Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 5.4 (2004) 759-773
[Access article in PDF]
Letters across the Ocean
New York, NY 10027 USA
In the 1920s and the 1930s, Russia Abroad sprawled over many lands. Its denizens, however, achieved something of a community by dint of will and imagination. By will, because they felt a common past and wanted to keep it alive in the hope of a return home. Their imagination, nourished by literature and nostalgia, provided them with the moral fortitude and language bond needed to communicate over distance. The spoken word, at gatherings and meetings, and even more so the written word constituted the fabric that held the émigré community together, enabling it to survive in a foreign environment. The many public gatherings and cultural events have by now been chronicled for most of the main centers of Russia Abroad. But by the nature of things, their contents cannot be reproduced adequately. Written words, in contrast, can be—and were—preserved, and since the late 1980s they have become accessible in archives and through publication. Most publications of letters and other personal documents, however, have been fragmentary and dispersed among many journals and books issued in many places.
Thus it is a source of surprise and much satisfaction to see in print the full exchange of letters, over a period of several decades, between two prominent figures of the émigré community and the last pre-Soviet ambassadors of Russia to Paris and Washington, DC: Vasilii Alekseevich Maklakov and Boris Aleksandrovich Bakhmeteff. The exchange is unusual in several respects: it deals exclusively with political and public matters; and it is a very frank, albeit dignified and polite, ongoing discussion of basic issues concerning the present and hoped-for future state of both Russia and the Western [End Page 759] world. The exchange also provides information on happenings of concern to the emigration on both sides of the Atlantic. In short, it is a rare record of the continuous dialogue between friends that was well characterized in Maklakov's words: "I clearly feel the importance of our correspondence, its significance for our own enlightenment and education" (28 April 1927, vol. 3, 314). Paraphrasing the concept of a German literary genre, we may characterize this epistolary exchange as a Bildungs-korrespondenz. Although labeled "strictly personal and confidential," the letters contain nothing truly personal concerning the two correspondents' existential problems and intimate life. Almost all the letters were dictated to a secretary and retyped, which perhaps explains their immediacy, their conversational tone, the vivid details and clever portraits. But the obverse side is the occasional verbosity and repetitiveness, typical of a conversation between friends over a long period of time. Both were clear thinkers and writers, although Maklakov's was the more sophisticated and vivid pen, while Bakhmeteff's was direct and matter-of-fact.
We have here 280 letters, pretty much equally apportioned between the correspondents, some of them tens of pages long. Volume 1, issued in 2001, covers August 1919-September 1921 (Letters 1-48); volumes 2 and 3, issued in 2002, cover September 1921-May 1923 (Letters 49-143) and June 1923-February 1951 (Letters 144-280), respectively. The letters are published from Bakhmeteff's original typescripts and copies of Maklakov's. They are reproduced, in most cases, from the material contained in the Maklakov collection in the Archives of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and complemented by select letters from the Bakhmeteff collection in the Bakhmeteff Archive for Russian and East European History and Culture in the Rare Books and Manuscript Division of Columbia University Library. The 280 letters are published...