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Russian fates and fortunes at European graveyards

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Russian fates and fortunes at European graveyards

18.10.2019

Sergey Vinogradov

Igor Egorov is an ordinary school teacher from the Science Town of Pushchino near Moscow. For many years he has been spending his holidays traveling around Europe, where he searches for the graves of Russian white emigrants and for information about forgotten figures of Russian emigre communities. Anush, his wife and faithful assistant, is always by his side. The teacher actively engages his students in the search.

Igor Egorov's articles have been published on historical online forums, as well as in Russian and European media. They are of great interest for those who are passionate about the history of emigration of the first wave. “What flutters me in this topic? Probably the tragedy and mystery of Russian history, as well as of fates and fortunes of Russian people,” he told the Russkiy Mir. The history has taken us to so many places where Russians are buried.

Over the years of his research, he has got acquainted with various biographies of Russian emigrants, except the happy ones. Generals and colonels worked as taxi drivers and movers, says the teacher. A taxi driver was a Russian profession in Paris and Istanbul in the 1920s.

Igor Egorov. At the Russian graveyard in Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand, France.

General from a neighbouring village

Trying to learn something new about Russian emigrants, Igor Egorov has repeatedly faced the fact that the required information can be found on a trip by a suburban train or bus, not by a plane.

During his last trip, having arrived to Luxembourg, he found graves with Russian surnames at the cemetery of Mertert. There was the burial place of General Mikhail Polzikov among them. The Polzikovs are a well-known surname, especially to those who study the history of the Russian army. Upon returning home, Igor firmly decided to compile a biography of the general, who had commanded large units during the First World War and the Civil War, but found peace in one of the smallest and most tranquil countries in Europe.

It turned out that the Polzikov surname can be found not only in books and archives, but even in the car navigator. The village of Polzikovo in the Tula province, where the general-to-be was born, exists to this day and is located just several tens of kilometers from Pushchino, where Igor Egorov lives. An article about General Polzikov, who had brilliantly showed his worth in the World War I having been honored with several ranks and five orders of the Russian Empire, was published by the Russian Luxembourg website. Moreover, the publication introduced a new page - History of the Russian emigre community in Luxembourg.

"My trips have covered nearly entire Europe"

Since childhood I have been fond of history, as well as literature and geography, says the teacher. - I am from the generation that read books, went treasure hunting. The White Guard topic sparked my interest, I guess, during Perestroika, when new texts and documents were revealed. Bunin’s works became available in full volume, as well as works by Merezhkovsky, Gippius. I became absorbed in history through the symbolist poets and our emigrant writers. I started travelling in the 2000s. Journalists have written that I traveled half the world. This is an exaggeration. My trips have been limited to Europe - however, they have covered nearly entire Europe.<

Igor Egorov considers France, Germany, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Armenia, and Georgia to be among countries that are interesting in terms of Russian emigration history. I have a dream to visit Tunisia, where the Russian squadron saw its final days, and to see the restored Gallipoli Memorial in Turkey. Once I got there, but actually there was a dump back then, he says.

In Bosnia

According to Egorov, he goes to some graves on purpose, having previously studied the matter, and some graves are stumbled upon by chance. My first Russian graves abroad were burials in Finland, he said. My classmate lives in Helsinki, and he showed me graves of the Sinebryukhovs, the merchants, and Russian prisoners of war.

Now the researcher has focused on studying the World War I, one of the most tragic pages of Russian history, and the Civil War. What am I doing in graveyards? Often I just go and look for tombstones with Russian surnames, I write them down to try to find out about a person and his/her fate, he says. Of course, I visit graves of those whom I know and respect. And Im looking for burials of people I read about. Recently, while in Paris, I was looking for graves of sons of Daniil Andreev, a writer. I did not find all of them. But I found the grave of Nikolai Bulgakov, Mikhail Bulgakovs brother. He rests just two steps away from Bunin. Im also looking for grandson of Polenov, an artist, but to no avail so far.

Russian France

France is the promised land for the researcher who studies fates and fortunes of Russian emigrants of the first wave. In the early 1990s, I bought a cheap bus tour to Paris to visit the legendary Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois, the major graveyard of Russian emigration, the teacher recalls. It is a huge graveyard, a real city. That visit made a strong impression on me. I reevaluated many of my beliefs. Bunin, Merezhkovsky, the Romanovs, the Yusupovs... There are great people and ordinary Russian people - everyone is there. I perform my search, but its not easy - its hard to communicate with employees, and their books are incomplete. Yes, and some graves disappear. When the lease term ends and it is not extended, new burial is set at the same place. Therefore, more and more French, Chinese, and Vietnamese graves appear among the Russian ones.

Igor Egorov came up with the idea to put Russian coins and flowers on the graves of emigrants in order to show his respect for these people and bring them a piece of their lost homeland. In previous years, he carried Soviet coins with him in bags one- and five-kopeck coins. But there were so many Russian graves that the bags were distributed very quickly. Customs officers were surprised to see my luggage, Igor recalls. I explained them why I had so many coins. Then they were even more surprised, but, it seems, they believed to the odd fellow and let me go." Now he ties the ribbons of St. George onto the graves.

Igor ties the ribbons of St. George onto the graves

Communication with descendants of Russian emigrants is a separate part of Igor Egorovs trips. Most of those people assimilated well, but they dont forget Russian roots, he says. A lot of them share that the families of their parents and other ancestors did not have easy life, but they did not live in poverty. Representatives of noble families did not leave empty-handed; their families lived in relative abundance. Others were forced to work, sometimes even as unskilled labour. But in any case, enforced departure was a tragedy for all of them.

During one of the trips, Yegorov met Tatyana Marett-Florova, one of the most active figures in the Russian community of France. They accidently met at the Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois and got into a conversation. For her and other representatives of the older generation, Russia and Russian culture were very important, continues Igor. They believed that they preserve Russian culture abroad. But I came across the fact that they have a somewhat idealized, oversentimental view of Russia. This is the case, in particular, of those, whose parents did not face the horrors of the Civil War and did not tell their children about those times. There were many meetings. I managed to talk to old people who spoke Bunin-style of Russian, and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren played football nearby, and they could say only hello and goodbye in Russian.

Igor Egorov can write a book about discoveries, findings and meetings at the Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois. Once a Frenchman came up to me and spoke in Russian, he recalls. At first I thought he wanted to ask for money. But it turned out that he was a Russian emigrants husband. He was waiting for her while she was praying in the church. He shared his own view of Russian history with me and felt very sorry for emigrants. It was interesting enough.>

Igor Yegorov does not buy bus tours anymore. In his forties he got a driving license, bought a car and now drives around Europe. When people in France or other countries of Western Europe see the Russian flag on his license plate, they are surprised at the distance he covered. Well done! Everywhere people are good, friendly, we have not had any serious emergency situations, says Igor. Visiting different countries, we, of course, saw unpleasant posters or magazines with anti-Russian articles, but we have never faced negative attitude for political reasons. There was an unpleasant incident In Western Ukraine, but we did not encounter anything like that in Poland or the Baltic states.

Russian schoolchildren and foreign friends

Igor Egorov shares his discoveries with readers of historical forums and his students. The latter listen with their mouths open. Igor teaches Russian language and literature. So fates and fortunes of Russian emigrants sometimes help to give better explanation of the writer's biography or to reveal the hidden meaning of the work. The other day, we studied Pushkins biography at the lesson. My wife and I had recently visited the places where Georges Dantes and Ekaterina Goncharova, Natalia Goncharovas older sister, are buried, says Igor. So I showed students my photographs of Tsarskoye Selo and the graves of Dantes and Goncharova.

The teacher tells high school students stories of white emigrants, trying to convey the tragedy of Russian history and its contradictions. I demonstrate them that things are not definite in history, and not everything is as smooth as it is written in some textbooks, he says.

Students travel with their teacher around Russia, visiting near and far countries. In Belarusian Brest (above), in Istanbul (below)

Igor Egorov did not open a youth club, but there came the idea to take a group of 10 to 15 schoolchildren interested in this topic in trips to places related to history of the World War I and the Civil War within Russia and abroad.

We have visited Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Turkey, Belarus and traveled a lot around Russia - St. Petersburg, the cities of the Golden Ring, says the teacher. We go to places, which my wife and I previously visited ourselves, so we can tell and show something. We look at the burial places of Russian emigrants. The students see - here is the resting place of the White Guard officers, and graves of the Red Army soldiers are not far from them. It is a good example of the fact that history is ambiguous. Children really like these trips, some of them go several times.

Over the years of travel, the Egorovs have made friends in different countries of Europe. Thanks to Igor and Anush, many of them visited Russia for the first time, sometimes overcoming their fears.

Last summer, we persuaded our Polish friends to visit this scary Russia, he says. The husband is a political scientist; the wife is a military psychologist. They came with their children. Having driven through Estonia, they were afraid to cross the border and asked to meet them. After two weeks of living in Russia, visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg, the Poles admitted that they were fascinated by our country. We ourselves brought them for sightseeing, walked the Raskolnikovs route. Their daughter began to study Russian and is now reading Dostoevsky, the book we presented to her.

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