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Fleeing Revolution

How White Russians, Academics, and Others Found an Unlikely Path to Freedom

By Maggie Riechers | HUMANITIES, May/June 2001 | Volume 22, Number 3

In the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its civil war, thousands fled, many making their way to China. There they found refuge for a while, only to be forced into a second mass exodus by the Chinese Communists. The stories they tell are documented in a collection of papers held by the Museum of Russian Culture of San Francisco. The papers are included in forty-thousand documents being microfilmed and put online with help from the Hoover Institution for War, Revolution and Peace and support from NEH.

Among those who took flight: a world-renowned chemist, who left his children behind to escape the anti-intellectualism of the Soviets; the daughter of a military official who traded her mother's astrakhan coat for a ticket to the West; and a colonel whose history of the regiments he fought with in the civil war sheds new light on who actually comprised the White Russians.

To preserve the history of these people, the museum, founded in 1948, has collected and saved their writings. The papers have been languishing in the museum, unavailable to scholars because of their fragility and the museum's limited resources to preserve them. Eventually, the website will enable scholars from all over the world to access these documents.

Most of these émigrés were White Russians who fled to Manchuria after the revolution and the civil war that followed. Although many of the émigrés eventually came to the United States, with a large number settling in the San Francisco area, they scattered throughout the world. They were scientists, artists, economists, and academics, and a large number were prolific writers who wrote letters, kept diaries, and produced memoirs.

"This is an extraordinary human document," says Elena Danielson, archivist of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, which is working with the museum to preserve their combined collections. "We now realize that one of the stories of the twentieth century is that politics forced the mass immigration of political enemies, and this is the first wave."

One of the most prominent of the Russian émigrés was Vladimir Nikolaevich Ipatieff, a leading figure in chemistry. Ipatieff did not come to the United States via China; he had made contacts with U.S. chemical manufacturers in the course of his work and, with his wife, simply did not return to Russia after attending a conference abroad. When Ipatieff left Russia in 1930, he abandoned his four children, whom he never saw again.

Ipatieff received a military education and majored in chemistry. By the time of the revolution, he was chief of the Chemical Explosives Section of the Russian Army. He was not sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, however, and felt constrained by the prevailing anti-intellectual atmosphere.

"He became increasingly disgusted with the system," says Anatol Shmelev, a Russian scholar and archivist on the émigré project at the Hoover Institution. "He felt he could no longer accomplish his scientific work." Ipatieff never publicly denounced the Soviets during all his years in the United States for fear of retribution against his children. After an initial silence due to Ipatieff's prominence, the Soviets denounced him in 1937 and no longer used his name in the scientific arena.

As a professor and researcher at Northwestern University, Ipatieff calculated the formulation of high-octane gasoline, which greatly aided the Allies during World War II. Ipatieff received some one hundred seventy patents, was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1939, and lived in Chicago until his death. Northwestern University named a chairmanship in its department of chemistry in his honor. The collection contains biographical materials, notes and correspondence relating to his career and accomplishments, and a Russian transcript of his memoirs, which the Hoover Institution published in English under the title The Life of a Chemist.

Another émigré, who settled in San Francisco and wrote an English language history of her family, was Antonia Von Arnold, known as Dora. A Russian citizen, Von Arnold grew up in Harbin, a stop on the Chinese Eastern Railway. Harbin was controlled by Russia, giving it a shortcut to the warm-water port of Vladivostok. Von Arnold's father was the city's Russian police chief, and her mother was a dentist and founder of the city's College of Dentistry. Following the revolution of 1917, her parents lost their positions. In 1923, at the age of twenty-eight, Von Arnold emigrated to San Francisco.

Well-educated but without job skills, she faced the difficulties of adjusting to a new language, culture, and country. Von Arnold notes in the family history she wrote in the 1960s, "In November 1923 Dora also left for America. Her ticket purchased by selling a handsome astrakan [sic] coat of Mother's. She arrived in San Francisco with only $125 in her pocket. Seven days after her arrival she was entering a business college, to try to learn how to earn her living and to help her parents."

Later, she writes of the struggles of immigration: "Life in immigration is no bed of roses, and great problems of language, personality readjustment, and opportunity arise which have to be solved step by step—and it takes time." Von Arnold eventually graduated from the University of California-Berkeley, became a social worker, married, and remained in the United States until her death in 1988.

The story of Von Arnold and many of the émigrés who came through China begins in the late nineteenth century with the building of the Chinese Eastern Railway. The shortest distance from central Russia to Vladivostok being through Manchuria, the Russians made an agreement with the Chinese to construct a railway through the province. The primary station was Harbin, at the midway point. The area along the railway was classified as an extraterritorial zone, giving the Russians living there the right to be subject to Russian rather than Chinese authority. The Russians had their own courts, police, and government administrators.

"The Russian influence in Manchuria was significant," says Shmelev. "With the post-revolutionary influx of refugees, the Russians outnumbered the Chinese in Harbin, and the Chinese were more affiliated with the Russian administration than their own."

Von Arnold was born in 1895 in Poland, where her father was stationed as a military officer. A few years later, he transferred to Harbin and became chief of police. Her family enjoyed the life of Russian aristocrats. In her family history, she describes the pre-revolutionary years.

"It is almost a surprise to think that in these short years, this relatively small railway town, right under our eyes was developing into a happy, well-to-do culture-conscious community, with a ever-growing and ambitious population ..."

After 1917 the population of Harbin swelled to several hundred thousand as White Russians fled across the border. This first wave of Russian immigration was a mass exodus of anti-Bolsheviks. Officially, Harbin's Russian administrators were considered enemies of the Bolsheviks. Von Arnold's father retired and her mother lost her job at the Dental College.

Citizens of Harbin were told to choose either Chinese or Soviet citizenship. Administration reverted to the Chinese, but Russian expertise in running the area left the Chinese with no choice but to keep the Russians in charge. "They had to make use of the Russians," says Shmelev.

Von Arnold writes, "On the outside, somehow the world instantaneously changed 'face.' In these early days the friendly, smiling courteous population of the city, where we grew up and knew almost everybody was no longer smiling when seeing us. Some would avert their eyes, some would hurry by. . . . We were the Monarchists, the Military, the Old Regime, the representatives of the class which was exploiting the Nation, so we were now the losers."

Harbin's rocky political situation continued as it changed hands from Russia to China to Japan and back to Chinese control in the ensuing years. By the end of World War II, the Chinese Communists were firmly in power. The Russian community in China continued to thrive but oppression by the Chinese Communists, coupled with their wish to expel Russians from the country, soon forced a second wave of emigration. The Russian émigrés made their way to Australia, Latin America, Europe, and the West Coast of the United States. Entering the United States was no easy task. Chinese Russians were counted in the Chinese immigration quota and it could take ten years to get a visa. Today, says Shmelev, there are about twenty ethnic Russians living in Harbin.

Von Arnold sums up the experience of growing up in Harbin and emigrating to the United States: "Analyzing some forty years later the facts of our early years, it is perhaps not surprising that the young men and women who lived and grew up in Harbin, and who have associated in many ways with the other-than-Russian population, when the time of immigration struck, found it a little less difficult to face this bewildering experience in the unknown lands where they were seeking a new life, work or education. . . . Many 'foreign friends' in not a few instances were helpful and kindly in guiding some of the young émigrés in finding their way in the wilderness of the world-at-large."

In addition to insight about the life of émigrés, the collection provides a better understanding of the White Russians who fought the Bolsheviks in the civil war. Avenir Gennadievich Efimov (1888-1972), a colonel in the Russian Army, wrote a history of the Izhevsk and Votkinsk divisions of the White Army in Siberia. These units were composed of volunteer workers from two factories in the Ural Mountains, who rose against the Soviets in 1918.

"This is of interest because it has been assumed that the White Army was composed of reactionaries, landed aristocrats, and monarchists," says Shmelev.

"These regiments were comprised of actual workers rebelling against the Soviet government. It explodes the myth completely. These units did not fall apart but stayed cohesive and managed to escape."

Efimov was educated in the military in engineering. During World War I, he served at the front until the army was demobilized in 1918. He went to the city of Kazan in the summer of that year to join the Popular Army in an anti-Soviet uprising. For the next four years he served the anti-Soviet cause, eventually commanding the Izhevsk division and presiding over the formation of the Izhevsko-Votkinsk brigade, which he commanded until its evacuation from Russia in 1922. Efimov fled to China and then to San Francisco, where he settled. Little is known about Efimov's years in the United States except that he completed a history of the two regiments, published posthumously in 1975.

Efimov, Von Arnold, and Ipatieff's stories are just a glimpse into the wealth of information the collection includes. Besides chronicling the history of Russians in China and offering insight into the role of the White generals in the civil war, it shows the impact on Soviet Russia of the departure of large numbers of well-educated professionals. It also provides sociologists with a firsthand look at the role of immigrants in American society.

"By preserving the intellectual content of the Museum's holdings and providing access, the project opens up new areas for serious research," says Danielson. "Both American historians and scholars from the former Soviet Union are looking at the Russian diaspora in a new light. For many contemporary Russians, these émigrés are increasingly seen as the embodiment of the Russian heritage that was lost in the revolution."

The breakup of the Soviet Union and a more open attitude in Russia has prompted a burgeoning interest in these political refugees. Under the Soviets, for decades, the émigrés were condemned. "During the Soviet period, they were pariahs, ignored or denigrated, casually accused of being nondemocratic," says Danielson. "They were considered monarchists, when in fact they had no unified politics. Stalin and Lenin forced out the left wing as well as monarchists."

Now Russian scholars and others have taken an interest in the subject, but the papers in the museum's collection are in such fragile condition that increased use by historians would add to their decay. With the museum's resources limited, it turned to the Hoover Institution, an international research center on twentieth century social, political, and economic change founded by Herbert Hoover in 1919. Danielson immediately saw the importance of the collection and a partnership was born. With NEH support, the two organizations are now in the process of preserving the papers on microfilm and creating a website so they can be easily retrieved. The collection will also be available for use at the Hoover Institution on microfilm.

"The collection preserves the history of these families," says Yuri Tarala, director of archives at the museum and the son of a White Russian. "There is great value for people who study these papers." In reviewing the materials in the museum's archive, Elena Danielson is struck by the incredible coping skills of these émigrés. "This wave of émigrés came at a unique time," she says. "There was no infrastructure—they had no passports, no money, no social welfare agencies to help them. Their letters are heartrending but they also show their tenacity. You see how people who were basically discarded by their homeland survived."

About the Author

Maggie Riechers is a writer in Potomac, Maryland.

Funding Information

The Hoover Institution for War, Revolution and Peace received a $287,440 NEH grant to preserve these documents and make them accessible online.