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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

Crossing Borders

Russians in Cote d’Azur
Text Piers Gladstone
Photos Sveva Costa Sanseverino

Before the Russian Revolution in 1917, much of Russian royalty and aristocracy followed the lead of their English counterparts, spending a great deal of time and money on the Cote d’Azur. During and soon after the revolution, the numbers of Russians there swelled with refugees fleeing the Bolsheviks. Many made their way to Menton, a town on the French Riviera near the Italian border where there was an existing Russian community, complete with a sanatorium called Maison Russe, a small Russian Orthodox church, and a Russian cemetery high on a hill overlooking the town and the Mediterranean Sea.

Olga Hautefeuille, the matriarch of the Russian community in Menton

“My father was born in 1888 at the family property in the Pskov region, south of Novgorod,” states Olga Hautefeuille, the 85-year-old matriarch of Menton’s Russian community, in immaculate English, a picture of Tsar Nicholas II sitting close by on the table next to her. “It was a big property that was given to my family, the Cherikoffs, by the tsar in the middle of the 17th century because a Cherikoff had been successfully waging war in the Crimea against the Tatars. A lot of noble people served the emperor,” Olga explains matter-of-factly, “either in the army or in the administration of the land. It was a tradition in Russia. My great-grandfather was a general. My father was a military man, an officer in the guard.”

In 1917, the October Revolution ended Russia’s participation in World War I and served as a catalyst for civil war. “My father was in a German prison camp somewhere near Prussia for three years, until his release in November 1918. He went straight down to Sevastopol in southern Russia to join the White Russian Army. Then, in early 1919, he was evacuated by an English man-of-war to Malta, where he met my mother who had also left in 1919. They married in Malta and then came back to Russia in the summer of 1919 thinking it wouldn’t last. They didn’t think they were leaving forever.”

In 1920, Olga’s parents left their motherland for the last time, by boat from the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk. After some time in a British refugee camp on a Greek island, Olga’s parents and their newborn son were granted permission to travel to Menton because they had a relative there. “A sister-in-law of my father’s had already settled in Menton. She had a tea room. It was very modest,” Olga says, giggling at the memory. “It was called La Ferme Russe, but it was rather exotic here. There were quite a lot of English people living here and they used to come and have tea there.”

Olga’s parents started work in the tea room and took a loan from a wealthy Russian who lived in Menton and bought the house that Olga still lives in. They started a business making Russian embroideries and handicrafts that in time became a successful couture shop. Others were not so fortunate, and those who were destitute were housed in the sanatorium, Maison Russe, or in cheap hotels. Once wealthy women could be seen pawning their family jewels while their husbands struggled to find work. “People were very courageous and took any work they could get,” Olga explains. “A friend of my father’s who was a general in the Russian army was looking after a zoo close to Nice.”

A pre-revolution family photograph brought from Russia by Serge Sozonoff ’s father

Olga was born in Menton in 1922, giving her French citizenship and a French passport. Nonetheless, she proudly states: “I consider myself to be Russian.” That same year the Nansen passport was introduced, giving the stateless Russian refugees a passport that was recognized by 52 countries. “It was awfully difficult,” Olga recalls. “In my father’s Nansen passport it stated, ‘Refugee of Russian origin.’ He had no nationality. Just a refugee.”

Not all of the 1.4 million Russians who fled the country, however, were counts and countesses. “My family were not aristocrats; they were middle-class,” Serge Sozanoff explains in the living room of his house high up on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean. “From my father’s side they were mostly intellectuals. My grandmother was a medic and my grandfather was a professor of chemistry, and on my mother’s side they were all priests.” His parents’ family icons and paintings are on the walls, and the sideboards and shelves are littered with matryoshka dolls and other Russian handicrafts. Serge opens a file and brings out old black-andwhite photos of his family.

“My father was studying in St. Petersburg and was mobilized as a young ensign in the White Russian Army during the revolution. Of course, when they were defeated, he fled. He traveled with some friends down to Turkey. How he got there, we never knew because it was a black part of his history that he never spoke about,” Serge says without emotion. After this journey, his father took a cargo boat from Istanbul, disembarking in Holland because, in Serge’s father’s words, “it was clean and the sun was shining.” He arrived with only what he had in his pockets.

“My father always told us, ‘You have to integrate yourself into a country,’” Serge explains. “We had our Russian culture, Russian friends, Easter and other religious celebrations, but he was very much against forming a ghetto community.” Serge’s first language is French and his children, unlike Olga’s son, do not speak Russian. Although they were baptized and married in Menton’s Russian Orthodox church, Serge says his children “were raised French, so there are practically no Russian traces anymore.”

The Sozanoff dinner table is, however, one place where the Russian tradition is still strong. “Serge’s parents lived with us for several years, and his mother tried to keep the traditions,” Serge’s wife, Marina, says. “My mother-inlaw taught me all the recipes and I try to continue.” Judging by Serge’s enthusiastic reaction, it seems that Marina has done her mother-in-law proud. “Yes, we have borsch, pirozhki and pelmeni, but there is one meal I particularly like: kasha and lamb. My sons are not particularly keen on the kasha though,” he adds with a chuckle. “Sometimes we cook Russian food for friends because you cannot eat such food in restaurants here, but usually we eat Russian food and drink vodka for special events in the calendar like Post [Lent].”

As the most important date in the Russian Orthodox calendar, Easter is celebrated annually in Menton’s Russian church. The day before, Serge can be found in his garden bending over a table with a mountain of hardboiled eggs. “This is my job,” Serge says gesturing to the table, “to paint 100 eggs all different colors every year. It’s terrible! I remember painting the eggs as a child. We paint ‘XB’ on the eggs, which in Russian stands for ‘Christos Voskrese,’ Christ is Risen.”

Serge Sozonoff painting eggs in preparation for Easter

At the Easter Mass, Olga Hautefeuille stands behind a counter handing out candles to the members of the congregation. “The church is very important because it’s where people meet,” she says. “It is where we gather, where we get to know each other. When we have someone new, we ask them if they are here for a short time or are if they are living here.” The church is small, its walls covered with icons, the air heavy with incense. At the end of the lengthy service, Father Milanko, the church’s Serbian priest, hands out Serge’s painted eggs with three kisses to the 18 people in the congregation. “Before, this church was full, but now most of the people are dead,” says Serge sadly.

As a French citizen and a teacher of Russian, Olga was able to go to Moscow for the first time in 1960. “I was terribly excited!” she says with a gleeful laugh. “My father wasn’t pleased. ‘Why do you want to go there now, to that country?’ he said. Well, I wanted to know Russia very much. He wouldn’t go. Of course, when I returned he asked questions,” she recalls with affection.

On arrival in Moscow, Olga wrote a letter to an aunt who was still living in Leningrad and asked her to come meet her. After a week’s agonizing wait with no answer, Olga sent a telegram. “She telephoned to say she had been queuing the whole night to get her ticket to Moscow and would come to my hotel. I was very excited, but of course I was afraid, afraid for her.” Olga pauses and smiles fondly before continuing. “I saw her in the revolving door and recognized her because of her eyes. She said, ‘If I was going to be shot tomorrow, I would still have come to meet you.’ It was like that at the time. They were afraid.”

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 gave Olga the opportunity to finally visit her family estate. “The house had been burned in 1920, that I knew. Stupid!” Olga says angrily. “Instead of using it for something else, they burned the whole place. Pfff… terrible!” Nevertheless, Olga’s return was a happy one because of how she was received by the people who were living and working on the land. “They shouted, ‘Barynya priyekhala [The mistress has come]!’ They were very pleased to see me and to hear the history of the place. They were awfully nice to me, and I wanted to stay.”

The year 1991 also provided a watershed moment for those living in Russia. “Menton is a bit of a pilgrimage for some Russians,” Olga explains with delight. “The other day I was in church and met a lady who said she had come from Russia especially to go to the grave of the Grand Duke Alexander. She had just read his memoirs in Russia. People are very interested and now Russians come and leave flowers. Before they didn’t know anything. It was a complete blackout. And now they know, and want to know more. They ask, ‘How did it happen? How did you manage to live?’ These are normal people, not the nouveaux riches who buy villas in Cap d’Antibes or Monte Carlo — just normal people who can aff ord a trip to France for a week or two. We mix easily, but it’s not the same, of course. They haven’t got the same education. But still, it is so pleasant to see Russian people, to know from them how it was, how it is.”

Although today in Menton the direct connection with the Russian past has nearly reached its natural end, there are signs that this cultural tradition will continue. “There is no one left from the generation of my parents,” Olga says. “Now we have a lot of new Russians. I don’t mean the sort with a lot of money, but the wives of Italian or French men who have recently arrived.”

The Russian cemetery overlooking the town of Menton

Like Olga Hautefeuille, Olga Maes, who is originally from Belorussia, married a Frenchman. The couple are the proud parents of a newborn, whom they bring to Serge Sozanoff ’s Easter Sunday lunch. For Olga Maes, like many other Russian newcomers to the Cote d’Azur past and present, the church is a way both to integrate into the Menton community and to connect with their homeland, helping to continue this centuries-old tradition of Russians on the Cote d’Azur.

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