Fleeing Revolution

By Riechers, Maggie | Humanities, May/June 2001 | Go to article overview

Fleeing Revolution


Riechers, Maggie, Humanities


In the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its civil war, thousands fled, many making their way to China. There they found refuge for a while, only to be forced into a second mass exodus by the Chinese Communists. The stories they tell are documented in a collection of papers held by the Museum of Russian Culture of San Francisco. The papers are included in forty-thousand documents being microfilmed and put online with help from the Hoover Institution for War, Revolution and Peace and support from NEH.

Among those who took flight: a world-renowned chemist, who left his children behind to escape the anti-intellectualism of the Soviets; the daughter of a military official who traded her mother's astrakhan coat for a ticket to the West; and a colonel whose history of the regiments he fought with in the civil war sheds new light on who actually comprised the White Russians.

To preserve the history of these people, the museum, founded in 1948, has collected and saved their writings. The papers have been languishing in the museum, unavailable to scholars because of their fragility and the museum's limited resources to preserve them. Eventually, the website will enable scholars from all over the world to access these documents.

Most of these emigres were White Russians who fled to Manchuria after the revolution and the civil war that followed. Although many of the emigres eventually came to the United States, with a large number settling in the San Francisco area, they scattered throughout the world. They were scientists, artists, economists, and academics, and a large number were prolific writers who wrote letters, kept diaries, and produced memoirs.

"This is an extraordinary human document," says Elena Danielson, archivist of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, which is working with the museum to preserve their combined collections. "We now realize that one of the stories of the twentieth century is that politics forced the mass immigration of political enemies, and this is the first wave."

One of the most prominent of the Russian emigres was Vladimir Nikolaevich Ipatieff, a leading figure in chemistry. Ipatieff did not come to the United States via China; he had made contacts with U.S. chemical manufacturers in the course of his work and, with his wife, simply did not return to Russia after attending a conference abroad. When Ipatieff left Russia in 1930, he abandoned his four children, whom he never saw again.

Ipatieff received a military education and majored in chemistry. By the time of the revolution, he was chief of the Chemical Explosives Section of the Russian Army. He was not sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, however, and felt constrained by the prevailing anti-intellectual atmosphere.

"He became increasingly disgusted with the system," says Anatol Shmelev, a Russian scholar and archivist on the emigre project at the Hoover Institution. "He felt he could no longer accomplish his scientific work." Ipatieff never publicly denounced the Soviets during all his years in the United States for fear of retribution against his children. After an initial silence due to Ipatieff's prominence, the Soviets denounced him in 1937 and no longer used his name in the scientific arena.

As a professor and researcher at Northwestern University, Ipatieff calculated the formulation of highoctane gasoline, which greatly aided the Allies during World War II. Ipatieff received some one hundred seventy patents, was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1939, and lived in Chicago until his death. Northwestern University named a chairmanship in its department of chemistry in his honor. The collection contains biographical materials, notes and correspondence relating to his career and accomplishments, and a Russian transcript of his memoirs, which the Hoover Institution published in English under the title The Life of a Chemist.

Another emigre, who settled in San Francisco and wrote an English language history of her family, was Antonia Von Arnold, known as Dora. …

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