After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris from the Belle Époque Through Revolution and War

Image of After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris from the Belle Époque Through Revolution and War
Release Date: 
March 8, 2022
St. Martin's Press
Reviewed by: 

After the Romanovs is a well-researched, readable, narrative history that enthusiasts for Russian history, the Romanov dynasty, Paris, and modern European history should enjoy.”

The Russian Romanov dynasty is one of the most written about families in European history. The upheavals of World War I, the Russian Revolution, the horrific and secret execution of the last reigning tsar and his family, and subsequent pretenders to the Russian throne have captivated writers, academics, and the public for over a century. Although the Romanov name features in Helen Rappaport’s new book’s title, its scope goes beyond the imperial family to focus on Russians from more diverse social classes. After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris from the Belle Époque through Revolution and War follows Russians’ encounters with Paris from the more glittering and decadent decades of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, through World War I, and the stark realities of life in exile after the Bolsheviks seized power during the Russian Revolution.

The first three chapters focus on the European Belle Époque, the calm before the storm. The first chapter, “La Tournée des Grands Ducs,” focuses on the Russian aristocrats who made Paris their retreat during this era. The Russian upper class was familiar with the French language, as French culture had been fashionable in Russia since the 18th century through the efforts of Tsar Peter the Great, who visited Paris in 1717, and later Tsarina Catherine the Great. Consequently, Paris had long been the “capital of Russia out of Russia,” as many elites had winter homes there. Despite a brief disruption in Franco-Russian relations due to the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars (1789–1815) and Crimean War (1853–1856), many Russians made Paris home.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Paris was a popular attraction for Russia’s grand dukes, who enjoyed the Parisian underworld’s erotic attractions and vices, so much so that a novel on the subject—the source of Chapter 1’s title—was published in 1901. Tsar Alexander II’s brothers, Vladimir and Alexis, were two frequent visitors and connoisseurs of Paris’s hidden, sordid delights, along with their more stoic brother, Paul. Russian aristocrats participated in Paris’s high society events and were often featured in the local media, making them pseudo-celebrities living abroad.

In the next two chapters, Rappaport focuses on the non-aristocratic Russian presence in Paris. Chapter 2 follows the development of Sergey Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and how Russian artists, musicians (such as Igor Stravinsky), and intellectuals worked to showcase Russian art, music, and theater in Paris. Meanwhile, Chapter 3 focuses on Parisian cafes, which served as social clubs for literary and political debate. Long a “meeting place for travelers, artists, and writers from across Europe,” they now served as a refuge for intellectual dissidents, such as Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Ilya Ehrenburg, and others forced to flee Tsarist Russia.

Rappaport shifts to the upheavals of war and revolution in Chapters 4 and 5. Chapter 4 deals with Russia’s disastrous fortunes in World War I (1914–1918) and the resulting outbreak of internal revolution in 1917. The revolution ultimately pulled the country out of the war, overthrew the Romanov Dynasty, prompted the execution in 1918 of Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, children, and some servants, and ultimately resulted in the Communist party’s control of the country and the revocation of private property ownership. These changes created as increasingly antagonistic atmosphere for the aristocracy, forcing them to gather what assets they could and flee. In the scramble, many went to Paris. The next chapter extends the focus beyond aristocrats fleeing Russia, but also the litany of ordinary Russians, too (such as the young historian and novelist Henri Troyat). Escape was not easy.

Chapters 6 through 12, the heart of the book, focus on these diverse Russian groups’ experiences adapting to life in 20th century Paris. In Chapter 6, we see how difficult life was for those Russians who fled upheaval for safety in Paris. Many aristocrats had no or limited assets and faced financial challenges—something they were unaccustomed to. Some later wrote memoirs to generate review, like Grand Duke Paul’s daughter, Maria. However, a “vein of nostalgia, of a deep, fatalistic yearning for the world they had lost, was something that dogged so many . . . and made it impossible for many of them to adjust to their new environment.” In her account, Rappaport features as an example Maria’s brother, Dmitri, who had an affair with French designer and perfumer CoCo Chanel.

Chapter 7 explores how Russian emigres struggled to find work in Paris. Many ordinary Russians had to take low paying jobs, such as taxi drivers, and various professionals were underemployed, as French regulations largely barred them for working in their professional capacity. Russian elites, who generally knew French, often secured white collar employment in banks or offices.

The subsequent chapter chronicles the struggles of Russian writers, such as Ivan Bunin, Zinadia Gippius, and Vladimir Merezhkovsky, who would have been heralded in an earlier Russian era. Instead, they had to settle for limited recognition, struggling to preserve a nostalgic, lost Russian culture while living in exile.

Chapter 9 returns the book’s attention to the remaining Romanovs and the dynasty’s family dramas related to claims to the Russian imperial throne. Grand Duke Kirill, son of Grand Duke Vladimir, declared himself curator of the Russian throne in 1922. Two years later, he proclaimed himself “Tsar of All the Russias” and moved to France. Russian laws of succession excluded anyone from inheriting the throne through the female line. Therefore, the 1918 executions of Tsar Nicholas II, his son, Alexei, and brother, Mikhail, made Kirill the nearest surviving male descendent of Tsar Nicolas I.  “Tsar” Kirill set up a court in exile. However, he had challengers to his claim to the defunct throne, such as his cousin, Grand Duke Dmitri (who, along with Felix Yasupov—also in exile in Paris—had murdered the infamous Rasputin), and his uncle, Grand Duke Nicholas (known as Nikolasha). Controversies surrounding claims to the throne persisted, however.

Many Russian aristocrats refused to accept that Tsar Nicolas II, his family, and brother were dead. The remains of Tsar Nicholas and his family from their mass, unmarked grave would not be recovered until after the Soviet Union’s collapse. This caused many to view Kirill’s claim as “premature,” even if they believed him to be the legitimate successor if the event of their deaths. This hope was bolstered by the many pretenders to be Tsar Nicolas II’s surviving children. The most famous, Polish peasant Franzisca Szankowska, claimed to be his daughter, Anastasia. “Tsar” Kirill’s son, Vladimir, assumed his father’s claims in 1938 after the former’s death, and disputes among surviving Romanovs as to who has the “legitimate” right to the Russian throne continue to this day.

Chapter 10, “Ubiquitous Intriguers, Spies, and Assassins,” explores how the local government linked Russians in exile to petty royalist disputes, radical Bolshevik politics, and communism. Such views were encouraged when Russian radical Pavel Gorgulov assassinated French President Paul Doumer, creating an unfortunate backlash against the Russian community in Paris.

Chapters 11 and 12 conclude Rapport’s history of the ongoing struggles of Russian exiles to assimilate in their new French homeland and accept that their exile would be permanent. Some returned to Russia, like writer Marina Tsvetaeva, only to commit suicide. Subsequent generations, growing up in France, steadily adopted French identities and assimilated into wider French society, shedding a distinct Russian identity. Hence, “Russians” became “French.”

The book’s front matter includes a “cast of characters” identifying the various Russians in Paris discussed in its pages. Meanwhile, the back matter includes sufficient notes. Rappaport draws heavily from published sources written in multiple languages; consequently, the bibliography divides sources by the language in which they were written rather than as primary and secondary sources.

Rappaport masterfully weaves together various colorful anecdotes, character sketches, and the struggles of the Russian exiles into a memorable and engaging account. After the Romanovs is a well-researched, readable, narrative history that enthusiasts for Russian history, the Romanov dynasty, Paris, and modern European history should enjoy.