Book Review: "Russia Abroad: Prague and the Russian Diaspora 1918-1938" by Catherine Andreyev and Ivan Savicky

Updated on January 26, 2018


Soviet victory in the Russian civil war was not amenable to all Russians, and nor were all Russians amenable to the Soviets. From the chaotic borders and conditions of the former Russian Empire a host of nations in its western reaches fled the USSR, but there were also a million and a half Russians who chose, or were forced to become, émigrés, leaving to around the world. One of their principal destinations would be Czechoslovakia, and in particular Prague, where a thriving Russian academic community was established along with extensive numbers of Russian farmers and workers who lived in the Czech lands. They were assisted there by the Czech government, and despite many travails, existed up to the Second World War when Czechoslovakia was occupied by the USSR : they still existed afterwards, although their ranks and organization had changed beyond all recognition. This book Russia Abroad: Prague and the Russian Diaspora 1918-1938, by Catherine Andreyev and Ivan Savicky, examines the course of life of Russian refugees in Czechoslovakia, their effects, the political goals of the Czechoslovak government in hosting them, and to place them into the broader context of refugee histories the world over.

Initially, in the book's preface, the nature of the Russian community in Czechoslovakia and its political and cultural life is demonstrated, as well as to some extent their situation being placed into the context of refugees in general and their situation in Eastern Europe in particular. It also deals with how refugees were seen in the Soviet Union and then Russia, and a small amount of how these refugees themselves saw Russia from the outside. The first chapter deals with Russian-Czechoslovak relations during and before the Great War as well as Czechoslovak relations with the Allies more generally, particular emphasis being placed on the Czechoslovak legion and the relationship with Russia. The second chapter deals with Russian émigré politics in Czechoslovachia, such as their political divergences and objectives, groups (farmers - Cossacks in particular - and students being the principal ones), and the goals that the Czech state had for them. The next chapter, The Russian Academic World in Prague, examines the travails of Russian teachers in Prague, but even more importantly the host of various institutions founded, ranging from the law faculty, to a People's University (not a real university but an educational establishment focusing on adult education), to primary schools and the Russian School of Automobiles and Tractors. It also launches an attempt at a general overview of what the Russians had accomplished during their stay in Prague, something which it concludes was substantial, but hard to quantify. Chapter four deals with the difficulty of maintaining Russian identity in Prague, and how it was accomplished, through the Russian Orthodox Church, press, and common academic life. It also however deals with what the attitudes and beliefs of the émigrés were, both in their political societies and institutions, and also in the more abstract intellectual beliefs, with a lengthy section about Eurasianism - the belief that Russia is a nation and a people who are neither European nor Asian, but instead has a unique place and position in the world, connected deeply with discourses on rationalism, spiritualism, nationalism and culture. There were also the Young Russians, a political movement with some Eurasian links, and attempts at celebrating Russian culture, such as the Day of Russian Culture. A final chapter discusses the various destinations for the Russian emigres, including the Baltic states, Germany, France, Britain (on an exceedingly minor scale), Yugoslavia, Harbin, and of course, Czechoslovakia, and the unique position of Czechoslovakia. At last, a conclusion discussing what happened to the Russian emigres after the fall of Czechoslovakia in 1938.


Political opinions among the white émigrés were not by any means uniform, but there was certainly a powerful far right element.
Political opinions among the white émigrés were not by any means uniform, but there was certainly a powerful far right element.

This tome is lengthy, detailed, and contains plenty of detail, as well as an important argument about the structure of Czechoslovak policies to refugees : that they were focused ultimately upon how to use refugees from Russia as a tool to help influence the Soviet Union in a direction that Czechoslovakia was favorable towards. Instead of being a humanitarian project focused on refugees themselves, refugees were a political tool which were used in trying to create a long-term political vision of the USSR. This reflects no shame upon Czechoslovakia, which provided much support, aid, and tolerance to the Russian emigres, something which is often not the case in dealing with the problems of displaced people, where the outcome can be unfortunate for both sides involved. It was also a fascinating difference compared ot other states : in France and Germany government support for refugees was minimal, while in Yugoslavia for instance, the government supported conservative, right-wing, monarchical refugees. Czechoslovakia has a great deal of uniqueness in being an effort to forge a liberal/leftist front of refugees to work in the long term towards the transformation of the USSR. The book consistently ties this theme together, making a convincing case for the origins of the Czechoslovak government's relationship to emigres, backed up by a vast number of different institutions, organizations, and social groupings (such as farmers or students), which are discussed in great detail.

While the book deals well with the issue of Czechoslovok relations to Russia, there is less about how Czechoslovakia was viewed in Russia before the Great War. And why did refugees end up in Czechoslovakia at all, as compared to Romania or Poland to the South and the North of Czechoslovakia? What was the attitude of the majority of Czechoslovak people to the refugees, and the representations that they drew of them (Russian refugees constructed the representation of themselves as trodding the same paths as French emigres after 1789, unjustly exiled from their own country but who would nobly return in due time, victorious and triumphant over their evil foes)? Here, the book does take note that they principally came from Ukraine and other areas in the south-western areas of the pre-war Russian Empire, as well as that they tended to be of modest origins, but more precise information would have helped to have a better image of the emigre community as compared to other nations. The same applies to students in Czechoslovakia - what were they studying, what levels were they at, what sort of life did they live? The book mentions 1,474 students in early 1922, in Prague, and that many came from the white armies, but additional informative, quantitative or qualitative, is missing. Raw numbers alone, don't give that much information - what about age, nationality, maternal language, social background, etc? These would naturally be difficult to acquire in the hectic period, but it seems like there could have been something more done in such regards. Given that the book stresses that an important part of the policy of the Czechoslovak government was to host such students in the hopes of promoting the creation of a democratic and progressive bloc of students who would be useful in promoting the movement of Russia in that direction, the lack of information about what subjects they were in, if they were in higher education, circumvents such hopes. Furthermore, information about popular attitudes towards them is not in abundance, with only the occasional talk about hostility between the general public and the emigres, despite the book's emphasis on high level contacts, being provided such as Czech hostility to Russian student habits and number on page 105.

Russian white émigrés in Yugoslavia. Their existence there was a fundamentally different one than in democratic Yugoslavia, focused extensively upon military activities and substantially more religious.
Russian white émigrés in Yugoslavia. Their existence there was a fundamentally different one than in democratic Yugoslavia, focused extensively upon military activities and substantially more religious.

Similarly, for the educational and social aspects, notes on the usage of Russian and Czech (or if there were any refugees in Slovakia, Slovak), are all but non-existent. There is some information about university lecturers and their attempts to learn Czech to speak to their audiences, due to limited comprehension in Czechoslovakia of the two main languages of the Russian intellectual elite, Russian and French. But what about the education that was given to Russian students? Was it still with Russian teachers, or were there now Czech teachers, teaching in Czech? Furthermore, what about the students who weren't russophones, but rather Ukrainians or other nationalities in the former Russian Empire - it was noted that this group made up a disproportionately large group due to the geographic nature of exile during the days of 1919 and 1920, but there is no mention about what their linguistic situation was. Some institutional level information is provided for primary school students at a school opened by the Zemgor (the main Socialist Revolutionary political faction action body, with significant social functions), where most education passed in Russian, although with Czech as a compulsory subject. It isn't made clear for many other institutions and lives.

What sort of target is the book intended for then? It has less relevance in my opinion to those who are interested in lives of Russian emigres, and to some extent their cultural accomplishments (although it does have a good section on this), and most well suited to political historians, thanks to its political and institutional histories. It has less interest for cultural historians (although it is not completely amiss in such regards), or for those seeking a general introduction to the subject. While in my opinion rather narrow in its aim, it makes up for it with the amount of detail and attention that it does generally lavish upon its range of interests, even if sometimes these are lacking material that would have perfected the picture. Thus, although not a superb book, it is still a good one, especially for those who are interested in its key range of focuses.

4 stars for Russia Abroad

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    © 2018 Ryan Thomas

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