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The Mosaic of the Russian Abroad

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The Mosaic of the Russian Abroad

22.01.2016

The 8th International Scientific and Educational Conference “People and Fates of the Russian Abroad” has taken place in Moscow. In accordance with tradition, the forum was organized by the RAS Institute of World History in conjunction with the Saint Tikhon Orthodox University.

On 21-22 January 2016, the Saint Tikhon Orthodox University and the Solzhenitsyn Home of the Russian Abroad co-hosted lectures on the lives of first-wave immigrants and their children. The conferences on Russian immigrants have been held for many years, but today's conferences are especially relevant, polemic even.


This year, many descendants of first-wave immigrants came to Russia from all over the world. The audience has changed: now not only experts, but also members of the general public wish to hear gripping life stories of the former Russian elite, most of whom had been forced to leave the country. It should be noted that the speakers managed to present the era of the late 19th century—early 20th century in all its complexity and contradictions by portraying specific peopletheir friends and family. By trial and erroror even real featsrefugees adapted to new circumstances, and some of them found success abroad. Many of their grandchildren still cherish the memory of their ancestors, carefully collecting and preserving all letters and documents and restoring photographs. Not all of them do that: many more have long forgotten their Russian origins.

The report by Marina Litavrina, Doctor of Arts and professor with the Moscow State University, was especially informative. She told the story of her distant relative, costume designer Elena Vermisheva who worked with many celebrities, including George Balanchine, in Paris and New York, on Broadway and at the Metropolitan Opera.

Art designer Viktor Golubinov spoke about his ancestors who wrote a popular series of novels about beautiful 17th-century adventuress Anqelique under the pen names of Anne and Serge Golon.

Brussels businessman Sergei Samygin showed touching family photos during his report about his father, a talented chemist who fled from Stalin’s regime and conducted research in Paris and Jakarta. The scientists life is akin to an adventure novel. Unfortunately, the outcomes of his research are still confidential. Sergei Samygins mothera charming elderly woman who looked like a 1950s Parisiennewas also in attendance.

Inna Shcheblygina, History Department professor with the Moscow State University, gave a report entitled Fathers and Sons. First-Wave Immigration: The Knorrings. She quoted the diary of Nikolai Knorring, a pedagogics historian and actual privy counselor. In his diary, Nikolai Knorring raises an issue that remains important and sensitive for most immigrants: Although I wasnt an exception among my generation, the question remains: Should I have gone far away and been a wanderer for thirty years or should I have stayed in my homeland?

Incidentally, Nikolai Knorring was Isaak Dunayevskys teacherthe great student wrote the ‘School Waltz for him. Inna Shcheblygina recited a poem by Knorrings daughter Irina who lamented leaving Russia. The family left Kharkov in 1919 because of the Red Armys offensive. They took nothing but the essentials, hoping to come back as soon as possible. After the Soviet authorities finally took hold of the country, they realized they could not go back…

We met with Elena Mironova, the conferences manager and candidate of historical sciences, to discuss the event.

Russkiy Mir: How did the idea for this conference come about?

Elena Mironova: We hosted a roundtable in 2009; it was a more specialized event. We gathered a small circle of researchers, published some copies of the resulting article collection and distributed them among the participants. Our circle was regrettably small. But the number of speakers gradually increased, and we updated the format of the conference, stretching it to two days instead of one.

What is the update about?

We decided to host educational readings: I was excited about that idea as early as two years ago, and Im happy to see it finally come to life.

We had an idea to expand the reports and adapt them to the general public, providing them with illustrations. That allowed us to get new and unexpected speakers. For instance, Father Nikolai Rebinger gave an amazing report on Alla Mateo who was head of the Committee for Helping Russian Immigrants in the 1930s and later helped the needy in Paris with Sister Maria (Skobtsova).

We heard another wonderful report from Lev Mnukhin, senior research scientist with the Marina Tsvetaeva House Museum. We learned the fascinating life story of Klavdia Bezhanitskaya, a Russian doctor from Estonia who always helped people regardless of the political situation. She was imprisoned more than once, and she always helped people as soon as she got released. She essentially led the fight against tuberculosis in Tartu. After the Soviet Army invaded Estonia she organized Christmas events for orphans. We also really enjoyed the report by Zoe Barbarunova from Prague who spoke about Cossacks living abroad.

What topic interests you the most as a researcher?

I prepared a report as well. Its about a diplomat who sacrificed his life for the people. In early 1920s Yevgeni Vasilyevich Sablin worked in England as a chargé d'affaires. He was a successor to Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, the famous writers father. He defended the Russian community until the end of his life, doing everything he could for other people. We often hear about duty, allegiance to your country, your homeland, responsibility to your compatriots. Those words seem outdated, somehow lofty now. However, we heard them at todays conference many times. They sound phony in daily life But when we speak about heroes, those old Russian immigrants, no words seem more appropriate! Its very important that all of them dreamed of going back home. And its our duty to get themor at least their namesback here. All in all, it could be useful to our compatriots to remember what the words duty, honor and responsibility meant then. Those people didnt just use those words; they lived by them.

How big is the difference between the reports made by people from abroad and Russian speakers?

Those who come from abroad are usually non-professionals who speak about their ancestors. We, in our turn, give scientists a platform. Such is our fascinating mosaic.

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