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  • Political, Social, and PersonalThe Encounters of the Russian Emigration in Yugoslavia, 1921–1941


Writing in a war-torn Belgrade in 1948, Nobel Prize novelist Ivo Andrić (1892–1975) describes an idyllic moment set in the late interwar period of the Yugoslav capital in his short story "Zeko": "In the narrow field of green tusks, here is a light oasis. A man is rowing, sitting in the middle of the boat, on his head a cotton hat, the skin on his hands and shoulders sunburned and red, and on the bow a beautiful woman, in a purplish swimsuit, with noticeably glorious stretched-out legs. She'd put up a sun umbrella; she must have been a Russian émigré."1 Although the story of Russian émigrés2 from the [End Page 1] Russian Revolution, in Yugoslavia3 had largely been completed by 1948—by virtue of assimilation, relocation, wartime casualty, or displacement under Tito's communist regime—the community had left an impression on Yugoslav history, an impression strong enough to merit a place in Andrić's revolving cast of local characters. By the postwar period, the émigrés can no longer be considered a separate community within Yugoslavia: their narratives had become interwoven into the multi-ethnic, multi-national, multi-confessional Yugoslav fabric. Yet the process of the Russian émigrés' integration in the nascent Yugoslavia in the early 1920s—in fact, the interaction of the Russian and Yugoslav, predominantly Serbian, elements—is a history of encounters.4

I will argue that this process of interaction spans across three axes of encounters—political, social, and personal—and lasts until the refugees' integration in the host society. Primarily focusing on Belgrade as a point of interaction, the political encounter considers the undercurrent political milieu and changing international relations within interwar Yugoslavia, the social encounter examines class, education, and the integral nature of the Russian community, and the social encounter explores the experience of emigration on a micro level.5 [End Page 2]

I will suggest that both central entities—the Russian émigrés and the local society—mutually affected one another and must be understood as active actors in a complex process of integration.6 This process is exemplified when Russian professors begin to lecture in Serbo-Croatian, no longer German or French, when Russian students graduate from Yugoslav universities and establish themselves professionally within the Yugoslav structure, and when Russian professional societies in Belgrade begin to be considered more prestigious than Yugoslav ones. At this moment, that Russian émigrés can be understood as heterogeneous elements intertwined within the local host culture. 7

Historians have hinted at the significance of the interaction between the Russian émigré group and their host societies, but outside several formidable studies, historiography has not fully explored this as a process on the level of state, society, and everyday life.8 Even more, the amicable relationship of the Russians and the Yugoslavs, from the state acceptance of the refugees to the generally effective integration of the Russians within Yugoslavia, is most often credited to pan-Slavism.9 However, I believe that the relationship of the Russian émigrés and the Yugoslav milieu is complicated by several other variables: the émigrés' political predisposition, the particularities of the interwar medium, and class difference. My understated hope is of challenging the pan-Slavic thesis and contributing to scholarship on interwar politics, Russian-Yugoslav relations, and the mechanisms of cultural integration. [End Page 3]

This project draws on a wide spectrum of literature, ranging from studies of twentieth century population movement and the Russian legacy of exile, to histories of Bolshevism, Serbian/Russian and Yugoslav/Soviet relations, and interwar Yugoslav histories. Relying on memoirs, diaries and interviews, émigré publications in Belgrade and international newspapers, and U.S. State correspondence with Yugoslav officials and records of the Yugoslav Ministry of Internal Affairs, I hope to narrate a story of the Russian emigration's encounters with Yugoslavia in the interwar period.


Fleeing civil war and revolution, the two million persons10 dispersing from the collapsed Russian Empire were a heterogeneous group in all but their helplessness amidst the uprooting chaos. The émigrés, commonly termed White...


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