The Refugees Who Built Modern Belgrade

A century ago, twin revolutions enveloped Imperial Russia, already weakened by participation in World War I. The February Revolution dismantled the centuries-old autocratic system by ousting the Tsar, while the October Revolution marked the rise of the Bolsheviks who were to emerge victorious from a five-year civil war against the remaining royalists and other opponents, and ultimately proclaim the Soviet Union.

This turmoil, which set the course for many 20th Century events and still influences global politics today, sent large parts of the Russian nobility, intelligentsia and general population in search of safety across the globe.

While the richest and most prominent of them took refuge in Paris, Berlin and London, between 40,000 and 100,000 Russians found themselves in the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, whose Karadjordjevic dynasty welcomed them with open arms and encouraged them to settle.

The reasons for this magnanimity were partly historical, partly political and partly pragmatic.

Imperial Russia, another Orthodox Christian monarchy, not only gave support to the Karadjordjevics in their pre-World War I opposition to the Habsburg Empire, but also had strong personal ties with the ambitious young King Aleksandar I.

The assassination of King Aleksandar Obrenovic and the subsequent accession of his father King Petar I Karadjordjevic to the Serbian throne, found young Aleksandar at an elite military school in St Petersburg where he received his education. His sister, Jelena, and two of his maternal aunts, daughters of King Nikola of Montenegro, were all married to prominent members of the Romanov family. There were also attempts to secure a marriage between him and the second daughter of Tsar Nikolai II, Grand Duchess Tatiana, whose brutal death at the hands of the Bolsheviks he allegedly mourned.

Wrangel (2nd right, bottom row) with the Russian diaspora in Yugoslavia

The decision to support the White Russians was also a political gamble on the part of the young king. Having prominent members of the Russian ancien regime in Belgrade meant that King Aleksandar I could have significant power over politics in Russia in case the Bolsheviks were eventually defeated. Mikhail Rodzianko, the speaker of the Duma and one of the key protagonists in the Tsar’s abdication, moved to Belgrade in 1920 and is buried in Belgrade’s New Cemetery. The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, founded by clerics who thought the Russian Orthodox Church had been compromised by the Bolsheviks, was formed in Serbia in 1922 to unite all the faithful abroad.

The most important of the emigres in Serbia was Baron Pyotr Wrangel, who led the White Russian Army in the South of the Russian Empire and, after their defeat in 1920, fled to Sremski Karlovci, a historic town in the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina, via Istanbul and Tunisia. Four years later, he founded the Russian All-Military Union, an organisation uniting Russian emigres in the fight against the Bolsheviks. After his sudden, and suspicious, death in Brussels, his remains were transferred to Belgrade, as he regarded Serbia as his new homeland.

Chapel of the Holy Trinity aka “Russian church” , Tašmajdan where Wrangel’s remains are buried

Beyond political considerations, the reasons for accepting the White Russians were pragmatic. The new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, devastated by war, was desperate for educated people to help fashion it into a major European state. Belgrade, looted and heavily bombarded by the German and Habsburg forces, was in dire need of rebuilding to match its more prominent status. The city was also attractive to many emigres, aside from cultural and religious links. While many of the White Russians who ended up in Belgrade were quickly employed in prominent jobs, those who choose to go to Paris, Berlin and London ended up as destitute taxi drivers and servants.

Memorial for Russian Soldiers in WWI
Memorial to the Russian soldiers and Tzar Nikolai II, New Cemetery Belgrade

Thus in the years after World War I, Belgrade, whose population was less than 100,000, enthusiastically welcomed about 10,000 Russian emigres. Among the refugees were many engineers, artists and academics who ended up enriching their new home’s academic and art scene, despite leaving Russia with only a few belongings.

Nina Kirsanova and Marina Olenina elevated the ballet scene in their adopted homeland, while many engineers, historians, theologians and mathematicians started teaching at Belgrade University.

The member of Belgrade’s imported intelligentsia who left the most obvious mark on the city was Nikolai Krasnov. An architect famed for designing splendid villas in Crimea for the Russian Empire’s rich and famous, Krasnov’s most famous work was Livadia Palace, the summer residence of the Romanovs, where the Yalta conference between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt took place in 1945.

After the Revolution, Krasnov fled with his family to Turkey and then Malta, but was invited to Belgrade in 1922 to join the Department of Monumental Architectural Developments and Monuments. Until his death in Belgrade in 1939, he designed some of Belgrade’s most impressive buildings, including those that currently house the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Government of Serbia, as well as the State Archives and the interior of the National Assembly.

Beside his work on monumental historical palaces, he also led the work on reconstruction of the Ruzica church in the Belgrade fortress and worked extensively for the royal family. He designed a magnificent villa as part of the Belgrade Royal Court complex in Dedinje suburb of Belgrade, and the St George church in Oplenac in Central Serbia which houses the sumptuously decorated tombs of the Karadjordjevic dynasty.

St George Church in Oplenac designed by Krasnov

Krasnov was, however, only one of the many Russian architects who left their mark on the booming Belgrade of 1920s and 30s. They had their hand in designing the War Museum buildings in Kalemegdan, the Old Army Head Quarters in Kneza Milosa, the Patriarch’s palace across the road from Saborna crkva and the main Post Office in Kneza Milosa.

Although they integrated well into Belgrade life, the White Russians worked hard to keep the memory of Imperial Russia alive. The Russian House in Belgrade operated high schools for boys and girls, hosted cultural events and had a Russian restaurant, as well as a small museum dedicated to the memory of the last Tsar. In 1922, the White emigres built the church of Holy Trinity in Tasmajdan Park, which still has as a relic some Russian soil brought after the revolution. Later at Belgrade’s New Cemetery, they built a replica of the Kremlin’s Iveron chapel, which was blown up by the Bolsheviks.

Iveron Chapel, New Cemetery

Apart from ethnic Russians, several hundred Kalmyks, members of a nomadic Buddhist people from the shores of the Caspian Sea who fought against the Bolsheviks, escaped to Belgrade and built a Buddhist pagoda in 1929. Avid riders, they also brought horses with them, which is why the part of the city where they settled is still named Konjarnik (horse-place) [more on Konjarnik here].

World War II and the arrival of the Red Army in October 1944 spelled the end of the prominent place that the White Russians enjoyed in Belgrade. Some of the emigres fled further west fearing retribution from Stalin’s forces and the Yugoslav Communists. Others, including many Kalmyks, sided with the Nazis and either died fighting against or retreated towards Germany.

Kalmyk pagoda

However, a great number of them, tired of constantly moving, stayed in Serbia. Often fully assimilated they continued to contribute to their new home city the face of which they changed during just two decades. Their descendants include Olja Ivanjicki, the famous painter, Viktor Troicki, the tennis player, and many other notable Serbians.

This article originally appeared in the Belgrade Insight and is available on the Balkan Insight. The article in also available on in (Serbo-)Croatian


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.