Last month, an emotional defense of the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine began swirling around the Internet. Amid the volleys of opinion about Moscow’s actions, the provenance of this particular open letter stood out: its authors were descendants of some of the most powerful Russian aristocratic families that fled the country after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
"Knowledge of the recent past, namely the past of the pre-revolutionary Russia, gives us the opportunity, and with it the duty, to expose the obvious historical falsifications that led to the current drama in Ukraine.” Titled “Solidarity with Russia,” the letter went on to criticize Western “aggressive hostility” toward Moscow: “Russia is accused of crimes, without a priori evidence it is declared guilty.” The authors said that they could no longer accept the “daily slander against modern Russia … its leadership and its president,” who, they write, subjected to sanctions and dragged in dirt against elementary common sense.
The authors blamed the Ukrainian government and pro-Nazi military groups for destroying the country’s war-ravaged east and killing its people, but they reserved their greatest ire for what they called a systematic attack on everything associated with the “Russian World.” “We are talking about the historical, geographical, linguistic, cultural, and spiritual realities of the great civilization that has enriched the world and that we are rightfully proud of.”
The letter was penned by Prince Dmitry Shakhovskoi—a well-respected Slavic scholar who lives in France—and his wife, Tamara, and was signed by more than 100 princes, counts, and others whose names ranked among the most storied in tsarist Russia—Tolstoy, Pushkin, Sheremetev. These families maintain a tight-knit community across Europe sustained by galas and black-tie reunions.
Not surprisingly, the screed prompted an avalanche of media coverage and commentary on blogs and Russian social media. Much of the reaction focused on what appeared to be a staggering paradox. As members of the so-called White émigrés who opposed the Reds during the civil war that followed the revolution, the signatories’ relatives had lost tremendous wealth and status—and their homeland. And they were the lucky ones. Many who stayed behind were shot or sent to the gulag. Now their descendants were supporting the regime of a former KGB officer who had characterized the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 as the twentieth century’s greatest tragedy.
Contradictory as it may seem, however, support for the Kremlin among White émigrés and their descendants is hardly new. It goes back almost to the revolution, when the new Bolshevik secret police first began actively recruiting Russians living in Europe. Some believe that Shakhovskoi’s letter represents the Kremlin’s latest attempt to exploit the émigré community. And, in that, it sheds light on what exactly Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to accomplish with his new Cold War with the West.
The Kremlin’s propaganda machine embraced Shakhovskoi’s letter. An article in the popular tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda—headlined “White Russian Émigrés Support Mother Russia Again”—heralded the note’s appearance as a major historical event.
Not all White émigré descendants see it that way. Alexander von Hahn—whose family of barons included a great-grandfather who was governor of the imperial bank under the last tsar, Nicholas II—responded to Shakhovskoi’s letter by drafting his own. Characterizing Soviet rule as seven decades that ruined “everything connected to Russia’s glorious past,” he accused Putin of following in the Communists’ footsteps.
In an interview with Radio Liberty, Shakhovskoi defended his letter by saying that only the émigré families’ knowledge of the Russian language and pre-revolutionary history can help explain what’s happening in Ukraine, a claim to a unique Russian logic that many believe points to the Kremlin’s hand.
Collaboration between the White émigrés and the Kremlin goes back to the 1920s. The Bolshevik secret police began actively recruiting members of the so-called first wave of émigrés soon after they settled abroad. For example White army officer, Sergei Efron—the husband of the poet Marina Tsvetaeva—famously became a Soviet agent in Paris, where he is believed to have aided in the assassinations of Soviet targets. He was shot in the Soviet Union in 1941. Other sympathizers changed their minds about the Communists after World War II, when many believed Stalin saved the motherland from the Nazis. Deceived about his rule, many émigrés returned to the USSR only to be sent to the gulag.
Over the following decades, other émigrés and their children and grandchildren who settled across Europe, the United States, and elsewhere assimilated into Western society. However, many maintained informal ties to the USSR, attending Soviet embassy receptions and Kremlin-organized cultural events and even traveling to the Soviet Union. Shakhovskoi—whose family traces its roots to the medieval Rurik dynasty and included a head of the Russian Orthodox Church, leading writers, and a general of the tsarist army that fought off Napoleon—is seen as one of them.
Although White émigré descendants’ formal relations with Russia’s new authorities warmed after the Communist collapse in 1991, they remained brittle, as some exiled families tried in vain to reclaim former property. More recently, a handful of Putin allies have spearheaded an effort to cultivate new ties to the White Russians’ descendants. Vladimir Yakunin, a billionaire whose official role as railways minister belies his importance as one of the Kremlin’s most powerful insiders, maintains close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church and funds several foundations, including the Center of National Glory of Russia. The organization invited Shakhovskoi and several hundred more émigré descendants to take part in a cruise in 2010. They sailed from the Tunisian port of Bizerte to the then Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol, a symbolic return to the docks from which many of their ancestors had escaped.
Yakunin “doesn’t put money directly into the émigrés’ pockets,” says Anastasia Kirilenko, a reporter for U.S.-funded Radio Liberty, who has investigated some of Putin’s allies. But, she says, he has helped maintain ties to the émigré descendants by exploiting the flattering perception that they enjoy a special connection to the Kremlin. “The aristocracy is brought in for specific occasions, to contextualize certain political gestures of Putin—the 100-year anniversary of World War I, for instance,” von Hahn says. But aside from recognition, they’ve received very little in return. “There’s been virtually no restitution.”
The film director Nikita Mikhalkov, whose movies include the Oscar-winning Burnt by the Sun, could be another of the Kremlin’s liaisons with the White émigré community. A staunch nationalist who played a tsar in one of his own movies and affects aristocratic manners, Mikhalkov also took part in the Bizerte–Sevastopol cruise. The public relations stunt was aimed at boosting Moscow’s claim to the city, which was founded by Catherine the Great in the late eighteenth century to house the Russian navy’s new Black Sea Fleet and was snatched from Ukraine along with the rest of Crimea last year. Mikhalkov didn’t complete a film he was planning, but videos posted on the Internet showed the émigré descendants visiting Russian naval monuments and discussing the city’s importance for the Russian psyche.
A young billionaire named Konstantin Malofeev is also believed to provide an important conduit to the White émigré community. The founder of an investment firm named Marshall Capital Partners who calls himself an “Orthodox businessman,” he has been the subject of at least two criminal investigations into theft from state-controlled banks. However, the probes were dropped around the time he’s believed to have begun playing a central role in financing and directing the separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine, which Moscow has fueled with arms, troops, and the whipping up of propaganda espousing a radical Russian Orthodox–based nationalism. Novaya Gazeta, One of Russia’s few remaining independent newspapers, reported that Malofeev was behind a memo to the Kremlin proposing the annexation of Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine even before the country’s old pro-Moscow government had collapsed. He is also close to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, with whom he helped draft a new law for censoring the Internet.
Malofeev’s connections to the émigré descendants include, according to Kirilenko and others, a close friendship with Shakhovskoi’s son, who works in Moscow and is married to the daughter of Zurab Chavchavadze, a Georgian prince who is one of the representatives of a wing of the Romanov family in Russia. Malofeev also heads foundations that advocate Russian Orthodox values and funds a private Orthodox school of which Chavchavadze is director. Although Malofeev’s star in the Kremlin is believed to have waned since last year, it’s clear he remains one of a small group of like-minded insiders who carry out useful roles for the Kremlin.
Russkii Mir - Russian World
Beyond the Shakhovskoi letter’s support for the war in Ukraine, its evoking of Russkii Mir, or Russian World, gives it an especially sinister tone. Putin has used the concept to position Moscow against the West, justifying his claim to a sphere of influence of which Russians believe Ukraine to be a central part.
When Putin annexed Crimea last year, he claimed to be protecting the rights of Russians abroad, which has also been his main rationale for supporting the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Viktor Moskvin, the director of another state-funded cultural group in Moscow called the Alexander Solzhenitsyn House of Russia Abroad, said it was his idea to approach Russian media about publicizing the letter after Shakhovskoi told him about it during a White army celebration in Paris. His group, which is chaired by the widow of the famous dissident writer and strong Putin supporter and was founded to collect an archive of émigré documents and relics, also provides a direct conduit for Moscow’s ties to Russian émigrés. Moskvin insisted that Shakhovskoi’s letter is important because its signatories represent the cream of Russia’s historical elite. “They are representatives of the oldest and most illustrious Russian families, who played a huge role in the Motherland’s history,” he told the government’s official paper of record, Rossiiskaya Gazeta. “Today they include professors of leading universities, scholars, doctors, successful entrepreneurs, and journalists. They support Russia and the Russian people with their souls.”
Putin’s wider Russkii Mir strategy includes the establishment of a Moscow-led bloc of former Soviet countries called the Eurasian Economic Union, which Russia launched with Armenia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan this year as a counter to the EU and other Western organizations. Its name evokes Eurasianism, a hard-line nationalist movement conceived by émigrés in the 1920s based in France who believed Russia to be closer to Asia than Europe. Resurrected in the 1980s, it has been led by Alexander Dugin, a strident ideologue who envisions a strategic bloc that would join the former Soviet Union to Middle Eastern countries, including Iran. Without Ukraine, however, Putin’s union remains very much symbolic.
It was Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to abandon a deal with the European Union in favor of a closer alliance with Russia last year that promoted the protests that led to his ouster. “Who remembers that today?” Kirilenko says of the popular revolution. “Now Ukraine is at war. Any opinions about what actually happened there, any Russian envy for Ukraine’s greater openness, were dispatched very quickly.” Putin’s goal has been to show that what’s happening in Ukraine “isn’t democracy and that Ukrainians won’t be able to do anything,” Kirilenko adds. That’s crucially important for the Kremlin because his legitimacy is based on his claim that democracy can’t work in Russia.
Cooperation with European extreme right wing parties
Putin isn’t aiming to galvanize the support of only émigrés. The many hundreds of social media comments supporting Shakhovskoi’s letter included those of French and other Europeans who said they were swayed by the idea that the writers had special authority to understand the Kremlin’s actions. “I find here a taste of Free France, where the monarchists rubbed anarchists,” read a comment on a French translation of the letter.
Moscow is encouraging such sympathies among both far-left and far-right groups in order to help split Western opinion. That’s an old game for Moscow: European Communist parties and other groups acted in the same way during the Cold War. Now the Kremlin is quietly cultivating radical parties across the continent—including some that are openly neofascist—united by the common goal of undermining the European Union.
Despite the paradox, many far-right parties across Europe, including France’s anti-immigrant National Front and the Dutch Freedom Party, are voicing loud support for Putin. Russia also has ties with Hungary’s nationalist Jobbik party, Slovakia’s People’s Party, and Bulgaria’s anti-EU Attack movement. National Front leader Marine Le Pen recently praised Putin, saying that “he proposes a patriotic economic model radically different than what the Americans are imposing on us.” Her party went so far as to take out a loan worth more than $10 million from a Russian bank owned by a Kremlin ally. Last year, both the National Front and the United Kingdom’s anti-EU UK Independence Party won 24 seats in the European Parliament, an institution they want to sideline.
Kremlin allies and insiders have been busy hosting conferences aimed at rallying more support among such groups in Serbia, Switzerland, and elsewhere. Yakunin, the billionaire who organized the Tunisia–Sevastopol cruise for a new generation of White Russians, is co-chair of an organization called the Franco-Russian Dialogue Association, which Putin and former French President Jacques Chirac set up in 2004 ostensibly to improve economic and cultural links. At the group’s annual assembly last summer, held at the Russian embassy in Paris, Yakunin railed against Washington for inciting European countries to enact new sanctions.
In Austria last May, Konstantin Malofeev organized a meeting of European right-wing politicians. The event was headlined by Alexander Dugin. With members of the National Front and Austria’s Freedom Party in attendance, “it looked like a congress of anti-European forces,” Kirilenko says. “They paint themselves as supporters of traditional values that are under attack in the West in order to mobilize public opinion that Russia is the genuine home of spirituality.”
Ironically, already the British representative in Russia Bruce Lockhart reported in May 1918 that he was approached by what he describes as “a very prominent member of the old regime”, who informed him that the two most important monarchist organizations had been divided, one pro-German, the other pro-Ally. (British National Archives FO371/3286, No.100267, Lockhart to Foreign Office 28 May 2018.)
This tendency of a center/right split seems still present today.
Historical conversation: The Fascist Black Hundreds and the pro German wing of the Monarchists at the End of WWI .