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Our Friends from the East: Russian Revolutionaries and British Radicals, 1852-1917

John Slatter celebrates the far-ranging contributions of Russian political émigrés to British life in the half-century before 1917.

From 1852, when Alexander Gertsen (1812-70) first arrived in Britain, until 1917, there was a constant flow of Russian émigrés to these shores, among them tens of thousands of Jewish refugees from persecution or forced conversion. The large numbers of Russian Jews settling in the East End of London formed a backdrop against which the political drama was played out, but their fates were gradually caught up in British working-class life, with its pressures of poverty and deprivation, and they were forced to adjust and to settle in Britain with more or less willingness just as their hosts were more or less willing to accept them. To that extent, these were immigrants to Britain, not emigrants living within the country.

Other refugees, however, were purely political, anti-Tsarist in their views, and they settled at best on the margins of British life, with no intention of staying once Russia had become less dangerous for them. Their views ranged from the libertarianism of Gertsen to the outright anarchist-communism of Kropotkin, but all were equally repugnant to the Tsarist authorities. In Britain they sought, and mostly found, a kind of official indifference. They were neither celebrated nor persecuted so long as they did not continue their revolutionary activities on British soil.

Other potential asylum-giving countries such as France or Switzerland tended to have variable relations with the Russian homeland. They were sometimes willing to receive refugees from Tsarist authority, but might hand them back when a human sacrifice was needed for the sake of good relations. In spite of its poor climate and cuisine, and the notorious insularity of its population, Britain represented a relatively secure asylum.

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