On March 3, 2016, Professor Faith Hillis (University of Chicago, History) gave a REEEC New Directions lecture entitled “Europe’s Russian Colonies: Tsarist Émigrés and the Quest for Freedom in Nineteenth-Century Europe.” Her lecture was part of the research she is currently conducting for a forthcoming volume on Russian émigré communities in Europe in the 19th century. Hillis is also the author of Children of Rus’: Right-Bank Ukraine and the Invention of a Russian Nation (2013).
According to Hillis, in the 1860s, there was a “sudden explosion” of movement from the Russian empire to central and western Europe, a phenomenon which she attributes to the spread of railroads and rise of “political ferment” within Russia, as well as to increasingly liberal admission policies in Western universities. By about 1870, distinctive “Russian colonies” had emerged in Western Europe, the largest of which were in London, Paris, and Geneva. These colonies “tended to coalesce in inexpensive and rather dire neighborhoods on the urban periphery.”
The most populous group in such colonies was made up of university students, including many women: according to Hillis, a full 90% of the first cohort of female university students in Europe were Russian subjects. There were also a significant number of political dissidents in such communities: “leaders of liberal, socialist, anarchist, and radical terrorist groups were all operating in exile” in Russian colonies, as were many nationalist activists, promoting Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian, and Armenian causes.
Russian colonies were “strikingly complex and diverse” in terms of origin: in addition to émigrés from Moscow and St. Petersburg, there were “strong contingents from… the Caucasus and Ukraine,” and “more than 50% of students came from within the Pale [of Settlement].” Non-ethnic Russians, and Jews in particular, were much more likely to emigrate, mostly due to increasing discrimination in the Russian empire (e.g. the introduction of a numerus clausus in the 1880s). According to Hillis, these colonies “served as microcosms of the empire, condensing its diversity into very small districts.”
Hillis attributes a “spirit of openness, exchange, and improvisation” to Russian colonies, which allowed them to “evolve into spaces in which residents tried to reimagine the ways in which humans could live.” Experimentation with different modes of society, such as “communal living, wealth redistribution, and self-governance,” was a common practice. Russian colonies also generated campaigns for women’s emancipation: many female students were “radical utilitarians who scorned bourgeois norms,” and they became Europe’s first generation of female professors. Projects for national emancipation and Jewish liberation also emerged.
Initially, these émigrés enjoyed popular support in Europe—they were idealized as “freedom fighters” struggling against tsarist despotism. The colonies inspired left-wing Europeans, many of whom saw the new models emerging from them as inspirations for European society. However, there was a growing rift between the Russian colonies and the Russian state, particularly in the wake of the 1881 assassination of Alexander II. The head of the Russian secret service, Piotr Rachkovskii’, undertook a sustained campaign to turn public opinion in Europe against the colonies and their residents. According to Hillis, Rachikovskii’ even masterminded bombing plots, supplying radicals with materials and then tipping off the local police. He also established a press agency which published propagandistic articles and pamphlets, which “insisted that the revolutionary movement [in Russia] had been conjured up by Jews, and… that Jews were a similar existential threat to western Europe.” A rumor emerged that Jack the Ripper, then terrorizing London, was himself a radical Russian Jew.
Such efforts to manipulate public opinion were ultimately successful, undermining asylum laws first in Switzerland, then in France, then in the United Kingdom (in the Aliens Act of 1905). New emigrants were increasingly met with oppression in the Russian colonies, which led to increasing radicalism: “Bolshevism was literally created in these communities.” According to Hillis, World War I marked the formal end of Russian colonies—émigrés were expelled en masse, and an era of experimentation and exchange between Russia and western Europe came to an end.
Matthew McWilliams is a REEES M.A. student and a FLAS Fellow for the 2015-16 academic year for the study of Russian.