Synopsis from Goodreads: Paris has always been a city of cultural excellence, fine wine and food, and the latest fashions. But it has also been a place of refuge for those fleeing persecution, never more so than before and after the Russian Revolution and the fall of the Romanov dynasty. For years, Russian aristocrats had enjoyed all that Belle Époque Paris had to offer, spending lavishly when they visited. It was a place of artistic experimentation, such as Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. But the brutality of the Bolshevik takeover forced Russians of all types to flee their homeland, sometimes leaving with only the clothes on their backs.
Arriving in Paris, former princes could be seen driving taxicabs, while their wives who could sew worked for the fashion houses, their unique Russian style serving as inspiration for designers like Coco Chanel. Talented intellectuals, artists, poets, philosophers, and writers struggled in exile, eking out a living at menial jobs. Some, like Bunin, Chagall and Stravinsky, encountered great success in the same Paris that welcomed Americans like Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Political activists sought to overthrow the Bolshevik regime from afar, while double agents from both sides plotted espionage and assassination. Others became trapped in a cycle of poverty and their all-consuming homesickness for Russia, the homeland they had been forced to abandon.
I was pleased to have an opportunity to review this book as an eARC from St. Martin’s Press as it fit in perfectly with my Nonfiction November plans, and afforded me a reason to read another history book this month. This book focuses on the Russian emigres who escaped to Paris for (mostly) political reasons after the assassination of Czar Nicholas and his family. These emigres were primarily members of the upper class, many of whom were related in some way to the Romanov family, which was an extensive one with many branches, and the members of the “artistic” class, including writers, painters, and other intellectuals who were attempting to escape the Bolshevik revolution and the class upheaval brought on by that takeover of the government. Obviously there were other Russians who wanted to leave the country during this period, but escaping to live in Paris took funds and connections, and I am sure there are untold stories of Russians who had neither and were unable to escape the new regime and/or whose stories have not been recorded.
Rappaport has done extensive research into the period and it shows in the many details she includes in this book. (Particularly impressive that she was able to write this in COVID 2020 lockdown, relying on her stored records, notes and the assistance of researchers in the UK and France who helped her online since she was not able to complete the travel she had planned before the pandemic.) It is striking how much Parisian life influenced the emigres and how much the Russian culture influenced Parsian thought, art, dance and fashion. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the Russe Ballet, or the Russian ballet, during its heydey, with mentions of Stravinsky and Nijinsky, and the influence both the composer and the dancer had on modern ballet as we know it today. Also of importance were the relationships that evolved between artists, particularly writers, in the cosmopolitan city that Paris was at the time, including the Fitzgeralds and Hemingway, as well as Russian and French writers who moved in their literary circles.
Of personal interest to me was the discussion on the influence of Russian culture on Coco Chanel and her fashion house. From the design of her famous Chanel No. 5 perfume bottle to her relationship with female members of the Russian nobility who worked in the fashion houses as models, or as pieceworkers providing embroidery for various Chanel design collections, the contribution of Russian culture and style to Chanel’s fashion sense was extensive. It is of note to me as well that it appears the Russian women were able to assimilate themselves into the Parisian culture, even if they longed for home, by accepting their reduced circumstances and being willing (and able) to pick up a trade like embroidery or piecework, to make ends meet. This was not often the case with the male members of the aristocracy, who attempted to live at their previously accepted standard of extravagant living without the money to do so, and often wound up adrift and penniless once their smuggled funds ran out.
I enjoyed this extensively researched, comprehensive book on this history of the intertwined fates of the Russian emigres and Paris and its culture in the early 20th century. Fans of Russian or French history in the years between the World Wars will enjoy this one, and particularly those interested in social history as it is influenced by the events of political upheaval and major societal changes in those years.