Bittersweet return for White Russians

In the blue light of early morning, a seven-deck cruise liner glided through the Sevastopol harbor. A few sleepy passengers stood side by side on one of her decks, enchanted with the peaceful view of the Black Sea port. A woman in a long thin scarf and her companion in a straw hat fixed their eyes on the approaching dock after a long sea voyage from Venice to the Crimea this summer.

Ninety years after their post-revolutionary exodus, Russian émigrés, nobility and aristocrats, finally returned home. The Trubetskoi, Suvorov, Kutuzov, Shakhoskoi, Golovin and other White Russian families reversed the sailing route of their parents’ and grandparents’ exile. This time, they sailed from Venice to Tunis, Greece, and Turkey, then all the way to the starting point, the Grafsky Dock in Sevastopol.

They traveled to visit memorable places - former refugee camps and cemeteries - and pray together with more than 200 Russian politicians, businessmen and historians, in memory of White Guards, or White Army, as they preferred to call themselves, who were massacred in the civil war. “I was only one year old, when my parents fled Sevastopol. For my entire life I have been waiting for the day to see Grafsky Dock once again. Unfortunately, that is all I am able to see today,” the oldest of the passengers, 90 year-old Rostislav Don, said to journalists. His smile was bittersweet as he spoke through the bars of a custom checkpoint on the dock. A French citizen, Mr. Don did not think of getting himself a Ukrainian visa to see the rest of Sevastopol and had to sail back home the same day.

On a recent July morning, 67 Russian immigrants arrived in Crimea 90 years after their parents and grandparents. On a grim morning of November 14, 1920, general Petr Vrangel, the last Russian commander in chief, came by a motorboat to inspect 125 ships loaded with families of his officers waiting to flee Russia in Sevastopol, Kerch, Feodosia, Yalta and Novorossiysk. British, French and Russian military boats used for Vrangel’s evacuation did not offer any sophisticated compartments or comfortable salons. To survive, the 150,000 refugees with at least 6,000 badly wounded officers and soldiers among them had to occupy every free spot in the holds and on the decks of the ships.

The following day General Vrangel led what was left of his once glorious army to Turkey, just on time – the Reds took over Sevastopol the following day. As People’s Commissar, Leon Trotsky refused to step on Crimean land unless “there is not a single White left.” So the Bolsheviks began mass executions. According to witnesses, tens of thousands of people were killed in the period from November 1920 to March 1921.

Never predictable, history turned on its heels again – it was the Red Moscow leadership who ordered to push the Whites out of Crimea in November of 1920; this year, it was their successors, the modern Moscow leaders, who invited - and paid for - the White Russians descendants to return. Why now? “To reconstruct the historical truth and heal wounds caused by the schism of our society in the beginning of the 20th century,” Vladimir Yakunin, an official supporting Russian World movement (one of its goals is the return of Russian émigrés) and close ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told journalists.

Another key organizer of the voyage, the vice president of the St. Andrew the First - Called Foundation explained that the aim of the trip was “to prevent the new revolution happening in Russia, the horror of a brother killing a brother, a son killing a father. By embracing the Whites, we strengthen the Kremlin’s spirit and morality. By building up bridges to the old Russia that we have lost, we hope to make the men in power today reconsider some of their policies,” Mikhail Yakushev said.

The “building up bridges” task turned out to be the most difficult goal for both, the children of the old and the new Russia. The contradictions emerged even before the trip began, when Moscow organizers suggested calling their program “Two fates but one people.” Noble immigrants protested, “we won’t reconcile with Lenin’s fosterlings!” So the event had to be renamed “A Sea Voyage.”

Not much seemed to click – the noble guests spoke French to each other during the meals on board. The rock songs of the 1990s beloved by their Russian hosts did not sound like anything familiar to young French-born princes and counts; they sang old Russian marches, in nostalgia of their great-grandfathers devotion to the czars and motherland.“On the boat, we constantly felt that we were treated, as 'them.' Our key views of history differed: we consider October Revolution the biggest crime against Russian people but its leader is still in the Mausoleum on Red Square,” Princess Tamara Schukhovskoy said, with strong emotion. “We wish we could see Dinikin streets and Kutepov squares instead of Lenin’s and Stalin’s statues in modern Russia."

Before the voyage, Mrs. Schukhovskoy, a writer, read in her grandfather’s diary about his escape from Sevastopol; about the violence they witnessed, of children dying in dreadful epidemics on the island of Lemnos, of courage and devotion the White officers showed along the way of the Russian elite’s exodus. “Our Whites fell as the first victims of the monster of the revolution; there were millions of lives taken away by Lenin and Stalin later, after they escaped,” she said.

At multiple round-table discussions during the cruise voyage and during smoking breaks on the decks, Moscow activists of Russian World, or Russkiy Mir, movement, the Kremlin supported group, tried their best to clarify to their foreign guests that not all Russians had the same understanding of Soviet history; that some participants of the cruise from Moscow had also lost their closest loved ones during Stalin's repressions in the 1930s.

But even toward the end of the ten-day long voyage, the noble descendants stayed critical of the current Russian politics. “What we find the hardest to understand is the recent revival of passion for Stalin in Russia,” Count Sergei Kapnist said on the bus tour that stopped at many Soviet memorials and statues in Sevastopol. “It concerns us significantly that in the 20 years since Perestroika, Russia has erected Stalin statues and talks in favor of his great achievements while political freedoms of civil society are more and more suppressed.”

The bus drove the noble tourists into Balaklava, a harbor town that for decades served as a secret Soviet military base. A small group including the descendant of famous Russian military commander prince Mikhail Kutuzov and a few other families mentioned in the most famous Russian classical novels, entered a chilly underground tunnel. It was a museum and former facility for nuclear-armed submarines. The aristocrat guests looked thoughtful as they listened to the guide tell them how Stalin ordered his engineers to design a base able to survive a direct atomic impact. “We could survive an explosion five times more powerful than of the American bomb in Hiroshima,” he said proudly.

Walking along the underground tunnel and pier, once packed with nine nuclear submarines, one of the returned noble immigrants, Marina Shidlovskaya, said: “Something like this garage leaves a stunning impression on us.” A former resident of New York and now Paris, Mrs. Shidlovskaya is interested in the Kremlin’s idea to return Russian immigrants home; she says that if not them, their children might be the hope for the reconciliation and reintegration that Russian World wants. Her son Dmitriy is one of a few young White descendants, who decided to come back to work in Moscow this year. Another grandchild, Prince Vladimir Trubetskoi, will come from France to begin his graduate studies at Moscow State Institute of International relations this September. His father, the head of White Guards community in Paris, Prince Alexander Trubetskoi, said that just like his father to him, he tried to pass the deep spiritual devotion to Russia and Russian culture to his sons. “Our fourth and fifth generations feel drawn to Moscow, they dream to come back,” Trubetskoi said. “We could help Russia with one of today’s bigger issues – the weakness of civil society. That is where we see our role.”

Photos by Anna Nemtsova

An endless time, 90 years, had to pass for its passengers, Russian émigrés, nobility and aristocrats - the Trubetskoi, Suvorov, Kutuzov, Shakhoskoi, Golovin and other White Russian families - to repeat the sailing rout of their families’ post-revolutionary great exodus. This time, they sailed backwards: from Venice to Tunis, Greece, Turkey and all the way to the starting point, the Grafsky Dock in Sevastopol.

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