By Jonathon Van Maren
Author’s Note: I’ve been traveling with the Danish journalist Iben Thranholm and several others here in Russia and have been working on several stories, columns, and interviews that will be published later this month. This is simply a travelogue of some of my observations so far. My first one can be read here.
We arrived at the Solzhenitsyn House for the Russian Diaspora in Moscow at 11 AM and Vera, who was to be our tour guide, was waiting with an enormous smile. The exhibition we were about to see, she informed us, was a vey important one, detailing the lives of some of men and women who fled Russia in the wake of the Revolution and never managed to return. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature for The Gulag Archipelago, had founded the House with two others to recover the Russian culture preserved by those who had often escaped only with their lives and their memories.
Vera thought this tour was particularly special because our little group consisted of three Danes—our translator and her fellow curator, a journalist, and a filmmaker—and two Canadians. The mother of the murdered Tsar Nicholas II, Maria Feodorovna, was a Danish princess before she became Empress of Russia upon her marriage to Tsar Alexander III, and died in exile in Denmark after fleeing the Revolution. Her youngest daughter, the Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, died at age 79 in 1960 in a little apartment above a barber shop on Gerrard Street East, Toronto, Canada. She briefly made the news again in 2014, when the now-gutted apartment went up for sale.
Vera, who has worked here for eleven years, is passionate about her work at the House—she talked so fast it was difficult for our translator to keep up with her. When Solzhenitsyn and his wife were forced into exile, she explained, he began to connect with other exiles to publish their literature and record their memories. He was driven by the desire to preserve Russian history and culture, which was being systematically erased and demolished within the Soviet Union by the Communist vandals. Many of the exiles took extensive archives with them when they fled, and used them to educate their own children. Solzhenitsyn wanted to preserve this history for future generations of Russians. Nearly all of the exiles, Vera told us, fully expected to return to Russia one day. Nearly all of them never saw their homeland again. Some—like Olga—had a handful of Russian soil sprinkled on their coffins when they were buried in foreign lands, far from home.
The work of gathering these histories from the Russian exiles scattered around the globe was immense—there are, for example, many old Russian archives that ended up in Tunisia. When Solzhenitsyn began his work in the 1970s and ‘80s, he wanted to record everything: How they fled, how they survived, and how they lived now. Many were fearful and hesitant to share their stories, worried that the Communists would wreak revenge on them for speaking out. Even when letters and diaries began to get published decades later, the last remaining survivors still feared assassination. Among the exiles, Vera said resolutely, were the very best of the old Russian Empire: Nobles, academics, writers, dissidents, and priests. By her estimate, the Russian Diaspora consisted of nearly two million people.
Those who fled Russia often had extraordinary escapes. Olga and her second husband Nikolai (one of the Tsar’s last formal acts was to annul her previous unconsummated marriage to a duke who was purportedly gay) managed to board a train but were captured by the revolutionaries between Yalta and Sevastopol. “We were actually saved by a technicality,” Olga said later. “Communist headquarters in Sevastopol and Communist headquarters in Yalta could not decide whose responsibility it was to chop off our heads.” Olga would give birth to their first son, Tikhon, under house arrest (he would later work for the Ontario Highways Department in Mississauga), and was pregnant again when she fled with her husband under cover of darkness. They eventually managed to board a refugee ship and make it to Denmark, before fleeing again years later when Stalin began to accuse them of collusion with the Germans, eventually settling on a farm in Cooksville, Ontario.
Olga’s mother Maria fled Russia with her two Cossack bodyguards, who were sworn to protect her until death—both of them left families behind in Russia whom they never saw again. She went first to England—her sister, Alexandra, was the Queen of Great Britain. She then returned to her family in Denmark. Her loyal Cossacks took turns sleeping outside her door each night until she died in 1928. Both of these men were celebrated in the exhibition, and their descendants—the grand-nephew of one, two daughters of another—had already visited the House. The family resemblance, Vera said excitedly, made the grand-nephew “look like a twin” in front of his uncle’s portrait.
Our translator was effusive about the Cossack devotion to protecting the Byzantine Christian tradition. “If you say 1204 here, everyone knows what you are talking about,” she said. It is another sign that history is present here like it is in almost no other nation I have visited. I hardly think that the events of 1204 would be immediately recalled by most Westerners, but to the Cossacks, the Sack of Constantinople—when rogue Crusader armies demolished the city, destroyed the churches, and weakened the Byzantine Empire so recklessly that most historians pinpoint those events as the beginning of the inevitable collapse of the Byzantines and triumph of the Ottoman Sultanate—is still a defining event. “The Cossacks are the surviving knights of the East, even still,” Vera told us. “They are still a warrior people.” Our translator interrupted: “They have an old saying that goes, roughly translated: My God above me, my horse below me.”
I was interested to know why the Romanovs are so present in Russia, a full century after Tsar Nicholas and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks. Icons of the family are on display in cathedrals in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and I presume other places. Putin wanted Maria Feodorovna buried in Russia, and her body was taken from Denmark by an honor guard and reinterred next to her husband in the Romanov vault (where every tsar and tsarina since Peter the Great are buried) after a grand funeral presided over by the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II in 2006. It was a profoundly emotional event for many Russians.
“The monarchy has always been central to the Russian identity,” our translator explained. “It is now a collective national trauma for Russians that they killed the Tsar’s family.” With the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Russians are looking back to the Romanovs with both profound pain and nostalgia. Some, Iben Thranholm told me, have even suggested that the monarchy be reinstated—there are a handful of surviving members of the Romanov family, some of whom attended the funeral of Maria Feodorovna. With Communism gone, Russia is looking back—far back—to recover a national identity that was often preserved only by those who were forced to flee. And with the attempt to restore what was lost comes a collective national repentance for a century-old regicide.
That, fundamentally, is the work of Solzhenitsyn House for the Russian Diaspora—to recover and restore the Russian culture that was lost for so many years. Some Siberian folk songs, for example, are now only performed by a Danish orchestra, founded by a Russian exile who spent his life trying to preserve what was being obliterated in his homeland. The Solzhenitsyn House has begun to collect this music. It is important to understand that what many see as a “new” Russia is not in fact new at all—it is instead an attempt by many Russians to move past the barbarism of Communism by reaching back and recovering what the Communists tried—in many cases successfully—to destroy.
There is much work to be done, Vera told us with a smile. But it is an exhilarating work nonetheless.