An Era Gone But Not Forgotten

December 13, 2012—An unlikely research proposal led Masha Goncharova (C’14) to a community keeping their Imperial Russian traditions alive and well in Paris.

This past summer Goncharova, an English major and art history minor, conducted research for the Education and Social Justice Project, an initiative by the Center for Social Justice for Research, Teaching, and Service and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. Now in its third year, the project investigates the “intersection of education and social justice,” Goncharova explained. The project provides students with fellowships to research how religious communities advance development through education.

“Over the years, [the project’s] been fortunate enough to include more fellows and more topics,” Goncharova said. Many research projects originally focused on work at Jesuit institutions. “Mine was one of the projects [that] got to branch out from the original scope of the project.”

Goncharova is a native Russian speaker, but she also speaks French and Spanish. As she looked for a possible research topic, she tried to link her language skills and knowledge of Russian Orthodoxy. Online research led her to a youth organization of Russians in France, ACER-Russie (l’Action Chrétienne des Etudiants Russes).

“I learned that there’s a huge Russian expat community in France, one that’s been developing for 100 years now,” she said. This community descends from Russian immigrants who fled persecution during the Bolshevik Revolution. “These people were the ones whose cultural and intellectual efforts built up Imperial Russia. They were forced to flee what they created,” she continued. Goncharova went to Paris to answer one question, “How did they end up in Paris still together, after all these generations?”

She discovered that community members would gather at the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church in Paris. “Through the church, they consolidated their communities and survived through faith, which I found fascinating.”

As these Russian immigrants realized that the Bolsheviks would remain in power, they lost their citizenship and began to establish lives in France. “I think one of the most important things to be a just society is to have an identity. I think these people preserved a moment in time and an identity—because Imperial Russia clearly no longer exists, but it does [for them].”

Goncharova interviewed three generations from the Russian community in and around Paris to learn how they passed down their traditions. “These kids in [later] generations were educated in a completely Russian Orthodox tradition,” she said. The community established Russian schools, seminaries, and summer camps.

They no longer had the social or financial status that they did in Russia, but the generations refused to let go of their ideals. “They’re famous for becoming cab drivers because they were the most polite. They would open the door for you and make polite conversation. They were enacting Imperial Russian manners,” she said. “That was their approach to everything.

“The greatest challenge I saw them overcome was figuring out the day-to-day basics of life without political, social, or financial status.”

Of course, many in the community adapted and changed over generations. “They have different summer camps and different churches. Some take a Western approach, and others take a Russophile approach,” she said. Goncharova found close-knit communities that may prefer to speak French, but pray in Russian and have never let go of their religion. “I think [faith] is the one thing that could tie these people together,” she explained. “Every activity they were engaged in was connected to the church in some way.”

Over the course of her research, Goncharova was most surprised by her own reaction to the community. “I didn’t expect to become so emotionally tied to these people,” she said. “I am also a Russian immigrant; I came to the United States when I was nine. I felt ties to that very first generation who had to move, but I never had a community around me.” In her small town in California, she didn’t have neighbors who spoke Russian or believed in Orthodoxy.

“Had I kept [all] that I think it would have been an overwhelmingly different experience for me,” she said.

After three weeks of research, interviews, and new friends, Goncharova wrote a report about all three generations, and they have encouraged her to continue the project. “People who were older said, ‘You have to keep telling our story.’

“It’s really inspiring, and I hope to do more with this because I felt like my work wasn’t really done at all.”

—Elizabeth Wilson