White Russia in Exile
The time is 1920… or is it 1921? The last remnants of the White armies and their families are fleeing Russia ahead of the advancing Bolshevik hordes. Most Whites in the western regions cross overland into the Baltic states and Finland, and many of these exiles go on to Berlin, Paris, Prague, Sofia, and Belgrade. Yet others cross from Siberia over the Amur and Ussuri Rivers into China. However, in the south most flee by sea (also, some of those fleeing from Siberia did so by ship). Is this a ship sailing from Vladivostok… or is it Sevastopol or Novorossisk? Perhaps, such a detail doesn’t matter. One can’t even tell if it’s a naval or mercantile craft. True, one sees the double-headed eagle crest, but there are no indications of either cargo booms or gun positions. Indeed, one cannot even tell if the people are congregated on the bow or stern of the ship. I believe that it was the artist’s intention to keep certain details vague, so that his painting could be a metaphor for all White Russian émigrés whatever their final destination. Are they sailing to Shanghai… or is it Bizerte (where the White fleet was interned by the French)… or is it Istanbul… or could it be Tientsin? That, too, is immaterial. What’s important is the fact that this is their last experience as Russians in a Russian milieu. They’re going into a future that has none of the verities of the past. True, some of the wealthier ones have Paris apartments that they can live in. The rest… God alone knows. There’s one thing for certain. They’ll endeavour to keep the flame of their patriotism and faith burning in a strange land amongst strangers. The idea of “Russia” shall not be allowed to die or be smothered by assimilation. For us Russian-Americans, these are our honoured forebears who passed the torch on to us. We shall not allow it to be extinguished.
Look at the all the variegated figures in the picture. My Nicky believes that the most forlorn figure is the old monk in the left foreground. He’s lost everything. He’s lost his monastery, perhaps, he’s lost his monastic brethren as well (the Reds may have massacred them). He’s of an age that makes it difficult to start afresh. His eyes are focused on the distance, trying to make sense of all that has occurred to himself, his homeland, and his religious commitment. If you look in the centre of the painting, you’ll see a tall officer wearing a red hat (which signified that he was one of the Kornilovtsy, the troops under Kornilov). Nicky said, “He isn’t going to drive a taxicab. He’s going to work his connections and finagle something for himself”. The woman standing to his right wearing the shawl is probably his wife. She’s going to do well, thank you very much, for she has as few scruples as her husband. The woman sitting in front of the red-hatted officer is another story. She appears to be of good family, and her appearance suggests that she’s a war widow, alone in the world. She fears what is ahead for her. How shall she survive… Note the priest standing by the mast. He is garbed in his epitrakhil, which means that he is ready to hear confessions at any time. Nicky said that he was the luckiest one of the lot. “He’s a priest; there’ll always be something for him to do. He’ll be busy with his parish. He’ll do OK”. Look at the tall figure in the right foreground in the grey greatcoat. He appears to be focused inward, meditating on his future and his priorities. My thought is that he’s composing himself prior to going to confession. He’s a man forced to look at himself plainly and without equivocation, and he isn’t flinching. There’s so much in this painting that it’s impossible to do it justice in this format. Yet, I believe that this shall give many of you the background necessary to fully appreciate the tragedy, grandeur, and depth of this work. Mr Belyukin has since been elected to the Russian Academy of Fine Arts, and a deserved honour it is, indeed.