A century on, White Russians cling to their roots

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Catherine Melnik
AFP / STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN Catherine Melnik keeps a large collection of photographs of her Russian ancestors

Growing up at the court of tsar Nicholas II, Tatiana Botkina’s childhood was one of splendour.

But like so many others whose lives were torn apart by Russia’s 1917 revolution, she would eventually find herself a long way from home, her life transformed beyond recognition.

Her father, the tsar’s doctor, would be executed alongside the royal family. And Tatiana would become a factory worker’s wife in France, part of a huge wave of aristocrats, intellectuals, military officers and others fleeing the brutal civil war after the revolution.

“She used to say she had lived completely different lives, and that each was rich in its own way,” says her granddaughter Catherine Melnik, an art dealer whose elegant Paris apartment is crammed with Russian paintings.

“But it was extremely hard,” adds the 62-year-old, part of a small community of “White Russian” descendants still keeping their heritage alive, a century later.

The civil war scattered between one and two million White Russians — nicknamed after anti-Communist forces — from China to Brazil, creating diaspora communities that in some cases endure to this day.

Among the emigres were “Lolita” author Vladimir Nabokov, the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff and the grandparents of US fashion designer Ralph Lauren.

The exodus also sparked an unprecedented international drive to give legal protection to refugees, resulting in the “Nansen passport”, the first ever travel document for stateless people.

– Taxi drivers, cabaret singers –

Hundreds of thousands of White Russians settled on the fringes of the former Russian Empire, in Finland, Poland and the Balkans, while others headed further west, to Prague or Berlin.

Long favoured by Russian aristocrats who dotted balmy resorts like Nice with their holiday villas, France became a natural hub, with an emigre community numbering some 200,000.

“Riches to rags” tales of ex-aristocrats scraping by as Paris taxi drivers, cabaret performers or seamstresses became legendary.

But a more common reality was to find factory work with industrial giants such as Renault and Peugeot.

“France had lost millions of men in World War I, so French entrepreneurs were very happy to have this manpower,” says Alexandre Jevakhoff, a senior civil servant, historian and author of a new book on the civil war.

Factories welcomed Russian ex-soldiers as they tended to be hard-working and non-unionised, says Jevakhoff, himself the grandson of an imperial officer turned Parisian train station porter.

– ‘Sitting on our suitcases’ –

The emigre community swarmed with Soviet spies, as some defeated Russian officers continued plotting a military fightback from abroad.

Longing for home, emigres often described themselves as “sitting on our suitcases”, ready to head back to Russia at a moment’s notice.

Since they assumed the Soviet regime would last a few years at most, few worried about integrating.

“That explains why there were few mixed marriages, why few Russians demanded French nationality,” says Jevakhoff. “They continued to speak Russian at home.”

Life in these homes was often “psychologically very difficult”, he adds.

Couples who had lived through a world war and a civil war now found themselves in a foreign land, often having gone from a comfortable bourgeois existence to working lowly jobs.

“Every day they had to think, how are we going to eat?” says Igor Orobchenko, a former bank worker whose father came to France with a contract to clear World War I mines.

At 90, Orobchenko considers himself “the last White Russian of Clichy”, a northern Paris suburb once home to a vibrant emigre community.

He has fond memories of the dances, shows and parties where many sought comforting reminders of home.

– Back to Russia –

As the decades passed, emigres blended in with the locals. Second and third-generation White Russians married locals and spoke French at home.

Melnik’s father — the grandson of the tsar’s doctor — became a top French intelligence official, dedicating his life to fighting the KGB from abroad.

“He really wanted to give something back to France, to thank the country for welcoming him,” Melnik says.

Orobchenko, shuffling through faded photographs, fears there will soon be little left of the community he loved — just the 10,000 buried in the Russian cemetery in the southern Paris suburb of Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois.

But he has tried to keep his family connected to its roots.

His children and grandchildren all speak Russian; Orobchenko married a Frenchwoman, but she proudly shows off pictures of the Russian cakes she bakes every Easter.

Both he and Melnik have visited Russia — an experience they found exhilarating, though Melnik says that, at first, people were hostile when she explained her family history.

“In Russia you always hear that the emigres were extremely rich people who left to continue a life of luxury,” she says.

But they eventually warmed to her. And despite having never lived there, she had the strange sensation of being somewhere familiar, thanks to her grandmother’s vivid stories.

In a way, she says, “it felt like I never left.”