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Russian Roulette


  Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes limber up in New York

Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes limber up in New York

Friday 19th & Saturday 20th January

In the aftermath of the 1917 Revolution, life is tough for White Russians. Many are forced to flee the Motherland, often with their wealth hidden about their persons, settling in Shanghai, Paris, New York… Those without funds take odd jobs—composers become music teachers, socialites work as taxi dancers. Princess Natalia Paley, a cousin of Nicolas II, becomes a fashion model. A young Yul Brynner plays guitar in Russian nightclubs in France. The better-off continue in their old careers, such as film actress Olga Baclanova, one of many Russians who take their talents to Hollywood. Writer Ivan Bunin wins a Nobel prize in exile and the scandalous Tamara de Lempicka paints the famous and wealthy in her "soft cubist" style from her studio in Paris. Vladimir Nabokov's well-heeled family catch the last ship out of Sevastopol and land in England. Sergei Rachmaninoff flees to Helsinki by open sled with only some notebooks and music scores, but within a year he has been invited to the US where Steinway gives him a piano.

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Tamara de Lempicka working on a portrait of her husband Tadeusz

But they don't forget the troubles back home. Some debate furiously in Russian bars and the émigré press, awaiting the expected collapse of Bolshevism so they can return. Nabokov's father is mistakenly assassinated by a Russian monarchist. Others simply dream of the Motherland and the homes and lives they have lost.

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The displaced White Russians made quite an impact in the cities that became their new homes, as this cartoon from 1927 shows

A shipload of exotic but maudlin aristocrats creeps into the docks by night: where do they go to drown their sorrows? Why, the Candlelight Club, of course. But, hey, they've brought vodka…

  There will be no shortage of vodka at our party, thanks to heroic sponsorship Stolichnaya

There will be no shortage of vodka at our party, thanks to heroic sponsorship Stolichnaya

At our party there will be high-kicking live music from Atomek Soviet Swing, who combine 1920s jazz with an East European klezmer and folk, all presided over by Tsar of the Bar and Commisar of Cabaret Champagne Charlie, with vintage vinylism from DJ Auntie Maureen.

Atomek Soviet Swing at their only previous UK performance, at the Royal Academy of Arts last October. The event sold out and revellers were being turned away

Later Event: February 10
Valentine's Ball