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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Utopia's Discontents - Russian émigré communities in fin de siècle Europe

Author interview with Faith Hillis

Faith Hillis's recently published Utopia's Discontents: Russian Émigrés and the Quest for Freedom, 1830s-1930s examines how Russian émigré communities based in various European cities evolved into revolutionary social experiments. The book is accompanied by a companion website, where you can tour European Russian colonies, follow the itineraries of various émigrés, and explore how people, goods, and ideas moved across the porous borders of the Russian Empire. In this interview with Peripheral Histories? editor Siobhán Hearne, Faith discusses the entanglements between histories of migration and cultural histories, as well as the digital history aspects of her project.

What motivated you to write a book about Russian migrant communities?

A combination of intellectual and personal considerations prompted me to write Utopia’s Discontents. When I was hunting for a new project in 2012, a colleague offhandedly mentioned that the archive of the Paris Okhrana at the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford were rich but under-utilized. Once I began working in this fascinating (and easily accessible!) archive, I realized that we knew almost nothing about the pre-revolutionary emigration, beyond the fact that it existed and that it defined many of the key debates in Russian intellectual history (Herzen vs. Bakunin, economists vs. orthodox Marxists, Bolsheviks vs. Mensheviks). The police archives offered me interesting insights into the internal dynamics of émigré communities as well as their struggle against the tsarist state, convincing me that this was a rich topic that demanded further exploration.

The other considerations that drove this project were more personal. I’d had a very conflicted relationship with my last book (about right-wing nationalists in late imperial Kiev), and I wanted to spend my time with a more sympathetic set of protagonists. I was also at a stage in my life that made it difficult to take the long research trips I had once loved, and I was looking for a project that I could research through many short trips instead of a few long ones. I’m glad that I was attuned to these issues, because being honest about what I needed both intellectually and personally made this project a great joy from beginning to end. I did 90% of my research outside of Russia, making many short trips to France, Switzerland, Germany, England, and different sites in America. It was great fun to do all this travel and to acquaint myself with different archival systems, which helped me to grow as an historian.

Your book richly examines the many Russian colonies (large communities of émigrés from the Russian Empire) that sprung up in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What was the function of these Russian colonies, and did colonies interact with one another across European space?

Understanding how space worked in the Russian colonies became a central preoccupation of the book. The centrality of this question is what prompted me to begin making digital maps, which I discuss below. The book argues that the colonies both collapsed and expanded space, and that both functions played a crucial role in defining their political imaginations. They collapsed space by bringing men and women from all corners of Russia together in densely populated neighbourhoods. Essentially tiny microcosms of the Russian empire, these neighbourhoods became sites of encounter and discovery that produced powerful new solidarities between their diverse residents.

The colonies also expanded space by virtue of their connections with the outside world. The internal diversity of these tiny places made them centres for experimentation with federalist and internationalist ideas. They were also extremely well-connected to the world beyond their borders. The circulation of people—along with formal connections between libraries and mutual aid organizations in different cities and smuggling networks that spirited people out of Russia and illegal publications in—knitted these émigré enclaves scattered across the continent into a single communicative space. Finally, the colonies welcomed curious European visitors, and these encounters were also influential in shaping their political ideologies. For more on this, see below.

What was the relationship between the Russian colonies and their European host societies? To what extent did the colonies create a distinctive ‘Russia abroad’ or are there examples of integration and mutual exchange between Russian subject émigrés and other resident/immigrant communities (eg. through intermarriage, sharing political ideas and resources)?

The colonies were both distinctive islands of Russian culture abroad and sites of intense interest for Europeans. The entire middle third of the book is devoted to untangling this complex encounter, and analyzing how it changed both parties. I call the 1870s-1890s “Europe’s Russian moment” because Russians abroad shaped virtually every struggle for freedom in Europe—from liberals’ efforts to vanquish despotism and irrationality, to the struggle for women’s emancipation, from early anti-imperial movements to the consolidation of the international left. However, the book also traces the rapid souring of this relationship in the 1890s and beyond—a result of growing European anxieties about the radicalism of the emigration and mass migration as well as the meddling of the tsarist secret police, who created a systematic campaign to defame émigrés. The evolution of Russian-European relations, in turn, informed the nature of émigré politics, infusing them with a darker tone around the turn of the century.

Vladimir Medem (1879-1923)

Throughout Utopia’s Discontents you draw on a plethora of memoirs in multiple languages. Is there a particular individual’s biography that epitomises the key themes of the book?

Given that I cover several generations of émigré life, I’m not sure that any single memoir can encapsulate the story of the colonies in all its glorious complexity. However, I can definitely recommend a few memoirs that were joys to read. The memoir of the Lavrovist N.K. Kuliabko-Koretskii provides a spectacular account of émigré smuggling networks and the experience of traveling across borders. The immodestly titled Life and Soul of a Legendary Jewish Socialist by the Bundist Vladimir Medem is extremely evocative on the emotional landscape of émigré life, documenting the feelings of affection and connection that it produced as well as the conflict and dislocation that haunted it. The memoirs of the Bundist John Mill and the Menshevik P.A. Garvi are also great reads. Unfortunately, only Medem’s account has been translated into English, which makes these wonderful sources difficult to use in the classroom.

The book’s wonderful companion website allows readers to tour the Russian colonies, as well as visualise how émigrés and their ideas traversed national and imperial borders across the European continent. How did this digital history aspect of your project allow you to reflect on your sources/topic in new ways?

I had always envisioned a website and some maps as a supplement to the book—this seems natural, even necessary, for a project that tries to map out networks and spaces. A sabbatical that I spent at the Davis Centre early in the project, where I learned GIS, was crucial in developing this element of the project. However, as my research progressed, I realized that digital analysis was becoming a core element of my methodology. Let me give you an example. During that year at Harvard, a colleague asked me if I could map the geographic origins of my émigrés. Of course I could not do so in any scientific way, but I decided to experiment with one reliable dataset that I did have in hand: a manifest of the Russian subjects who studied at Zurich University in the 1860s. When I took the time to map out who these people were and where they came from, I was astonished. I discovered that although a fair number of them hailed from Moscow and St. Petersburg (not surprising), the majority came from the imperial borderlands, especially Belarus, Ukraine, the Caucasus and Siberia. About half came from the Pale of Settlement alone! Taking the time to map this out attuned me to the theme of diversity as a crucial feature of colony life. I hadn’t initially picked up on this theme in the sources, but when I returned to them, I noticed that it was in fact everywhere. In short, my digital analysis had encouraged me to return to my “analogue” sources with new questions in mind. This is how I see the ultimate promise of digital history. It is in no way a replacement for deep reading, but a complement to it that can identify patterns that can be further corroborated and analysed by returning to the traditional sources.

Map of London's Russian colonies at

Most of the émigrés that you examine in your book left the Russian Empire illegally. What can your study tell us about the porous borders of the Russian Empire and/or migration regimes across the European continent in this period?

As the book progresses, state repression becomes an ever greater force. We witness violent efforts on the part of the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian states to halt migrants moving westwards, as well as a growing drive by the liberal powers of France, England, and Switzerland to surveil and discipline migrants from Russia and even to restrict their entry. At the same time, I was continually struck by the genius of individuals at eluding these limitations. Many memoirists describe their escape from the Russian empire in great detail and with glee, taking pride in their ability to defeat the whims of the police state. And although they suffered from growing repression in Europe, they created a variety of tactics to elude state control there as well. Ultimately, I think the story reveals the inherent weakness and porousness of repressive migration regimes, even as it documents how these regimes came into being.

I think my other major discovery is how profoundly the history of migration regimes is entangled with cultural history. Historians of migration usually place politics, society, or economics at the forefront of their accounts. In my story, it became clear how heavily migration policy was driven by considerations of individual and national identity—questions such as “who are we?” and “what do we want to be?” were always at the forefront of these debates. At the same time, my research revealed how quickly and radically these cultural self-conceptions could evolve. The shift in migration policies that I described above was not only the result of changing social and economic circumstances; it was also the result of a cultural war waged by the incipient right—a war in which the tsarist secret police played an important role. Indeed, the Okhrana’s struggle against the emigration was primarily cultural in nature, exploiting the mass media to sow panic about émigrés in the popular press. Okhrana press agents even went so far as to write short stories aimed at European audiences that impugned the émigrés personal and political reputations. It is virtually impossible to understand changing migration regimes in the nineteenth century without referring to this embedded cultural history.

Faith Hillis is a writer and historian of Russia, with special interests in nineteenth- and twentieth-century politics, culture, and ideas and in Russia's relationship with the rest of the world. She is currently based at the University of Chicago. Find her on Twitter @FaithCHillis

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