Descendants of Russia's White Guards
Visit Sebastopol
by Anna Nemtsova

Petr Vrangel, an officer in the Russian army during World War I and the civil war, fled the Crimea along with hundreds of other White Guards in 1920

A cathartic sea voyage reverses an exodus of 90 years ago. Russian leaders paid for White Russian families to return, in hopes of reconciliation

In the blue light of early summer morning, a seven-deck cruise liner glided through the Sebastopol harbour after a long voyage from Venice to the Crimea.

Ninety years after their post-revolutionary exodus, Russian émigrés, nobility and aristocrats, finally returned home, retracing in reverse the path their parents and grandparents took to exile.

This time, they sailed from Venice to Tunis, Greece, and Turkey, then to the original embarkation point, Grafsky Dock in Sebastopol.

They travelled to visit memorable places – former refugee camps and cemeteries – and to pray together with more than 200 Russian politicians, businessmen and historians, in memory of White Guards, or White Army as they preferred to call themselves, who were massacred in the violent civil war.

"I was only one year old, when my parents fled Sebastopol. For my entire life I have been waiting for the day I see Grafsky Dock once again.

"Unfortunately, that is all I am able to see today," said the oldest passenger, 90-year-old Rostislav Don. He spoke through the bars of a custom checkpoint on the dock.

A French citizen, Mr Don did not get himself a Ukrainian visa and had to sail back home the same day.

The 67 voyagers arrived on a July morning very different to the morning of November 14, 1920, when general Petr Vrangel, the last Russian commander in chief, inspected by motorboat the 125 ships loaded with the families of his officers who were waiting in Sebastopol, Kerch, Feodosia, Yalta and Novorossiysk, preparing to flee Russia.

To survive, the 150,000 refugees with at least 6,000 badly wounded officers and soldiers among them had to occupy every free spot in the holds and on the decks of the vessels.

The day after General Vrangel led what was left of his once glorious army to Turkey, the Bolsheviks took over Sebastopol.

They had all escaped just in time. As people's commissar, Leon Trotsky refused to step on Crimean land unless "there is not a single White left". So the Bolsheviks began mass executions.

According to witnesses, tens of thousands of people were killed between November 1920 and March 1921.

The White forces, however, did not have unbloodied hands. Many massacres of civilians were attributed to them during the civil war, and particularly many pogroms against the Jews.

Never predictable, history turned on its heels again. It was the Red Moscow leadership that ordered the expulsion of the Whites from Crimea; this year, it was their successors, the modern Moscow leaders, who invited, and paid for, the White Russians descendants' return.

Why now? "To reconstruct the historical truth and heal wounds caused by the schism in our society in the beginning of the 20th century," said Vladimir Yakunin, an official supporting Russian World movement (one of its goals is the return of Russian émigrés) and close ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The task of building bridges turned out to be more difficult that expected for the children of both the old and the new Russia.

Before the voyage, Tamara Schukhovskoy, a writer, read from her grandfather's diary a description of his escape from Sebastopol; about the violence, of children dying in dreadful epidemics on the island of Lemnos, of the courage and devotion the White officers showed along the way, of the Russian elite's exodus.

"Our Whites fell as the first victims of the monster of the revolution; there were millions of lives taken away by Lenin and Stalin later, after they escaped," she said.

At multiple round-table discussions during the voyage and during smoking breaks on the decks, Moscow activists of Russian World (Russkiy Mir), the Kremlin-supported group, tried their best to clarify to their foreign guests that not all Russians had the same understanding of Soviet history and that many Russians who stayed behind had also lost their loved ones during Stalin's repressions in the 1930s and again in the early 1950s.

Some of the exiles said their children might be the best hope for the kind of openness, reconciliation and reintegration that Russian World wants. One grandchild, Prince Vladimir Trubetskoi, will leave France to begin his graduate studies at Moscow State Institute of International Relations this September.

His father, Prince Alexander Trubetskoi, head of White Guards community in Paris, said that he tried to pass on to his sons the deep spiritual devotion to Russia and love of Russian culture, just as his father had for him.

"Our fourth and fifth generations feel drawn to Moscow, they dream of coming back," Trubetskoi said.

"We could help Russia with one of today's bigger issues – the weakness of civil society. That is where we see our role."

In figures

67 immigrants, the children of Russia's White Guards, returned to the port their parents had fled from 90 years earlier

In his own words - Rostislav Don

"I was only one year old, when my parents fled Sebastopol. For my entire life I have been waiting for the day to see Grafsky Dock once again. Unfortunately, that is all I am able to see today."

Source: Russia Now
3 September, 2010