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126 ships. Fates of white émigrés in Turkey

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126 ships. Fates of white émigrés in Turkey


Julia Goryacheva

Turkan Oldjay, a Chair professor of Russian language and literature at Istanbul University, believes that the most important task in studying Russian language at the present stage is mastering not only the language system, but also history, literature and culture of the Russian people. We talked with the scholar researching Russian-Turkish cultural relations about Russian émigrés in Turkey, translations of Russian literature into Turkish, and how much Russian language and Russian culture are in demand in Turkey today.

Mrs. Oldjay, you are a well-known philologist, researcher and author of more than 70 publications on Russian-Turkish cultural relations and Russian emigration in the 1920s. How did you, a Turkish woman, become interested in Russian language and Russian culture?

I was born in Bulgaria. At the age of seven, I joined a Russian vocal group at elementary school. I did not understand Russian words, but was thrilled by their melody. They seemed magical to me. A teacher of Russian language from our school was appointed as the group’s mentor. Probably, even then she noticed my fascination by Russian language and began to gift me with Russian books and souvenirs. Having started studying Russian with her, in the fifth grade I already knew that I would be a teacher of Russian language.

Arrival of Russian refugees to Istanbul, drawing. Photo credit:

That's why I entered the Russian gymnasium, where I was introduced to the fascinating world of Russian culture. I was very lucky. Idea Semizova from Chelyabinsk, a profound expert in Russian literature, was my teacher and class master. Thanks to her, I got acquainted with nearly all samples of Russian classical and Soviet literature. Then, of course, I studied at the Department of Russian Philology of the Paisius of Hilendar University in Plovdiv. When I started my carrier at the Department of Russian Language and Literature of Istanbul University in 1994, Russian literature, as well as Turkish-Russian cultural relations, became the main subjects of my scientific interests.

You have been studying the history of Russian emigration for many years, including the impact of Russian White emigration on cultural life of Istanbul. What made you study the Russian footprint in Istanbul?

My interest was sparked by release of White Russians in Beyoğlu by Jak Deleon in 1996. His uncle, the famous Istanbul lawyer Albert Deleon, married Natalia Khomyakova, the manager of the Black Rose cabaret, in the 1920s. The author learned a lot about White Russians from her, as well as her émigré entourage. Based on diaries and memoirs of Natalia Deleon, as well as other white émigrés settled in Istanbul, he wrote the Turkeys first ever book about Russian White émigré community.

It became interesting for me to walk along this undeservedly forgotten Russian trail in Istanbul, where a lot of things remained terra incognita within the framework of scientific research. In addition, it was the 1990s when interest in Russian language and everything Russian was flared up in Turkey. There were also, of course, my own peculiar reasons.

Have you managed to make any important discoveries?

Work in Turkish and foreign archives, as well as in the library of the St. Panteleimon Russian Orthodox Church, provided me with many cultural artifacts. They became the basis of my reports for international conferences and publications.

It is impossible to describe excitement you feel touching diary records and correspondence, detailed reports of charitable and educational institutions in Istanbul, as well as documents of that period that have not yet been studied by anyone. It is equal to discovery. But sometimes there come personal discoveries as well during the process of archival researches.

Thus, for example, a few years ago I came across a detailed report by the director of the First Constantinople Russian Gymnasium opened in Istanbul in 1921. Having further traced its history, I learned that I had been a pupil of a Russian gymnasium in Bulgaria established by its example. However, the biggest discovery for me were diaries, notebooks and letters of Iraida Barry, a daughter of the pioneer of Russian naval aviation Vyacheslav Kedrin, who became a famous sculptor in Turkey. I found them in the Bakhmeteff Archive, Columbia University, in March 2016. I was also lucky to find a handwritten manuscript of Anna Perova, the wife of Nikolai Perov, a famous Russian White emigrant artist and an active figure in the Russian society in Istanbul.

In October 2019, Russian White Emigration in Turkey. A century later. 19192019 was published with your active participation and support of the A. Solzhenitsyn House of Russian Émigré Community. The collection is unique. It is the result of work accomplished by an international group of historians and philologists, researchers of Russian White emigration and teachers of Turkish universities, as well as Russian nationals and scientists from Serbia and Russia settled in Turkey. Tell us about this work.

Tragedy of the Civil War and defeat of the White Army in 1919-1920 urged about 150 thousand of so-called White Russians to cross the Bosphorus. Those included more than one hundred thousand of military men, six thousands of sick and wounded men, twenty-seven thousands of women and children.

Turkan Oldjay presents Russian White Emigration in Turkey. A century later. 19192019 in the House of Russian Émigré Community

Istanbul (Constantinople back then) did experience a period of occupation by the Entente, and then the National Liberation War, and at that time it was the only possible port, I would go that far as to say - to save Russian refugees who arrived here on 126 ships. This city gained the status of the first vital destination from where Russian emigrants scattered to all corners of the world. And therefore it has rightfully become a place to compile materials for the collection.

I got an idea to compile the collection in 2016. There were four topical sections planned, namely: “Istanbul during its occupation by the Entente troops (19181923) and White Russian emigres”; Sociocultural life of White Russian emigres in Istanbul; Fates of descendants of White Russian emigres settled in Turkey and Assimilation of the White Émigré community in literary read.

It took 18 months to complete the work. 11 chapters were written in Russian; 5 chapters were written in Turkish and then translated into Russian by me.

Istanbul (Constantinople back then) is an absolutely special, significant place of memory in history of Russian émigré community of the first wave. And although it is a prototype of Russian Berlin, Prague and Paris, as far as we know, there has not been any single collection of scientific works published that would recreate an inlaid picture of a century long life and work of White Russians in Turkey within broad historiographical context. Therefore, Russian White Emigration in Turkey. A century later. 19192019 can be considered as the first attempt of its kind.

The central chapter of the collection, Traits of émigré cultural life in Istanbul (19191929) was written by you. Who did you write about?

There were many representatives of artistic intelligentsia among the refugees: musicians, artists of opera, ballet dancers, film and stage actors, as well as painters and writers. I managed to identify 198 names and their occupations. Most of them were musicians, composers and conductors. It is also known that the Butnikov Orchestra consisted of 50 people, but, unfortunately, it is impossible to identify them by names. Russian musicians, as well as the whole orchestras, performed in almost all major hotels, restaurants, cabarets and cinemas in Istanbul, but their names remained unknown.

The second most numerous part of the artistic intelligentsia was made by writers. We know names of 49 of them (there were 26 poets and 23 prose writers). They were followed by ballet dancers - 33 names. Although it is indicated that there were 60 members of the Artists Association, I was able to find only 29 names. Number of names of film and stage actors is about the same. There were 25 names of opera artists and12 names of operetta ones.

The Régence Restaurant is the iconic place of Russian Istanbul. Photo credit:

Arkady Averchenko (18811925), a satirist, was probably the most famous of the writers who took refuge in Istanbul. But there were many other representatives of the artistic intelligentsia among the emigrants. How would you rate their role in Istanbul cultural life at that time?

Yes, Averchenko was certainly the most active writer among those taken refuge in Istanbul. Having arrived to the city on November 15, 1920, the satirist lived here for a year and a half. He published his Notes of the Innocent and The Evil Spirit: A Book of New Stories in 1921; A Boiling Cauldron and Children, a collection of short stories supplemented with A Guide to Birth of Children, in 1922. Averchenko also wrote feuilletons about contemporary life. During thirteen and a half months, the satirist published 46 feuilletons and 17 comments under the general heading Wolf Berries in the Evening Press.

Istanbul was the place where first steps in literature were taken by Russian White émigrés. Despite the temporary nature of their stay here and difficulties in financial and moral terms, Russian refugees conducted literary concerted activity in Istanbul. It was the most effective mean to unite and maintain the spirit of a person in exile. Literature became the main source of preservation of national identity and language as the basis of Russian culture. The first literary associations of emigrants were established here: the Constantinople Poet Guild, the Union of Russian Writers and Journalists, Anton Chekhov Literary and Artistic society.

The Constantinople Poet Guild organized literary discussions and evening meetings, where poets recited their poetry; they were also provided support in publishing their works. The first such publication was The Solar Outcome, a collection of poems by Andrei Allin (his true surname was Blum) in 78 pages published in 1920. The Poems by Olga Yaroslavna, as well as such collections of poems as Sun the Tsar by Igor Yastrebtsov, Cloudy Birds: Poems of 19181920 by Grigory Finn and Scrambled Eggs with Onions: Poems, Cartoons, Chants and Repetitions by Stanislav Sarmatov (S.F. Openkhovsky) were published within the first months of emigration.

In 1921 the Union of Russian Writers and Journalists published Leaves, a collection of essays on emigration. It also published Alien horizon: poems of 19071922 (1922), a collection of poems, Revolutionary Vampuka or Spiders and Flies (1923), a satirical play in verse by Anatoly Burnakin, and Lunar Wedding: Poems of 19081922 (1923) by Ivan Korvatsky with a foreword by Burnakin.

Boris Lazarevskiĭ, the son of the famous Ukrainian historian Alexander Lazarevskii, was a very famous writer in Istanbul. His success can be evidenced by the fact that the collection My Heart. The soul of a woman(1920) was published three times. Ivan Korvatsky was another popular writer. He is the author of two collections of poems (Lunar Wedding and Golden Horn, 1927) and the storybook Without Sails. By the way, Korvatsky did not leave Istanbul like most writers back then, but settled and lived there.

You are known for your work related to assimilation of translations of Russian literature in Turkey. You explored and popularized the legacy of Olga Lebedeva, the first Russian female scholar in Asian studies, who was among the first to translate the works of Pushkin, Lermontov, Leo Tolstoy into Turkish as early as at the end of the 19th century... And how much translated Russian literature is in demand in Turkey today?

Despite the fact that the first translations of works of Russian, as well as other foreign literatures in Turkey date back to the last quarter of the 19th century, systematic and planned translation activities commenced only in the 1940s, when they were carried out under the auspices of the Ministry of Public Education. Speaking of the number of translations into Turkish, Russian literature ranked fifth after French, German, Greek and English.

The growth of revolutionary sentiments among young people and democratic intelligentsia from the second half of the 1960s was accompanied by a growing interest in the Soviet Union, in the history and culture of its nations. In the 1970s there was a total infatuation for Russian and Soviet literature in the full sense of the word. Almost all major works of Russian prose of the 19th century were reprinted in old and new translations or first published. Speaking of writers of the 20th century, books by Maxim Gorky, Mikhail Sholokhov, Leonid Leonov, Alexei Tolstoy, Nikolai Ostrovsky, Dmitry Furmanov, Alexander Serafimovich, Isaac Babel, Mikhail Bulgakov, Boris Polevoy, Ilya Erenburg, and Konstantin Simonov were translated. Works of such Soviet authors as Chingiz Aitmatov, Evgeny Evtushenko, Rasul Gamzatov, Nodar Dumbadze, as well as other outstanding Soviet writers were translated almost immediately after their release in the USSR. Along with prose, translations of poems by Sergei Yesenin, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Evgeny Yevtushenko, Andrei Voznesensky, Rasul Gamzatov were also published...

Establishment of departments of Russian language and literature at several Turkish universities in the early 1990s, one after the other, helped to maintain interest in Russian literature. The reading public continues to keep a close eye on releases of translations of Russian literary reads in Turkish.

The House of Russian Émigré Community is hosting the exhibition Iraida Barry (1899-1980) the Russian sculptor of Istanbul. It is dedicated to life and work of the daughter of Vyacheslav Kedrin, the pioneer of Russian naval aviation. And your role in arrangement of the exhibition was a significant one. Tell us please about it.

The exhibition is one of the events organized by the House of Russian Émigré Community, which are dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Russian White emigres being present in Turkey. It will be open until January 12, 2020.

Iraida Barry, a sculptor. Photo credit:

The exposition is based on artifacts from the collection of Cengiz and Bakhar Kahraman, as well as my personal materials from the Iraida Barry Foundation in the Bakhmeteff Archive (USA).

Biography of Iraida Barry nee Kedrina, a Russian émigré in Turkey, which she shared in her diaries and letters, is unique. It is closely connected with many fates of the Kedrins - Muravyovs family, which included a lot of renowned Russian statesmen. As to Iraida Barry, she was one of the first three female sculptors of the young Turkish Republic, who became famous both in the country and abroad.

Your contribution to Russian-Turkish cultural ties is distinguished with the Badge of Honor of the Consulate General in Istanbul and the Turkish-Russian Cultural Fund "in recognition of the contribution to strengthening of Turkish-Russian cultural ties and advancement of Russian language and literature in Turkey". How big is the interest in Russian language and modern Russia in contemporary Turkey?

Since the 1990s, interest in Russian language and Russia has greatly increased in Turkey. This is largely due to development of relations between Turkey and Russia, as well as the CIS countries - in political, economic, commercial, cultural, educational areas and tourism. When you speak Russian language, know culture of the Russian people, you can understand its nature, maintain cultural and educational ties. All of those things imply the presence of Russian speaking people in the Turkish society.

As the result of such requirement, departments of Russian language and literature were established in eleven Turkish universities, and Russian was introduced as a selective language in most universities; Russian is taught as a second foreign language in secondary training schools for tourism and in various language courses. The most important task in studying Russian language at the present stage is mastering not only the language system, but also history, literature and culture of the Russian people.

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