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.
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. 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.
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.
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…. 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. The collective noun ‘emigration’ also provided an underlying sense of cohesion.
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.
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.
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.
 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.
 John Glad, Russia Abroad: Writers, History, Politics, forward by Victor Terras (Washington & Tenafly, NJ: Birchbark Press & Hermitage Publishers, 1999), p. 235
 Nina Berberova, The Italics are mine (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969), p. 218.
 Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (New York: Picador, 2002), p. 548.
 Robert H. Johnston, “New Mecca, New Babylon”: Paris and the Russian Exiles, 1920-1945 (Kingston & Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988), p. 7.
 Marc Raeff, Russia Abroad: A Cultural History of the Russian Emigration, 1919-1939 (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 5.
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