WHO WERE THE WHITE RUSSIAN EMIGRES OF PARIS?
Far-fetched though it might seem, the Russianized Paris of the twenties and thirties was very much as I have described it in my book – plots, kidnappings and all. Nearly two hundred thousand White Russians who escaped from Russia after the 1917 Revolution came to live in France. By the late twenties, Paris was the cultural and political centre of the diaspora. Paris had Russian-language newspapers, a literary scene, a theatre, schools, night classes, orphanages, an old people’s home or two, a cathedral and many restaurants. Many émigrés were gentlemen ex-officers who’d fought the Reds. Most were now broke. It became a cliché that Paris in the twenties and thirties was full of former grand dukes working as doormen or waiters or in car and yoghurt factories, princesses sewing or modelling for the rag trade and city taxis driven by former White officers. The Union of Russian Cab Drivers had three thousand members just before World War II. Paris Russians lived mostly around rue Vaugirard (in the 15th arrondissement), around place des Ternes, rue Daru, rue Pierre-le-Grand, and rue de la Néva (in the 8th and the 17th), and in outlying areas like Issy-les-Moulineaux, Vincennes and Boulogne-Billancourt. The exiles had expected (and been expected) to return to Russia when the Bolshevik revolt faded. But, when it didn’t, visible European and American support for the Whites’ plans to overthrow the Reds became covert and then vanished.
Because the Bolshevik government had stripped the exiles of their citizenship shortly after taking power, the White Russians became stateless persons as soon as France recognized the USSR in 1924. An international commission was formed to give them travel documents called Nansen passports – usually known as ‘nonsense passports’. At first the Russians at least got French sympathy. But by the time the thirties and the Depression came, and there weren’t enough jobs to go around, they’d outstayed their welcome. The sense of loss every Russian lived with festered, in a few, as a hatred of Communism so virulent that the opposite extreme of fascism – then taking shape in Germany and Italy and Spain – exerted a pull. For a few, this rage translated into violence. In 1932, a Russian immigrant called Pavel Gorgulev assassinated the French President, Paul Doumer, who, he said, hadn’t done enough for the White Russians. In their turn, the Bolsheviks infiltrated White Russian organizations and compromised every political opposition movement. The Russian expatriate community was riven by suspicion and double-dealing. It was impossible to tell who was with you and who was in the pay of the Soviet secret agents from the Cheka, later known as the NKVD (and later still as the KGB). Many figures were lured back into Russia where they were arrested and executed. In 1930 a kidnap team from Soviet Moscow snatched and ‘disappeared’ the head of what was left of the White Army, General Kutyopov. He was never seen again.
His replacement at the White Army successor body, known as ROVS or the Russian General Military Union, was General Yevgeny Karlovich Miller, a White Russian officer of German ancestry. On 22 September 1937, ROVS’s intelligence chief Nikolai Skoblin led General Miller to a Paris safe house, where he was to meet with two German Abwehr agents. The agents were not who they appeared to be. They were in fact officers of the Soviet NKVD disguised as Germans. They drugged Miller, placed him in a steamer trunk and smuggled him aboard a Soviet ship in Le Havre. However, Miller left behind a note to be opened if he failed to return from the meeting. In it he detailed his suspicions about Skoblin. French police launched a massive manhunt, but Skoblin could not be found. However, Skoblin’s wife, the gypsy singer Nadezhda Plevitskaya, was arrested, convicted and sentenced by a French court to twenty years in prison. She died behind bars just a couple of years later. We now know that Skoblin fled to the Soviet embassy in Paris and was eventually smuggled to Barcelona, where the Second Spanish Republic refused to extradite him to France. After that the trail goes dead. We have also learned since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 that the NKVD successfully smuggled General Miller back to Moscow, where he was tortured and summarily shot nineteen months after the kidnapping, on 11 May 1939. According to General Pavel Sudoplatov, who proudly described the whole kidnap plot on Russian TV decades later, ‘His kidnapping was a cause célèbre. Eliminating him disrupted his organization of Tsarist officers and effectively prevented them from collaborating with the Germans against us.’ Copies of letters written by Miller while he was imprisoned in Moscow are in the Dimitri Volkogonov papers at America’s Library of Congress.
I’ve always been fascinated by this wistful, desperate, shifting, duplicitous world-within-a-world (which more or less vanished soon after the time of my book, as the Second World War prompted many Paris Russians to carry on west to the USA). Of course, as a student of Russian, I read about these waifs and strays in the literature they wrote. Famously, Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita features a Colonel Taxovich, a stocky, platitudinous White Russian who’s been reduced – of course – to driving a taxi and has become infatuated with the narrator Humbert Humbert’s first wife. Nabokov himself lived in Paris from 1931, after Berlin, where he had initially taken refuge in the wake of the Revolution, became too dangerous for him and his Jewish wife. He is a rich source of amusing stories about émigré life (I reference his pen name, Sirin, in my story, as a bit of an hommage. The first short story Nabokov ever wrote in the English language was a mocking feuilleton about the General Miller of this book).
Less well known today is another wonderful Paris Russian writer, Gaito Gazdanov. It’s his work that has really shaped how I see the White Russians of Paris – especially his novel Night Roads, which gives an autobiographical account of what it was to be an angry young man from the Russian diaspora driving a taxi by night and struggling to become a writer. That was my starting point for imagining my male lead, Jean. My interest isn’t only from books. My first Russian teacher, Nina Wilsdon, née Brodyanskaya (another name that crops up in this story), was from one of these Paris émigré families. And, while learning Russian at university, I had a taste of the life myself when I spent five months in a White Russian school-turned-monastery-turned-language centre at Meudon, just outside Paris. So perhaps my fascination grew out of the stories I heard in all these classrooms, too. At any rate, I still can’t think of anything braver than the sheer cussedness of those early twentieth-century exiles, people so brutally expelled from their past and so incredibly down on their luck, who just wouldn’t give up trying to find a future.