Review of the book “After the Romanovs” by Helen Rappaport

At that time, the writing was already on the wall for Russian exiles who chose to read it. Despite their hopes, dreams and expectations of returning home, the new “blood red” regime, as they dubbed it, showed no signs of imminent collapse. Of the 50,000 displaced Russians who eventually settled in the French capital, only a handful will ever see their native land again. And while they lingered in the cafes of the Boulevard du Montparnasse, yearning for a lost world of luxury and ease, their real task was to make a living in this pinched and hostile new world.

British historian Helen Rappaport – most recent author of “The Race to Save the Romanovs” in 2018 – produced an engaging group biography of this melancholic crowd: “After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris from the Belle Epoque Through Revolution and War”. It begins in the closing years of the 19th century, when the Tsarist nobility treated the French capital as their Las Vegas – a place to spend lavishly and live indulgently. The last Tsar’s uncles, Grand Duke Vladimir and Grand Duke Alexis, were chief carousels, regularly descending on the city in pursuit of food, wine and women.

After the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty in 1917, many who had once traveled to Paris in luxury train carriages embarked on a desperate and dangerous Red Army flight. South of Crimea, then across the Black Sea in rickety, overcrowded boats, Russian refugees quickly filled the fetid slums of Constantinople. The lucky ones who could afford to travel to France usually arrived with their funds depleted.

Coco Chanel, who had a romance with the handsome Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich, once the fourth richest man in Russia, described him and his friends as “almost emasculated by their poverty”. Some of the more educated exiles held positions as accountants or bank clerks. But most of these former princes, army officers and high government officials found themselves working as taxi drivers, waiters or on factory assembly lines.

Rappaport is a master of revealing detail. Chanel, she reports, took pity on Count Sergei Kutuzov, former governor of Crimea, by appointing him chief receptionist in his rue Cambon studio. A whole company of ex-Cossacks occupied the Gare de l’Est as porters and handlers. A Russian could be spotted among the workers who disembarked from the Renault factory on the Quai du Point-du-Jour at the end of the day “by the fact that he was generally cleaner and better dressed and even wore a tie”, she writes.

The wives and sisters of these men were blessed with needlework skills – embroidery, knitting and tatting were favorite female pastimes of the wealthy era. Several thousand Russian women were eventually employed by the Parisian clothing trade, and by 1935 Russian emigrants had founded 27 new French fashion houses.

Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna – whose father, Grand Duke Paul, son of Tsar Alexander II, was shot dead by the Bolsheviks at St. Peter and St. Paul’s Fortress in 1919 – bought a Singer sewing machine from credit and eventually launched House Kitmir, named for a legendary dog ​​from Persian mythology that Russians considered lucky. Her business flourished until the rage for Slavic-style clothing cooled in 1928. She then moved to New York, was hired as a style consultant by Bergdorf Goodman, and wrote her dramatic memoir. When in 1941 the United States joined the Soviet Union in the war against Germany, the Grand Duchess embarked for Argentina with disgust.

As Rappaport ably recounts, staunch monarchists among the exiles took the time to worry about their finances to discuss plans for a possible restoration. After an absurd three-way suitor battle, Grand Duke Vladimir’s eldest son proclaimed himself Emperor Kirill of All Russia in 1927. He kept office hours every weekday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Breton fishing village of Saint-Briac, issuing proclamations and various directives. “It’s not even theater,” snorted an unimpressed exile, “It’s a puppet show.”

The Soviet secret police, the NKVD, eventually infiltrated the émigré community and in 1937 kidnapped General Yevgeny Miller, a former leader of the White Army, smuggled him from Paris to Moscow, where he was tortured and then shot. More subtle tactics were used to attract various nostalgic émigré artists and writers. Sergey Efron, husband of Marina Tsvetaeva, now considered one of the greatest Russian poets, was secretly conscripted by the NKVD, and he and the couple’s daughter returned home. Tsvetaeva followed only reluctantly. In Stalin’s Great Terror, Efron was shot and their daughter arrested and tortured. Tsvetaeva herself was never accepted by the Soviet literary establishment and committed suicide in 1941.

For the emigrants of Paris, hope and longing eventually turned into something much more painful, as they were forced to witness from afar the evil that was devouring their beloved homeland.

Clare McHugh is the author of the novel “A Most English Princess”.

Russian exiles in Paris from the Belle Époque to the Revolution and the War

Saint-Martin Press. 336 pages. $29.99