Soviet Era 1917-1991 Transnational History

Interwar émigrés

Although my academic work gives no hint of this, I’ve always been oddly fascinated by the interwar period. I know exactly where the fascination came from: mystery novels. No, even more specifically, British mystery novels, where the specter of war is rarely foregrounded but often there, from poor (well, not poor) shell-shocked Lord Peter Wimsey to clever and displaced Hercule Poirot. I even love more recent mystery novels that take interwar Britain as their setting—an awfully popular setting, really, perhaps because everyone is trying to recapture the allure of Sayers and Christie.

Because I’m me, there is one extra thing I always notice in these novels—the random Russian émigrés who show up around the edges of the stories, making their lives in the wider European world. In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have His Carcase the murder victim is a young Russian émigré working as a professional dancer at a resort hotel. In her Strong Poison Lord Peter visits the smoky rooms of hipster Bloomsbury, where Russians fry sausages and play atonal music.

Yesterday I got a book out from the library that made me think about those Russians wandering about interwar Europe. On the surface, there’s no reason for the book to lead me there—it’s a history of the colonization of Siberia, by V. I. Shunkov, from 1946. But the book had this stamp:


It says Библиотека русских шофферов, or the library of Russian chauffeurs, and gives an address in Paris. Well, of course I had to find out a little bit more about that. 

As it turns out, there were enough Russian taxi drivers in Paris between the wars that there were two competing associations representing them—the Association of Drivers and Automotive Workers and the General Union of Russian Drivers. There were about 30,000 taxis in Paris and its suburbs in the interwar period, and at one point a bit more than 3000 Russian taxi drivers. The Russian taxi-driver became a recognizable figure in interwar Paris; there are some great photos here, and if you’d like to read John, chauffeur russe, a 1931 novel by Max de Veuzit (who was really Alphonsine Zéphirine Vavasseur), in which handsome, broad-shouldered, blond Alexandre Isborsky is forced to take the name John by his disdainful but admiring mistress, you can download it here (warning, that link is a direct download) (also, that’s as much plot as I got from skimming the first few pages).

While I was poking around the library looking for a bit more information about this, I also came across Indicateur les russes en France (Paris, 1937), a guidebook for Russian émigrés in the country. It lists the General Union as one of the Russian societies in Paris (I’m also intrigued by the next society on the list—the Fraternity of Russian Balalaika-Players Abroad!!).


But it’s much more general than that. It begins with a discussion of the “status of Russian émigrés,” and particularly the Nansen passport many of them held as refugees from the Soviet Union. It also gave all sorts of information on how to obtain visas for other countries, how to obtain a proper Карт д’идантите or identity card to live in Paris, how to register marriages, births, and deaths, even on what documents a driver (aha!) needed to be legally on the road. At base, the text gives all sorts of proper guidance for how to be a law-abiding resident of France.

Then there’s also a lot of information on how to find other Russians. There are lists of political organizations, of social and work organizations (it turns out there were societies of former workers at the various Russian ministries, for example). There’s a lengthy list of all the Russian churches in France. Right after the list, there’s also a religious tract, titled “Your sin will find you” (!!!!!!!), apparently encouraging the émigrés to make their way to church more regularly. Its concluding paragraph begins with this:

“Don’t fool yourself! Your sin will find you.”

It also is filled with advertisements, and those are fascinating, too, because they give a much broader image of the world in which these émigrés moved, and of the things that they held dear.

Some of the ads make clear the ways that Russian émigrés were or were not settled in France. There are lots of ads for lawyers and others who could help with legal matters and documents.

Travel Visa

I’m interested in this one–for sailing tickets “to all countries” but with specialties that are presumably of particular interest to Russian émigrés: “The Far East–Shanghai and Harbin,” Central America, the US, and Australia. And I’m interested in the fact that the agency promises that it will do all the work necessary to obtain a visa to go to one of these countries.

A large number of the advertisements are for things to do with food and consumables. There are a few notices of restaurants.


This one, a wine-gastronomic store and restaurant offering Russian groceries and “Crimean and Russian food.” Including “on Sundays chebureki“!!!!!

More are for producers or sellers of particular goods.


This is one of the most complicated of the ads in the pamphlet–and it’s one that harks back to pre-revolutionary advertising trends (check out Sally West’s I Shop in Moscow: Advertising and the Creation of Consumer Culture in Late Tsarist Russia (DeKalb, 2011) for the history of using these kinds of formal seals and symbols). I will admit to being slightly amused that the one firm that draws on its ties to “The Imperial Court” is one selling sausages (and Russian buckwheat, I’m betting).


M. P. Karakash offers fermented and fresh cabbage, various pickles, and prepared horseradish–and notes that they use “always fresh brine.” And they take orders by telephone.


The Russian Dairy Farm run by the Ivanovs offered “always fresh tvorog, sour cream, butter and cream.”

Troika VodkaThere are several advertisements for vodka distilleries; this is the largest and most prominently placed of them–“Troika–ahead of all the others!” which offered “delivery to the provinces.”

And then there’s this glorious ad from a still-recognizable firm:


You can tell it’s going for a Russian audience because of the lemon and sugar cubes. Or should I say sugar logs?

Sources: Marina Gorboff, La Russie fantôme: L’êmigration russe de 1920 à 1950 (Paris: L’age d’homme, 1995), 45 and Charles Ledré, Les émigrés russes en France (Paris: Editions spes, 1930).

By Alison Smith

Professor, University of Toronto, Department of History;

Author of For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia (Oxford University Press, 2014)

12 replies on “Interwar émigrés”

Wonderful post, Alison. For those interested further in the Soiuz russkikh shoferov, Columbia’s Bakhmeteff Archive has an entire collection of the Paris organization, numbering 17 boxes and 6000 items. From the Summary:

Correspondence, photographs, minutes, financial records, subject files, printed material and membership files of Soi︠u︡z Russkikh Shofferov (the Union of Russian Chauffeurs) founded in Paris in 1926 and incorporated in 1945 into the French drivers union, Cochers et Chauffeurs de Voitures de Place as a Russian local. The organization functioned both as a fraternal society and a labor union; it operated a credit union, a summer resort, a dining hall and a library, and also interceded on behalf of its members (ca. 1,000 in 1945) before French governmental authorities. The bulk of the collection is comprised of membership records, minutes of meetings, financial records and subject files. There is also correspondence between members and the union office, and photographs taken at the summer resort in 1934 and 1936.

Great post, Allison.

I had the great pleasure to interview Prince Gregory Gagarin a few years ago. His family ended up in Paris, and he had some wonderful memories of his boyhood there before arriving in the US. If you want to take a look, I have videos of the oral history here.

Great post, Allison.

I had the great pleasure to interview Prince Gregory Gagarin a few years ago. His family ended up in Paris, and he had some wonderful memories of his boyhood there before arriving in the US. If you want to take a look, I have videos of the oral history here. The site is still unfinished, but still usable.

Eric Ambler, the brilliant interwar British thriller writer also includes Russian emigres in his detective novels, which have European settings – try the Mask of Dmitrios.

For those interested in the history of White Rusians in China, I have just published a memoir about the lives of my White Russian husband and his family while they lived in Harbin (Manchuria) during the 1940s and 1950s. It is titled “Mitya’s Harbin: Majesty and Menace” and it includes a 47-page chronology of events (expeditions, migrations, treaties, wars, etc.); a bibliography of 178 items; and extensive note citations. It is available on the Official Website and I would be happy to answer any questions about the book. Please just email me at: lezisser& Regards, Lenore Zissermann, BA, BS, MA, OTR/R

Thanks for that. Very interesting blog post!
I’ve been researching Russians in Paris in the interwar period myself and am trying to find Russian restaurants specifically in the 15th arrondissement of Paris that were operating towards the end of the 1920s and into the 30s. (I live in the 20th arrondissement myself). As you mention that are a few notes of restaurants I wondered if you’d come across anything.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.