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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 6.2 (2005) 319-334



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Recent Perspectives on the History of the Russian Emigration (1920–40)

Dept. of History
Columbia University
New York, NY 10027 USA

Russia Abroad (zarubezhnaia Rossiia, or Russia beyond the borders) was the spontaneous creation of the approximately 1.5 to 2 million "Russians"—in fact, culturally russified—denizens of the Russian empire who fled the newly created RSFSR after the Bolshevik victory in the Civil War. We may speak of a Russia Abroad because these émigrés reconstituted in the countries that gave them asylum those basic institutions (school, church, press, publishing, and all forms of artistic creativity) that had served as a framework for their intellectual and cultural life in the homeland. They managed to establish and maintain effective constructive contacts among the various centers of their dispersal—and this in spite of political boundaries and distance. This Russia Abroad existed for about 20 years, from circa 1919 to 1940, when it died out in the course of the Nazi (and Japanese) conquests. While many of its creative personalities survived World War II, the institutions and communicative framework were not re-created. The Russian émigré cultural center, such as it was, shifted to the United States, while in Europe (and elsewhere) the creative impulse either died down or was integrated into the cultures of the host countries. Of course, this did not mean that emigration from Soviet Russia came to an end. On the contrary, it consisted of successive "waves" of displaced persons, non-returnees, and dissidents. But Russia Abroad's sense of identity and cohesiveness were not to be revived.

We must, however, underline one particularity of Russia Abroad: unlike "normal" countries, it did not write its own history. Coming only slowly to the realization that they could "not go home again" in the 1920s and 1930s, the émigrés made no effort at recording, and interpreting, their acta and scripta. True, they realized the importance of preserving their memories and documents. Archival collections were constituted before World War II in Prague, while some individuals and organizations deposited their records with the Hoover Institution in California. But the Russkii zagranichnyi istoricheskii arkhiv (RZIA, the Russian Historical Archive Abroad) in Prague was seized by [End Page 319] (or "donated to") the Red Army and shipped to the Soviet Union, and virtually until the end of the Soviet regime there was no access to it. This event stimulated the formation of the Bakhmeteff Archive at Columbia University in New York, where archives and private papers outside the Soviet orbit could be deposited. These several circumstances largely explain why, besides a few brief and hasty surveys in the early 1920s of the story of the exodus from Russia into emigration, no attempt to write a history of Russia Abroad was made, either by the émigrés themselves or by Western (not to speak of Soviet) historians. True, a couple of Soviet books on the "White Guard emigration" did appear after 1945, but they were superficial and denunciatory in tone, and both facts and interpretations were stretched on the procrustean bed of official ideology.1 We might also mention that a number of reminiscences of the flight from Russia and the first years of émigré cultural life were serialized in Russian-language journals in Berlin, Paris, Prague, and, after World War II, New York.

The perestroika of the second half of the 1980s made possible in Soviet Russia the "rediscovery" of the literary (and to a lesser extent artistic and intellectual) heritage of Russia Abroad. It gave impetus to the re-edition or reprinting of the works of major émigré authors, as well as the publication of an increasingly large amount of biographical and bibliographical material culled from libraries and archives, both in Russia and abroad. Much of it appeared in new serials devoted to the retrieval of events and personalities in emigration or suppressed in the USSR.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-5000
Print ISSN
1531-023x
Pages
pp. 319-334
Launched on MUSE
2005-06-16
Open Access
No
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