Reviewed by Rob Spence
If you were tired of aimless flânerie in the Paris of the twenties, and fancied seeing Josephine Baker dancing at the Folies Bergère, you might be tempted to hail one of the many taxi cabs that plied their trade on the boulevards. If you did, there was a good chance that your driver might be a former minor Russian count or duke, or at least a high-ranking officer of the White Russian army. This was just one of the irresistible facts I gleaned from Helen Rappaport’s entertaining survey of the Russian diaspora in Paris after the 1917 revolution, which has now been published in paperback. In the decade 1920 – 1930, as many as 5000 Russians were registered as taxi-drivers in Paris, and were considered to be the aristocrats of the émigré work force. The influx of Russians, of all classes, after the Bolshevik takeover, both immediately following the revolution, and in waves as the subsequent civil war left thousands in danger, changed the nature and culture of Parisian life. Rappaport’s book examines how and why this happened, and provides numerous examples of the ways in which the refugee Russians adapted to their new surroundings.
Of course, for the Francophone Russian nobility, Paris had long been a place of resort, a hedonistic haven in which to indulge their often prodigious appetites for the most expensive luxuries. Rappaport covers this in her initial chapters, the first detailing some of the adventures of the Romanov grand dukes in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries. The “tournée des Grands Ducs” even became a feature of tourist itineraries, focusing mainly on the brothels, cabarets and gambling dens frequented by the roistering Russians, often spending fortunes on wine, women and song. These final years of the Belle Époque saw the cream of the Russian upper class indulge themselves extravagantly, often at the expense of their home country: one such was Grand Duke Alexis, son of Tsar Alexander II, and, nominally at least, a naval officer, commander in chief of the Imperial Fleet, no less. But such was his dexterity in siphoning off money for shipbuilding into his own pocket that the common joke in St Petersburg was that “the ladies of Paris cost Russia at least a battleship a year.”
The pre-revolutionary Russian presence in Paris was not just about luxurious excess, however: the cultural impact of Russian artists and musicians was significant, led in the early years of the century by Diaghilev’s irrepressible promotion of Russian dance, art and music. His annual “Saison Russe” was sensationally successful (though financially disastrous) and his commissioning of Stravinsky to provide music for The Firebird and The Rite of Spring was crucial in the development of modernism. Rappaport covers this period in her second chapter before dealing with the cataclysmic events that led to the mass exodus from Russia after the revolution. Rappaport estimates that a million Russians left their homeland from 1917 to 1920, and many of them ended up in Paris.
Because of the historic connection, Paris was the natural destination for Russians fleeing the Bolshevik regime, whether they were of the nobility or lower down the social scale. Rappaport ranges widely over the stories of the individuals caught up in these momentous events. Helpfully, she provides a “Cast of Characters” at the beginning to help the reader keep track. And what an amazing cast it is: Teffi, one of Russia’s leading short story writers, and a leading light in the expatriate literary scene; Marc Chagall, the major modernist painter; Prince Felix Yusopov, who founded a Parisian fashion house with his wife; Mother Maria Skobtsova, who set up a soup kitchen for impoverished émigrés; and many, many more. It’s a feature and a bug of this book that so many characters’ lives are examined. The reader is at times left wishing for more detail as some tantalising vignette of expatriate life is illuminated, to be replaced by an equally compelling account of someone else’s experience. Overall, though, the variety of the histories she narrates in her engaging style keeps the reader wanting more, and, certainly in my case, chasing further reading from the extensive bibliography she provides.
Understandably, much of the book concerns the fate of those members of the Romanov dynasty who escaped the fate of the Tsar’s family after the revolution. There are many accounts of princesses and duchesses turning their hands to needlework, or becoming mannequins. Twenty-seven fashion houses were established in Paris by Russian émigrés in the twenty years after the revolution. The military men found that a coveted skill was the ability to drive, so they became taxi-drivers and chauffeurs, even forming their own trade unions. One striking element of the book, and one which illustrates a far-from-glamorous aspect of exile, is Rappaport’s description of Billancourt, the Parisian neighbourhood that quickly became a mini-Russia. This rather run-down district was cheap, and had the added advantage of offering plentiful, though badly paid work in the big automobile factories. One of Rappaport’s sources for her description of Billancourt is Nina Berberova’s Billancourt Tales, a series of short stories that documented the lives of the exiles in the shabby overcrowded tenements of the district. It’s a startling reminder that many Russians in Paris endured lives of miserable poverty, just a couple of miles away from the bright lights of the Bois de Boulogne.
Helen Rappaport, whose previous books have covered the Romanov dynasty and its fate (see here and here), is especially well-placed to tell the story of the exiles in the Paris of the twenties and thirties. She does so in a lively, intelligent style, which is always accessible without in any way deviating from academic principles: this is a book thoroughly grounded on extensive factual research. For this reader, who fancied he knew quite a bit about Paris in the twenties, it’s an eye-opener. Taxi!
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Helen Rappaport, After the Romanovs (Scribe). 978-1914484766, 317pp., paperback.
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