow, horsemen had charged in on a catechism class in the Church of the Iberian Virgin, destroyed the altar, and attacked the children.[i] ‘At the same hour,’ in Rome, Eugenio Pacelli was consecrated archbishop; he later survived an assassination attempt in Munich by communists and became Pope Pius XII. And finally, on 13 October 1917, in a village in Portugal, three children surrounded by a crowd of curious onlookers witnessed an apparition. The apparition revealed herself to be the Virgin Mary, warned them of danger, and made the sun appear to ‘dance in the sky.’

In 1954, Portugal had been under the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar for twelve years. He had come to power as the prime minister in 1932 and written a constitution ending the military dictatorship that had replaced the unstable First Republic in 1926. His regime, the Estado Novo (New State) would outlive him and end only with a military coup in 1974.

But how did Fulton Sheen’s assertion that the modern world began in October of 1917 relate to the workings of a 42-year dictatorship? The answer may be found in Fátima. In 1942, Pope Pius XII announced that Our Lady of Fátima, as the apparition had come to be known, told the children on 13 October 1917 that a war worse would come and that atheistic Communism would spread; the only way to save the world from

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Emblem for tourists to Fatima for the closing of the Holy Year, 1951 (Torre del Tombo archives)

annihilation, and the wrath of an angry God, was to repent earnestly, pray the rosary, and consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.[ii]

Salazar was more than familiar with Catholicism; he had attended seminary as a teenager before studying law and economics. His friend and roommate in university, Manuel Gonçalves Cerejeira, had quickly risen through the Church to become Cardinal Patriarch of Portugal. And after 1945, the traditional Catholicism of Portugal was a godsend to an authoritarian dictator who had flirted with fascist aesthetics through the thirties, and traded with Germany through the forties.

Fighting against a potential destabilizing shift in both in domestic and foreign public opinion, , Salazar turned to Catholicism and specifically, to Fátima. While Portugal’s leaders could not claim to represent a land of democratic rights, they argue that it was devoutly Catholic and therefore anti-Communist. Fátima was no accident, they could argue; God had given Portugal a special role in saving the world from atheistic Communism.

The Portuguese government made sure to emphasize their Catholic legacy. As part of the construction of a glorious ‘Golden Age’ by the regime, the state renovated and restored historic buildings and encouraged tourists and locals alike to think of Portugal as a country born out of a Catholic struggle to claim land and souls for Christendom, first in Moorish Iberia and then in colonies around the world.[iii] Fátima showed that God smiled upon this mission and wished it to continue. After all, Portugal had remained neutral throughout the Second World War, and the Estado Novo had ended the anticlerical policies of the First Republic.

Fulton Sheen was one of dozens of prominent Catholics from around the world invited by the Portuguese government to witness the ceremonies for the closing of the Holy Year on 13 October 1951. He alluded to this event in his 1954 television show as he

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Sketch for the closing of the Holy Year in 1951 (Torre del Tombo Archive)

claimed that a million people crowded into the square in Fátima. Footage from this event was shown on Sheen’s program, filmed not for news coverage but for a Warner Brother’s feature film about Our Lady of Fátima and the seers.

All things considered, Fulton Sheen essentially jumped on the bandwagon when it came to Fátima and Portugal. As early as 1946, The Catholic World published an essay by Hungarian Catholic convert Eugene Bagger entitled ‘Portugal: Anti-Totalitarian Outpost.’ The piece argued that the Catholicism of Portugal meant it was not totalitarian, and instead a benevolent dictatorship. In 1950, the Scarboro Foreign Mission Society in Canada published William C. McGrath’s short book Fatima or World Suicide which argued that nuclear war was imminent if Catholics did not take heed; it was one of several books on the topic published between 1947 and 1955. Sheen had been a prominent Cold Warrior from the start, and his popular reach in America made him an attractive mouthpiece for the holiness of Fátima and Portugal’s government. He only began writing and speaking of Fátima after he was hosted by the Portuguese government in 1951.

In 2017, we should remember that while Fulton Sheen and other prominent Catholics seemed to readily broadcast the message of an authoritarian regime, most Catholics in the Anglophone world latched onto Fátima through the Church and their understanding of the metaphysical world. Of the several books written about Fátima, most focused not on Portugal or any kind of special blessing from God upon the place where the apparitions occurred, but on the message of hope in the face of grave danger. Even though Sheen was quick to suggest parallels between a ‘white square’ in Fátima and the Red Square of Moscow, he was speaking of the faith he had devoted his life to and what he saw as the greatest contemporary threat to his Church. It was not that he had been bribed with a free trip to Portugal, but that in this matter, the regime’s interests and his own aligned neatly. The Church wished to increase piety and fight Communism. Salazar and his government needed a godsend, which it found in 1917.

Bio: Brooke Sales-Lee has a Master’s Degree in History from York University in Toronto. Her work there focused on the use of Our Lady of Fátima as a transnational political tool of the Estado Novo and the intersection of secular politics and Catholicism during the Cold War more widely. She is currently an independent researcher and can be found on tweeting about politics, the Church, and extremism at @BrookeSalesLee

References

[i] The entire episode of Life is Worth Living is viewable on YouTube: https://youtu.be/YWzPU1oeViM Fulton Sheen wrote up the themes and topics of his show as a series of essays published in Volumes under the same name, Life is Worth Living. They were published by McGraw-Hill in the 1950s and can sometimes be found in Catholic libraries.

[ii] The full text of the “secrets of Fátima” are available in translation on the Vatican website: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20000626_message-fatima_en.html

[iii] This project began during a period of nationalist activity by the state that echoed the Italian Fascists and German National Socialists in their attempt to write a more heroic history of the nation. A key example of this in Portugal was the Portuguese World Exhibition of 1940. Several monuments were rebuilt to last and remain popular tourist attractions to this day: http://www.padraodosdescobrimentos.pt/en/monument-to-the-discoveries/1940-portuguese-world-exhbit/

Full image attributions

Image 1: By Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: Provided by the author, scanned image from Torre do Tombo archives in Lisbon

Image 3: Provided by the author, scanned image from Torre do Tombo archives in Lisbon