Istanbul’s Russian history is fast fading into distant memory

It is a matter of a few years before the last surviving makers of Russian Istanbul’s history are buried into the murky waters of the past



About a century ago, dozens of ships nearing Istanbul shores brought hundreds of thousands weary and despondent Russian exiles, former aristocrats fleeing the regime created by the 1917 revolution; confused, starving and scared. In Istanbul- which to the eyes of the newcomers appeared as an exotic land with a certain Middle Eastern vibe- they would stay for a little more than a decade, but their imprint would be strong and memorable. However, that memory is fading past, and it is a matter of only a few years before the last surviving makers of Russian Istanbul’s history are buried into the murky waters of the past.
After the October Revolution in 1917 the Bolsheviks headed by Vladimir Lenin seized power in Russia. A civil war that lasted several years along the entire territory of the former Russian Empire began. In its aftermath, historians would place the total death toll anywhere between 14 to 23 million people. Millions were also displaced in the process, setting out to find new territories to call home.
Those that fled, which included members of the Russian nobility, were called white émigrés, as many of them were either participants in or supporters of a wider campaign called the White movement- a loose coalition of anti-communist groups that fought the Bolsheviks during Russia’s Civil War. Among those who arrived in Istanbul were not only these nobles, but also the remnants of the White movement’s armed force- called the White Army. Istanbul was the first harbor for temporary docking after leaving Russia for many, of these disgraced nobles. Most of them did not intend to stay; rather they treated this city as a transit point- much as it is today for many migrants- that could be a launchpad for moving on to Europe or the USA.
About 200,000 Russian refugees are believed to have landed along the Bosphorus shores during the first few years after the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in Russia. Despite the fact that the majority of white émigrés had left Istanbul by the end of the 1920s, having been dispersed around Europe at that time, during the short time they spent in Istanbul, reshaping their lives; planning their next move, they left a significant influence on the city; leaving a distinctive mark on its history.
Cupola of St. Eliah Church in İstanbul

After the revolution
In November 1920, more than a hundred ships carrying Russian refugees- who were once among the wealhiest in their country- fleeing the new regime, sailed from Sevastopol to Istanbul. It was the shortest and safest way to get out of Russia. “The sight of cargo steamships, on which the Russian immigrants from Crimea arrive in recent days, is the most terrible, devastating, and miserable (sight); it makes my hair stand on end”, is how Turkish novelist, journalist and diplomat Yakup Kadri described the newcomers’ state in an article entitled “The Russian Deception” for the İkdam newspaper. Kadri continued: “A friend of mine who closely observed a ship as it passed through the strait tells me: I will never forget how overcrowded this boat was. I have no idea what it was like inside the ship, but on the outside people appeared in clusters, tangled into each other; holding on to masts and the chain of the anchor. There were easily fifty- sixty people stuffed inside the tiny lifeboats on both sides of the ship. Some of them could only stay on the boat by clinging on to a hanging rope on the ship; the bottom of their torsos dangling in the water below. The final debris from the memory of yesterday’s spectacular Russian Empire will be etched in our memories in the shape of these nameless, faceless, miserable and sad piles of people on these boats. …. None of those onboard seem to have left anything inside of them that are remotely close to human memories, wants, thoughts, fear or hope.”
Most refugees were indeed very poor; there were a lot of sick people and children. What limited aid available was not sufficient. Everyone got settled as best he could: at boarding houses, Christian monasteries, stables of Dolmabahçe Palace or just under parked boats at the beach. The immigrants’ struggle for survival was dramatic. Many could move on thanks to the hopes they had that the Bolshevik regime would fall. However the most of refugees were not destined to live long enough to see how the regime would fair in the long run.
The Russian consulate yard on the Pera Street, known as the Büyük ed, or Cadde-i Kebir, (today’s Istiklal Street) became the center of the white immigrant life. The consulate was anti-communist and had not succumbed to the new regime; thus they were helpful. Registry listings were compiled, so people could look for the missing. Indeed, looking for things had become a way of life for many of these refugees. “Russians always look for something or someone”, one of the White movement’s ideologists Vasily Shulgin wrote in an essay titled “Grand rue de Pera”, the French name of the Pera Street, in his book “The Year 1921”, on the seemingly never-ending search Istanbul’s newcomers were in: “They look for missing husbands and wives, missing children, dead relatives; look for friends and brother-soldiers; look for those who could lend money; look for a job placement; look for a place where they can have lunch for free or cheaply; look for a shelter or an apartment”.
The second biggest problem of immigrants after looking for dwelling was finding a job placement. The former imperial elite earned its living in not so elegant ways. Yesterday’s generals, princes, dukes with their wives and daughters, the descendants of the royal family, now worked as shoe blacks; gardeners; seamstresses; painters; housekeepers; taxi-drivers; mechanics, and governesses; making handcrafted toys and jewelry; carrying boxes; serving coffee; selling cigarettes, newspapers and flowers. The former members of Russia’s aristocracy had to start a new life from the bottom of the social strata; and they were not prepared for that.
Refugees bring new color to Constantinople
Those white émigrés who were slightly better-off than the others- because they had been able to bring along some of their riches in the last minute- opened restaurants and cafés serving Russian delicacies as well as legal and medical offices. There were a multitude of signs on both sides of Pera Street indicating business with names that hinted at the Russian origin of their owners such as “The Bear,” “The Kremlin,” “Le Grand Cercle Muscovite,” “Petrograd Patisserie,” “Hermitage,” “The Golden Cockerel,” “Kyiv Circle,” and “Russian Corner.”
At the popular Russian restaurant Rejans, where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk liked to frequent, the cashier was the professor of mathematics of St. Petersburg University. The legendary variety singer Alexander Vertinsky performed in the fashionable cabaret-theater Black Rose, and he said that a former senator worked there as a doorman. The star of Saint Petersburg’s theatre of musical comedy, Vladimir Smirnov, opened a cabaret theater Pariziana, and a former governor worked in the kitchen of Istanbul’s new Russian restaurant, The Hermitage.

Photographs provided by Elena Gordienka

Refugees from artistic circles acquainted Turkey with the best examples of Russian opera and ballet, such as ‘The Barber of Seville’ and ‘Rasputin’. Ballet-masters Victor Zymyn and Boris Knyazev competed with each other. Pavel Tchelitchew, whose paintings have been appreciated by such geniuses as Picasso and Dali, designed the stage for Zymyn and Knyazev’s ballet acts. Famous Moscow jazzman Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas, the son of former slaves from Mississippi, presented dances like the Charleston and foxtrot to Constantinople residents for the first time. In the Gambling House people listened to the legendary crying violin of St Petersburg’s Romanian Jean Hulesko, one of the favorites of the last Russian Emperor Nicholas II.
Some Istanbul residents were influenced by newcomers and took over some habits and lifestyle elements of Russian immigrants. Modern Flower Passage (Cicek Pasaji) was renamed from Cite-de-Pera in honor of the Russian noblewomen who sold flowers there. Some of the city’s residents showed great interest in the restaurants and bars around Beyoglu, because of Russian waitresses. To have a Russian wife became fashionable among higher-class men in Istanbul. Influenced by the Russian women’s example, some female residents of Beyoğlu began to sport European-style clothes and short haircuts. The refugees also popularized suntanning on sandy beaches. Governesses from the emigrants’ circles also began to appear at the female half of some of the more upperclass families’ homes. Russian women taught young Istanbul girls not only grammar but also showed that there were different possiblities for women, if one were to look beyond the boundaries of one’s own culture.
A century later
Almost a hundred years have passed and to find the white émigrés’ traces in Istanbul is nearly impossible. Nothing much remains, except for the graves of some Russian white emigres’ at the far corner of the Greek Cemetery located not far from the Şişli Metro Station. The last remaining restaurant opened by the refugees, Rejans, an iconic venue embodying the court of the white émigrés spirit and values, where were the “tea days” with baking plyushki and pirozhki and making tea in samovar– was closed five years ago.
By the end of 1920’s only about 1,400 white émigrés had been left in Istanbul. Today, there are barely two dozens of the imperial elite’s heir.
The last remaining venue that brings together the descendants of the immigrants is St. Andrew’s Church in Karakoy near the Golden Horn. It is one of three Russian churches built in the late 19th century in Istanbul, and it occupies the upper floor of a residential apartment building. If you don’t know the details and don’t look for it intentionally, you couldn’t possibly spot the most famous Russian church of Istanbul just walking down the street.
Saving of this last piece of the rich and diverse white émigrés’ heritage is the main purpose of the charitable PAE Fukaraperver Association. The head of the organization Vasilisa Denisenko said that investors and developers had the local authorities’ permission for demolition of the building that houses the St. Elijah Church on its upper floor. Few years ago white émigrés tried to mobilize Russian city residents, opened the church for the first time in 50 years and held a Sunday church service there in an attempt to preserve it. Perhaps, this event and attention of media helped to save the church. Nevertheless Denisenko is sure that the real troubles are still ahead.
The few remaining descendants of the white émigrés belong to the parish of St. Andrew’s Church. Every Sunday after the church service they get together to drink tea, eating homemade cakes and discuss last news. Vira Kholodna-Gilbert, the granddaughter of the silent cinema legend Vira Kholodna, and Vasilisa Denysenko, the daughter of an immigrant who later was employed as a civil servant in Kars, attend these events. The rest of Istanbul’s White Russian Community, who now are in their 90s, the ones that saw and helped built Russian Istanbul are no longer able to climb up to the sixth floor in order to listen to Sunday church sermon. Most of them are living out the rest of their days in their own homes or retirement homes.

Elena Gordienko

A time-worn glory
Madam Elena Gordienko is 93. The sharp-minded woman speaks five languages, and still exercises in the mornings; reads newspapers and closely follows the political situation in Russia. In her youth Elena Gordienko was a ballerina; she owned the studio in Istanbul, where she taught young French and English women ballet and gymnastics.
Madam Gordienko would have been a Russian landowner in the former feudal system prior to the 1917 revolution. Her family owned many stretches of land in Rostov-on-Don. When the Bolsheviks came to power, most of her family were deported to Siberia; only her parents managed to escape to Istanbul. Her father Yakov Gordienko had to start a new life. Gordienko remembers her father holding at least 17 different jobs from being a masseur, a janitor to a taxi-driver. He worked as a tea peddler, and then persuaded the owner of the business to open a restaurant. He became the manager at first and later the sole owner of this business. A few years later Madam Gordienko's father opened the first beach with a tanning booth in Turkey. Madam Gordienko’s mother was too impatient for her husband to get his financial act together; and married a local man instead. Madam Gordienko hasn't had any children of her own; only her step-daughter and longtime friend Vasilisa Denisenko come to visit the old ballerina.
Only a few years will pass before all witnesses and direct creators of Russian Istanbul's vanishing history recede into the past. Several tomes of books, old family photo albums, some fragmentary memories of others will start rotting in dusty archives. The same ancient Greek cemetery with the graves of the white émigrés, and three Russian churches- whose future now also seems bleak- hidden in narrow backstreets are the last material remnants of this lost history. There will come the moment when Istanbul erases from its memory any recollection of the Russian Pera Street, Ataturk’s Rejans and the Russian women that stole many an Istanbul man’s heart.

*Alyona Savchuk is a student at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv and she wrote this piece during her internship at Punto24.