‘The Biggest Split in the White Emigration: Whether to Return and Whether to Recognize the Soviet Regime’
May 27, 2023
  • Andrei Aksenov
    Popularizer of science
  • Semyon Bashkirov
Andrei Aksenov talks about how a century ago, like now, people who disagreed with political changes in Russia or were threatened with repression fled en masse. They left in a hurry, leaving behind their things and affairs, overpaying for tickets out and hoping for a quick return.
The original text in Russian was published in Republic. A slightly shortened version is republished here with their permission.

What parallels can be seen between the current emigration out of Russia and the one that took place a hundred years ago?

There are general similarities. It is easy to put yourself in the shoes of those people – any emigration is similar to others. For example, there are the same matters that need to be resolved first, especially if the departure happens suddenly and involuntarily – what about my documents, where will I live, where to find work, where to put children, how to get medical care. These things take up 75% of the life of emigrants.

Then, there is reflection about the country that had to be left. How is my Russia doing? Why did we end up here? What led to this? All these questions are constantly discussed in the media, in chats, at meetings, at lectures.

However, each emigration has different circumstances under which people flee. If we take the 1920s, the first thing that catches the eye is the great sympathy in European countries for White emigrants. No one said: “Go back to your Russia and overthrow Lenin.” On the contrary, they tried to help them – until they began to represent a competitive force in the labor market. For a long time, no state recognized the USSR, and the authorities interacted exclusively with representatives of the old Russia. For example, Vasily Maklakov, a deputy in the last four Dumas and a lawyer, was the de facto ambassador of the country in Paris. I would rather draw a parallel here with the current Ukrainian refugees in Europe. To simplify, everyone sympathizes with them and is trying to help them, even sometimes turning a blind eye to some violations of immigration laws.
The second big difference from that time is that today’s emigration out of Russia is rather uniform in its political views.
Now, such a statement seems somewhat exaggerated, as we constantly bear witness to disputes and conflicts on Twitter. However, compared with that time, now on principle there is complete unanimity. Everyone wants approximately the same thing: for Putin’s rule to finally end and contradictions in views to be resolved through open parliamentary debate. From libertarians and liberals to leftists, everyone dreams of this.

Didn’t everyone back then want the regime of Lenin and Stalin to fall?

Back then, everything was completely different. One of the reasons why the White movement lost was that it did not have a vision for a future Russia. The Bolsheviks had a specific one: “factories to the workers, land to the peasants, power to the Soviets,” and so on.

But among the White emigrants there were constitutional monarchists, black-hundredists – who believed in a Jewish conspiracy – Jews, liberals, Mensheviks – who literally fought with the Red Army with red flags – socialist-revolutionaries, Marxists – who are actually from the same party as Lenin. All of them left after they lost Civil War and endlessly blamed each other for the collapse of Russia.

It was the most irreconcilable enmity. For example, the liberal Pavel Milyukov comes to Tallinn to give a lecture. At the very beginning, some person gets up from the middle of the hall and says: “The Russian people have only three words for you: bastard, scoundrel and traitor.” And then left. That was still OK. In 1922, Milyukov was giving a lecture in Berlin, when two monarchists ran out from the audience, took out pistols and started shooting at him, shouting: “For the royal family and for Russia!” Vladimir Nabokov, the writer’s father, a former minister in the Provisional Government, shielded Milyukov, took a bullet and died on the spot.
White emigrants tried to settle in different countries and cities so as not to intersect with each other. The monarchists lived in Belgrade, the social democrats in Berlin.
Pyotr Wrangel (in the first row, second from left) and other Russian emigrants in Belgrade, 1927.
Source: Wiki Commons
And the rest of the things were more mundane: everyone had problems with documents, because the passports of the non-existent country had expired. The only refuge was the embassy of the Russian Empire, where you could get any assistance, including material.

Did former diplomats continue to work there?

Yes, embassies were the last legal authorities of the old Russia. Officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the country that did not exist sat in the same mansions around the world, corresponded with each other and agreed that they would represent the interests of Russia to the end. They considered as their main task helping those who had fled, primarily with documents – for example, confirming in France the matriculation certificate from a Petrograd gymnasium. The ambassadors also helped emigrants financially, because the Russian Empire had funds in accounts at world banks. True, the officials did not particularly want to spend this money, hoping that the Bolsheviks would soon fall and everyone would go back.

Is it possible to pick out a time when the White emigration began? Was it before the end of the Civil War?

Yes, sure. Some especially far-sighted people left after the abdication of the tsar, but there were very few of them. Others fled in the summer of 1917, sensing the imminent collapse of the Provisional Government. But a lot of people stayed until the very end. This meant that the someone got their factory taken away, his bank accounts frozen, and a former millionaire had to walk across the Finnish border in December 1917. And then he worked in Helsinki as a taxi driver.

The flood began after the Bolshevik coup?

Yes, immediately, in November-December 1917. The Bolsheviks launched their terror campaign immediately, instantly. In December, the first murders of former liberal Duma deputies took place. It was a very clear signal to get away. People first went south from Petrograd – to the Caucasus, to Odessa. The Civil War begins, and they moved to Constantinople, and from there – whoever could – to the West. The last big wave of emigration was the soldiers of the White Army, who, after losing the Civil War, fled from Crimea to Constantinople by sea.

How can you generally describe the social makeup of the White emigration?

Approximate figures are as follows: up to 1 million people, about 60% or even more were former peasants and workers, who for the most part were illiterate. Moreover, among them were people who ended up “in emigration,” though they had not moved anywhere. For example, those who lived in the Baltic countries or in Poland, on territories lost by Russia after World War I.

The peasants fled from many things – food requisitions, terror, revenge by the Bolsheviks for serving in the White Army, religious persecution. These people are spread as widely as possible across the world; for example, Old Believer settlements still exist in South America. And in Australia there are Cossack communities.
Russian poets in Harbin. Anonymous author. Exhibition Hall of the Federal Archives. Source: Wiki Commons
Where did peasants get the money to move?

Nowhere – they had to walk. They ran from the Bolsheviks, first to Siberia, then crossed the border with northern China, reached Harbin, where half the population spoke Russian, and started working there as taxi drivers and waiters. The Old Believer community was a little simpler, as its members stayed together and supported each other. They had specific goals – to buy land and settle in a new place. Only a minority was the intelligentsia, who made newspapers and constantly argued.

Of the other 40%, some were officers, as well as those who had money and higher education – the middle class and the intelligentsia. They left a huge number of documents and publications, up to 2,000 different media were launched by Russian emigrants after 1917.

What were the emigrants mostly engaged in? There was no remote work, so they went to work locally. And in Europe, right after World War I, the cities were in ruins, hyperinflation was everywhere.

The cheapest place to live in Europe was Berlin. At one time, up to 200,000 people who had left Russia lived there.
“Generally, everyone lived in poverty. Emigrants belonging to the intelligentsia were helped a little by the fact that most of them knew French, German or English.”
Did many representatives of the White emigration really believe that the Soviet regime would not last even five years?

Of course, and many had much shorter terms in mind. Karl Mannerheim, the Imperial Army general and the future president of Finland, traveled to independent Finland in mid-December 1917. First, he had to quit the Russian army, as otherwise he could not have gotten a passport of his native country. He went to his friend at the General Staff and asked for help, brought a letter of resignation. And he is told: “Listen, correct the date of the statement for January 1, 1918 – the Bolsheviks will probably have been swept away by that time, but now I do not want to lose a good general.”

After the defeat in the south of the country in 1920, the army of General Wrangel was evacuated from Crimea, but then spent two and a half years in the Greek Gallipoli. A camp was erected, tents were set up, the paths were graveled. Soldiers were drilling, there was shooting practice, complete order was maintained. For what? Any day, you might need to return to Russia and overthrow the Red government!
It was not until the mid-1920s that the realization came that the Bolsheviks would hold out for a long time. And still there were people who did not believe it.
General Alexander Kutepov inspects troops at Gallipoli, 1921.
Source: Wiki Commons
In 1929, the Riga newspaper Segodnya put out a special issue in which it surveyed the “leaders of public opinion” about how they saw Russia in 10 years. Ivan Bunin wrote: “Russia will be anything but not Bolshevik. I think, nevertheless, that the Bolsheviks will not hold on for 10 years.

Yet in the end, 11 years later, Latvia itself was occupied and annexed by the USSR. What were the hopes that the Bolshevik regime would not last based on?

It seemed to everyone that the regime was something completely unreal, unlike anything else. It was impossible to imagine that, with such ideas, they could last for more than a few months.

Compared with the Bolsheviks, Putin’s regime is completely straightforward. A typical right-wing autocrat who does everything like other right-wing dictators, whether Latin American or Southern European. Meanwhile, the Soviet country, especially at the beginning, was not even a state. The people who were building it said that we are steadily moving toward a world revolution.

The thoughts and plans of the Bolsheviks can be expressed like this: a civil war must take place on a global scale during which the working class must overthrow all the capitalists. What makes you think that there should be states and borders? What a strange idea! You are just used to it. There used to be theocracies and feudal principalities, then empires and nation-states arose, and now everything will be different. An entire internationale of a classless society, the dictatorship of the proletariat, was to arise. The civil war in Russia was [seen] not as a battle between Whites and Reds, but as part of a world war where all the workers of the whole world would raise this fire of global revolution. It just started here, but would soon take over the whole of Europe, and then the world. How could you believe that these people would really hold on to power?

Could the Bolsheviks really have lost power in Russia?

Yes, but they managed to do the near impossible. Vladimir Lenin and his party made the most effective use of situational opportunities to achieve their goal. They definitely cannot be said to have lacked professionalism and a subtle sense of the moment. That is why they came to power and won the Civil War.

How did White emigrants reflect on what had happened?

The reflection was immense. Two thousand media emerged, among other things, for what social networks exist now: expressing opinions or finding out how to rent an apartment in Berlin. A guy is working on a construction site in Serbia, he has a bunch of thoughts about Russia, he can write to a local emigre newspaper, and he will be published for free. And getting a fee is not important for him, he just needs to speak his mind. And this endless reflection also breaks down into political factions.

Were there people who began to return to the USSR in the 1930s?

Of course, they started back in the early 1920s. Moreover, the Soviet authorities regularly organized campaigns to get them to return. A very large number of Cossacks and peasants returned from Constantinople to the USSR. Military specialists did too. White generals then taught courses for the Red Army.

The biggest split in the White emigration occurred precisely over the question of whether to return and whether to recognize the Soviet regime. The journal Smena Vekh began to call for recognition of the Bolsheviks as the successors of Russian imperial ideology. Almost everyone who returned ended up in the Gulag. All the smenovekhovtsy, the Cossacks, the peasants – everyone ended up on execution lists in the 1930s.
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