ARC Review: After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris from the Belle Époque through the Revolution and War

After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris from the Belle Époque through the Revolution and War by Helen Rappaport

Helen Rappaport has written several books about the Romanovs, and the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. They are well researched and have been well received. After the Romanovs, her latest, is due March 8th from St Martin's Press. The focus here is on the Russian émigré community in Paris. Many Russians, including members of the royal Romanov clan, fled Russia because of the Revolution. Many of them went to Paris.

Rappaport opens her book by exploring the Russian presence in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century. Paris had been a “home away from home” for the Russian aristocracy since at least the reign of Peter the Great. By the 1900s it was referred to as the capital of Russia outside of Russia. The countries were also politically aligned (much to the annoyance of Kaiser Wilhelm). 

The prewar years were a golden age for Franco-Russian relations and for Russians in France. The Tsar and his family visited to great acclaim in 1896, and several Russian Grand Dukes were frequent visitors and part-time residents. Many of the Russian Dukes and Duchesses maintained second homes in Paris, where they loved to shop and entertain lavishly. 

Through the 1900s the French were becoming increasingly interested in Russian arts and literature. The Russian entrepreneur Sergey Diaghilev had great success raising money from the Paris based Russian aristocracy to support bringing Russian art and artists to French audiences. He produced magazines, art exhibits, opera and dance performances (featuring Nijinsky, Pavlova, Stravinsky and others).

The Russians in France lost all this prewar sophistication and extravagance after the 1917 Revolution. With the success of the Bolsheviks and their Red Army, many royal family members fled Russia with little more than the clothes on their backs. They were followed by other refugees and members of the losing White Army. The highest numbers ended up in Paris and Berlin. In Paris the ultimate number is estimated to be upwards of 50,000 people. 

With no funds and no passports, the post-revolutionary Russians in Paris struggled. Many held out hope for the fall of the Soviet government well into the 1930s. They tended to focus within their own community. Many were not inclined to assimilate into French society. 

Poverty beset many of them. Those who had been Dukes and Princes found themselves on the assembly line in the Renault factory, or driving cabs. Their wives earned meager wages as seamstresses. 

Over time, Parisians became less sensitive to the Russian émigré’s plight, and as the Depression set in, began to see them as job poachers.

The book spends most of its time highlighting the postwar years. Readers steeped in the history of the Romanovs and of Russia may find some names familiar, but I suspect many other names will not be. For lovers of history who are not Russophiles, like me, many of the tales told in the book will involve characters you’ve not heard of before, aside from perhaps Nabokov and Chagall. Some of the tales are interesting. Most, sadly, are depressing.

The sheer volume of names cited and stories told in this well researched book proved a bit of a challenge to me. It was not a "straight-through" reading experience. I found it better to dip into a chapter or two and then walk away for a bit and absorb what I’d read. But I kept coming back and was rewarded with a much better understanding of the fate of the losing side of the Russian Revolution. 

If you have read and enjoyed any of Rappaport’s other Russia centered books, you’ll no doubt find this one just as enlightening. For me, this was a Three and a Half Star ⭐⭐⭐🌠 trip into a world I knew next to nothing about beforehand. 

NOTE: I received an advanced copy from NetGalley and St Martin's Press. I am voluntarily providing this review.

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Title: After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris from the Belle Époque through the Revolution and War
Author: Helen Rappaport
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (Macmillian)
Publish Date: March 8, 2022
ISBN-13: 9781250273109
List Price: $29.99 (Hardcover as of 01/2022)