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.

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.

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]

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.


[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

The Costs of Omission in Soviet Central Asia

Central Asian Studies_AlunThomas1
Photo by Alun, from an April 1927 issue of Pravda

by Alun Thomas

The first complete census of the population of the Soviet Union was produced in 1926. Soviet authorities had conducted major censuses before, in 1920 and 1923, but the former was highly geographically limited and the latter was restricted to urban spaces.[i] Nor had been made a meaningful study of Soviet Central Asia, the region today constituted by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkestan and Uzbekistan. The 1926 All-Union census drew together information from all over the new socialist polity including its southernmost Islamic regions.

A result of collaboration between Communist Party members and scholars trained in the Tsarist era, the census was mammoth in its ambition. Soviet administrators had been unhappy with the results of earlier censuses because, they said, these studies had been insufficiently rigorous and scientific in the way they categorised the population.

This is indicative of the intellectual atmosphere of the early Soviet period: it was believed that objective social knowledge could be utilised to govern society rationally, thereby hastening the arrival of communism.

For example, rather than simply asking respondents for their nationality and recording the response, an approach which produced a dizzying range of answers, the census-takers hoped to assign citizens a correct national appellation scientifically by considering a series of factors including not only ethnicity but also language, lifestyle (in Russian, byt) and so on.[ii]

This was despite the fact that, for many Soviet citizens including many Central Asians, the national category they were assigned was not meaningful. Before the fall of the Tsar, the most widespread signifiers of identity in Central Asia were those of tribe,

Soviet Stamp commemorating 40 years of the Kazakh Socialist Soviet Republic (1960)

kin, or faith.[iii]

The complete published census is a vast and comprehensive document spanning many volumes.[iv] Section one, volume eight; section two, volume fifteen; and section three, volume forty-two all contain information about the Kazakh Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, the second Soviet iteration of the territory which preceded contemporary Kazakhstan.

These volumes offer enormous amounts of data on the population of 1920s Kazakhstan. Neatly delineated into numbers is information on marital status, profession, literacy, gender, native tongue, nationality and other qualities. The figures are valuable for what they reveal, and what they overlook.

Overlooked in particular were the more that one million Kazakhs who still lived a nomadic life in the mid-1920s. As a new PhD student some years back I was surprised to find that there was no ‘nomadic’ characteristic listed here, let alone a detailed division between nomads who migrated all year round, nomads who migrated only twice a year, and other variations of practice. Aspects of the nomadic identity emerge in other categories, such as those listed as ‘cattle-herders’ under profession, but in this instance cattle-herders could certainly be permanently sedentary.

Like all such studies, the 1926 census speaks of the priorities of the regime which produced it. For all the specificity of the Soviet regime’s language regarding class and nationality – a specificity born of scientific pretensions and ideology – documentation in the Soviet archives is frustratingly reticent on the nomadic practises of its citizens in Kazakhstan. What I learned from the 1926 census was that the Communist Party’s conceptual understanding of nomads in Central Asia could be critically underdeveloped.

Beyond the census, in everyday documentation, administrators spoke of citizens who were ‘settled-agricultural’, ‘agricultural semi-settled,’ ‘cattle-herding semi-nomadic,’ and ‘nomadic with cattle-herding’ in an abortive attempt to communicate the breadth and

Eurasian Steppe in Altyn Emeil National Park, Almaty Region, Kazakhstan. Photograph: Walton Lloyd Burns (via WikiMedia Commons)

diversity of lifestyles and practises in evidence in Central Asia, before eventually succumbing to a crude dichotomy between ‘nomadic’ and ‘agricultural’ for the purposes of taxation, social provision and economic planning.[v] By so diminishing the social realities of the Kazakh Steppe, the Communist Party lost any real opportunity – assuming it was sought – to govern nomadic peoples with humanity.

What were the implications of the census-takers’ decision? Collectivisation of the rural economy came earlier to Kazakhstan than elsewhere in the Soviet Union and the impact of the campaign was profound. Astonishing numbers of Kazakhs, many of them nomads, starved to death or succumbed to epidemics as a result of the state’s actions.[vi]

Part of the justification for the brutal treatment of Kazakhstan’s nomads submitted by Filipp Goloshchekin, then First Secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party, was that the inherent poverty of the nomadic lifestyle necessitated decisive action to save nomads from a cycle of deprivation.[vii] Poverty there was in evidence, but this was partly a product of the state’s mismanagement, precipitated by a stubborn refusal to speak of nomadism as a nuanced social reality in census data and elsewhere.

Alun Thomas is currently Lecturer in Russian History at Nottingham Trent University. His first monograph, Nomads and Soviet Rule: Central Asia from Lenin to Stalin, is forthcoming and will be published by I. B. Tauris. Find him on Twitter @AlunR_Thomas


[i] Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005), pp. 105-107.

[ii] Francine Hirsch, “The Soviet Union as a Work-in-Progress: Ethnographers and the Category Nationality in the 1926, 1937 and 1939 Censuses,” Slavic Review 56, no. 2 (1997), pp. 251-278.

[iii] Marianne Kamp, The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling under Communism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), p. 62.

[iv] A complete printed copy of the multivolume census can be found in Oxford’s Bodleian library.

[v] Tsentral’nyi Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Respubliki Kyrgyzstan (TsGARKy) fond 847, opis 1, delo 14, list 13; Tsentral’nyi Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Politicheskoi Dokumentatsii Kyrgyzstanskoi Respubliki (TsGAPDKR) f. 10, op. 1, d. 33, l. 99.

[vi] Gulnar Kendirbaeva, “Migrations in Kazakhstan: Past and Present,” Nationalities Papers 25, no. 4 (1997), pp. 741-751.

[vii] Talas Omarbekov, Golomodor v Kazakhstane: prichiny, masshtaby i itogi (1930-1931 g.g.) (Almaty: Kazakhskii Natsional’nyi Universitet im. Al’-Farabi, 2009), p. 77.

Full image attribution for image 3: By Walton Lloyd Burns (en:User:KZblog) (en:File:AltynEmeil.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons