The Russians Are Coming!

Muriel often mentioned how surprised she and Bob were at the huge number of Russians in Paris when they arrived there in 1925.

“They were everywhere,” she exclaimed. “They were waiters, salesclerks, barmen, street cleaners, laborers, teachers, clerks and every taxi driver in Paris was Russian. And every one of them had a story to tell, most of them sad tales indeed.  Almost all claimed to be exiled aristocrats and/or royalty, with many a Prince and Princess among them. The amazing thing was, many of them actually were!”

Paris had long held a special attraction for Russians from the early 1700’s when Czar Peter first visited; to 1814 when Alexander I entered Paris after defeating Napoleon; to the state visit of Nicolas II in 1896, at which time there were already over 5000 Russians living in Paris.  Russian aristocrats and royalty wintered there and in southern France.  In fact, Paris became known as “Russia Abroad.”

The chaos, terror and suffering that followed the Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War of 1917 was the catalyst that drove over 2 million Russians (200,000 of them Russian Jews) out of their homeland, desperately seeking asylum in dozens of foreign countries. The Bolshevik regime stripped the exiles of their citizenship, wealth and lands. They were literally without a country. It was a mass migration that included everyone who didn’t accept the brutal, new Communist regime—wealthy landowners, educated and skilled workers and rural property owners.

France, especially Paris, became the refuge of choice for thousands of Russian aristocrats and former royal families. Add to this mix, the thousands of Russian unskilled laborers who were hired by the French government to help rebuild France after the devastation left behind from World War I.  France lost over 1,500,000 men in the war, and had at least that many injured.  They had very little manpower left to rebuild their country, so they hired the exiled Russians who could no longer find jobs in their own country.

However, when the rebuilding was finished, there were no more jobs for them. They, along with many of the aristocrats, were forced to take menial jobs.  Russian Doctors, teachers, University Professors, scientists and the former aristocracy became the waiters, clerks and taxi drivers…if they were lucky. By 1925, when Muriel had arrived, there were reportedly 400,000 Russians in France, over 50,000 of them in Paris.

The Russian community in Paris was bound together in the hope and expectation of the downfall of Bolshevism and a return to Mother Russia. They believed their mission in Paris was to preserve Russian culture, language and liberty and, above all, to educate the west about the dangers of Communism.

So, they organized! Over the years, they recreated their traditional lifestyles, establishing schools, churches, publishing houses, newspapers, theatres and literary circles, political groups, dance companies, cultural and language centers and even nightclubs. Paris became the political center and unofficial capital of Russian emigration in Europe. They greatly enhanced world culture, but many still help a deep love for Russia and dreamed of someday returning.

This was the Paris that Muriel and Bob discovered in 1925.  What a rich melting pot of humanity, causes and cultures. Bob must have found more than enough raw material here to fill several books, for there is no doubt that the massive Russian emigration impacted 1920’s Paris—it’s culture, politics, geography and especially its arts and nightlife.

The popularity of Russian nightlife rose dramatically in the 1920’s.  There were over 100 Russian nightclubs featuring the best caviar, 60 kinds of vodka, music and dance, balalaikas and gypsy music as well as traditional Russian folk music…usually gut-wrenching and sad songs that pulled at the heartstrings.  One of the most popular Russian nightclubs was the Chateau Caucasian, later renamed the Caveau (Cave) Caucasian, where Bob and Muriel had their first success.

Muriel described it this way:  The Chateau Caucasian was a huge three story building.  In the basement, or Caverne, the gypsies played their balalaikas and sang folk songs. There were candles, samovars and bottles on the rustic tables, recalling the bohemian atmosphere found in the small Russian cafes.  The ground floor was the Chateau, with crystal chandeliers, formal dress “Obligatoire” and waiters dressed in very formal white Cossack uniforms. Guests were served gourmet delicacies and wines while a large orchestra played for dancing.

The top floor was given over to the Cabaret.  The room seated about three hundred people, had a small stage at one end upon which appeared several different acts—sword dancers, soloists, a Russian quartet, and more gypsy dancers. The atmosphere was informal, the gay colors blended with the bright costumes of the performers. This is the room where Bob and Muriel performed nightly for several months, and where they became good friends with so many of the Russian performers and waiters.

The Russian influence on Parisian fashion was led by Coco Chanel in what was later to be called her “Russian Phase.”  She created more ornate fabrics in bold colors and added furs to her collection.  At the time, she was having an affair with Igor Stravinsky, and hired Russian models and salesgirls from the Russian aristocracy.  Vogue featured the fashionable “Slavic Style” of dress and included pictures in their magazine.

The impact of Russian refugees on the Parisian art and literary scene was immense, and remains so today.  Perhaps we have forgotten how many gifted artists, writers and musicians came to us as exiles from the Bolshevik Revolution, many via Paris.  Consider this: Serge Diagilev’s Ballet Russe found a home there, as did choreographer George Balanchine; actors, Yul Brynner and George Sanders; designer, Oleg Cassini; musicians, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky and Serge Prokofyev; writer, Ayn Rand; and artists, Marc Chagall, Survage and Kandinsky.  These artists found the artistic freedom they longed for in Paris…a freedom they could have never experienced in Russia.

So, 1920’s Paris was a brightly shining beacon promising artistic freedom for many cultures and movements around the world.  While we tend to focus on  our American expatriate group in Paris who helped bring to life the glittering, frenetic Jazz Age, others seek their own country’s role in that crazy decade of change and upheaval. No one came out of it as innocent as they went into it.

Least of all, Bob and Muriel Johnston.