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Last December, 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. “For the first time since 1941–45,” wrote a celebrated young writer, the nationalist Zakhar Prilepin, in the same publication, “White Russia and Red Russia, past Russia and, God willing, future Russia have met.”
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.
Von Hahn—whose German ancestors first settled in Russia in the eighteenth century and included the legendary reformer Prime Minister Sergei Witte—grew up in the Soviet Union after much of his family was killed or exiled. Now living in Germany, he told me that Shakhovskoi’s letter is a way for Putin “to demonstrate that the Kremlin’s influence doesn’t stop in Moscow, but also has very loud voices in Western capitals. That’s a very powerful instrument,” he said.
Neither Shakhovskoi nor others contacted for this article responded to requests for comment. However, 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. Alexandre Bondarev, a translator who left the Soviet Union for Paris in the 1970s, said the letter’s wording also provides strong circumstantial evidence that it was written in Moscow. “There are phrases that are clearly Soviet and not from émigrés who were born and grew up in France,” he told me. An especially politicized paragraph describes Western actions toward Moscow as a “self-defeating, ridiculous scheme.” It is “prompting all those to think seriously who see in it more evidence of the West’s aim to stifle Russia’s development than to settle the crisis in Ukraine.”
“This is an obvious intelligence special operation,” Bondarev says.
Others believe that Shakhovskoi was acting on his own. And “that’s the beauty of it,” von Hahn says. “Putin doesn’t need agents. Those people who signed this document are very much driven by the illusion of their influence in Russia.”
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. Homesick and ill at ease outside Russia, many were easy targets. Some were kidnapped. Among them was one of von Hahn’s grandfathers, who had fought in Siberia alongside Admiral Alexander Kolchak, a leader of the White forces opposing the Red army during the civil war that followed the revolution. After settling in China, where he had fled, he was forced back to the USSR and shot as a traitor in 1937 during Stalin’s Great Terror.
Another 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, too, 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—was seen by was seen by von Hahn and others 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.
Critics say that such attention effectively plays on émigré identities. “What does it mean to be Russian if you live abroad?” Bondarev says. “Today it has to be that you’re for Putin because Putin is Russia, and they’re nobodies without Russia.” The Kremlin is targeting “the same people with the same goal” as the KGB did in its day, he adds, this time to exploit the respect their pedigrees generate, along with their ostensible anti-Communist credentials and positions in Western society. “And the basic goal is the same: using people as direct agents, agents of influence, or—as Lenin said—as ‘useful idiots.’
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.
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. Other Russian neighbors worry that Putin’s claim will extend to them. “Next it can be Latvia, which is 40 percent Russian, or maybe Estonia,” says Bondarev, who like some other Kremlin critics compares Putin’s logic with Hitler’s rationale for annexing Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland in 1939. A new law defining “compatriots” abroad enacted two years ago—along with the creation of a new Foreign Ministry department devoted to that issue—is raising more fears. “Putin, like Stalin, is eyeing world domination under the motto of Russkii Mir, which he’s combining with an incredible wave of anti-Americanism,” Bondarev says. “Defeating the United States is now an officially stated goal.”
Some of the propaganda comes out through a proliferation of ostensibly independent cultural organizations in Western capitals that are funded by state and private money and headed by prominent Kremlin loyalists. They include one called Russkiy Mir, which operates centers in Washington, London, and other Western cities and which Putin created supposedly to promote the Russian language and Russian Orthodox values. The stated goal of another, the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation—with offices in Moscow, New York, and Paris—is to gain a hearing for Russian positions on global human rights and democracy and to expose what it says are double standards by the West. The involvement of Russians in the West is key. “They need the support of the émigrés to build the concept of the Russkii Mir,” Bondarev says.
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.
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, Malofeev organized a secret meeting of European right-wing politicians aimed at combating the world’s “satanic gay lobby.” The event was headlined by 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.”
Anti-Americanism also fuels support for the Kremlin from Europe’s left. Greece’s new ruling coalition, led by the radical left-wing Syriza party, has made waves for emerging as a potential Russia ally within the EU. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has objected to sanctions against Russia. Last year, during a trip to Moscow, he accused the Ukrainian government of having “neo-Nazi” elements. He’s not alone. The Greek defense minister, Panos Kammenos, was photographed in Moscow last year together with senior legislators from Putin’s United Russia party, and Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias is known to have friendly ties to Dugin, whom he invited to Athens in 2013 to lecture about the role of Orthodox Christianity.
Elsewhere in Europe, Communists and other powerful leftist groups that supported the Soviet Union during the Cold War tend be sympathetic toward Russia. Not least in France, where more than 60 percent of those polled believe their country was wrong to suspend a $1.39 billion sale to Russia of two highly advanced helicopter-carrier ships after the conflict in Ukraine started. Against that background, Shakhovskoi’s letter has been effective. “Westerners listen to the émigrés,” Bondarev says. “Most people don’t care about one or the other side [of the conflict in Ukraine]. But a certain number do believe that America will do anything to remain the strongest power, and that Russia needs to balance the United States.”
Although there is no evidence that émigré descendants’ support for Putin has significantly swayed opinions in Russia or abroad, its importance lies in what it reveals about his strategy. It shows the Kremlin is able and willing to use Russians living abroad—even those who would not seem natural allies of his regime—as part of its so-called hybrid war in Ukraine, von Hahn says, “hundreds of thousands, if not millions of them, as Putin's proxies.”
Not everyone has found Putin’s appeal to many in the White émigré community, which is largely nostalgic for tsarist Russia, entirely surprising. “They’re people for whom empire is the only possible and normal form for the Russian state,” wrote a critic on the Russian version of LiveJournal. Nevertheless, Shakhovskoi’s letter represents a new level of support that has shocked critical members of the group. “These were ‘former people,’” one dissenter who lives in the United States says about her parents, using the Bolshevik term used to evoke the destruction of an entire social class. “They would be turning in their graves to know their memory is being evoked to support a regime run by a KGB officer.”
Even so, the propaganda is working. The vast majority of Russians, more than 80 percent, still buy the Kremlin’s narrative that Putin is rebuilding Russian greatness despite the looming economic crisis that’s already wiped out a large portion of their savings. Faced with recession this year, Putin will almost certainly be doing even more to push that line in the West.
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