Helen Rappaport has written a thoroughly excellent account of the fraught, frightened residents of Petrograd (now again St Petersburg) during the Russian Revolutions of 1917 (Caught in the Revolution). Now she has shifted perspective both forward and backward, to appraise how emigre Russians behaved in Paris before and after their country was taken away from them.
Rappaport is relatively forgiving of the comportment of the Russian aristocracy in Paris pre-1917, when they treated the place much like contemporary Russian oligarchs did London. At least the Russians seemed less arrogant and wilful than Saudis away from home or the Shah's entourage in exile. They were certainly more well-mannered than the Russian soldiers who defeated Napoleon and whose importunate demands for food and drink gave the French the word "bistro".
The record of those years involves hiding money, indulging vices, buying property and otherwise revelling in escape from the structures of the homeland. When he turned up in Paris in 1910, Marc Chagall discovered "light, colour, freedom, the sun, the joy of living". Leaving aside the sun, for those used to Paris' oyster sky and grisaille, most Russian visitors were similarly rapt. The exception was Lenin, who spent three joyless years (1909-12) trudging grumpily between studying in libraries and quarrelling with colleagues.
After the revolution, Rappaport tells a far more miserable tale, of families split, estates confiscated, businesses folding, jewels sold, fortunes lost and hearts broken. Nonetheless, even if you had been consigned to the dustbin of history, jobs remained available in the Renault factories, as taxi drivers, or - for a lucky artists like Chagall - in the realm of high culture.
Enlivening, enlightening detail is Rappaport's forte. Her Petrograd book is stuffed full of such anecdotes, but After the Romanovs is a worthy competitor. She is somewhat inclined to dramatise the "grinding" poverty of exiled Russians, compared, say, with the far more shocking privations against which the Russian people rebelled in 1917.
Nonetheless, Rappaport is privileged to draw on an abundance of source material from educated, articulate, rueful emigres. Those Russians claimed "loyalties to a whole range of political parties, social classes and religions". One aristocratic woman bought a sewing machine to forge designer clothes. A victorious general opened limo doors in front of a jewellery store. Another exile might have inspired the iconic shape of the Chanel No.5 bottle.
Herself a tad rueful, Rappaport observes that "so many square pegs were fitted into round holes". They were, however, in Paris rather than in prison or purgatory.
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