White Russians in Istanbul, Smirnoff and a Black Russian

The First World War revealed a huge devastation that caused both the winner and the loser to face a great economic storm. Before the end of the First World War, Russia, in 1917, gave up and found itself in the middle of internal conflicts. On the one side were the Tsar and the defenders, on the other side, the communists. Those who struggled to save the Tsar were called “Whites”, and those who were on the communist side were called “Reds”. The White Russian name is a political connotation that remains to this day. It has nothing to do with White Russia (Belarus), which is now a state.

White Russians’ Refuge in the Ottoman Empire

In 1917, civil war erupted and a great depression occurred. With the political upheaval, also called the Bolshevik Revolution, the Reds and Whites tangled with each other. The Red Army, which is quite crowded, consists of 600,000 people. The White Army consists of only 200,000 people, many of whom are educated bourgeois. The White Army tried to escape to the Black Sea after a massive massacre. The refuge of White Russians to the Ottomans occurred in these days. The White Russians, who are from the rich and noble segment we call the top layer, settled mostly around Tuzla, Gelibolu, Hadımköy, Mudanya and Istanbul. In particular, Beyoğlu and its surroundings were full of Russians at the time. According to research, nearly 200 White Russians took refuge in Istanbul. Just like with the Jews, who escaped from the inquisition in Spain in the 1400s and sought shelter in Istanbul, there was no other place for White Russians to escape.

White Russians in Istanbul, Smirnoff and a Black Russian
Russian refugees living in camps in Istanbul circa 1920.

Survival of White Russians in Istanbul

Many of the White Russians who came to Istanbul were educated people. Many women tried to win their bread in İstanbul as waitresses and singers. Just as in 1990, after the disintegration of Soviet Russia, the Russians who went to the Black Sea coasts were called “Natasha” and the beautiful Russians who took refuge in Istanbul during those years were called “Harasho”. More than 80 percent of the White Russians who took refuge in Istanbul decided to go to France, America and Argentina within a few years, and they spent the rest of their lives in those countries.

White Russians in Istanbul, Smirnoff and a Black Russian
Historical Çiçek Pasajı

White Russians and Flowers Arcade

Russian girls who preferred to stay in Istanbul mostly tried to meet their needs by selling flowers in Beyoğlu, İstiklal Caddesi, and Cadde-i Kebir. The period when the beautiful Russian girls sold flowers was also very nice for the people in Istanbul, and many people bought flowers from these girls for their loved ones. During the occupation years, when French and British soldiers came out in the vicinity of Beyoğlu and Cadde-i Kebir, they bothered the girls, who then escaped to the nearby arcade. The name of the neighborhood, which was very popular for the Levantine team, is now called the historic Çiçek Pasajı (“Flower Arcade”).

White Russians in Istanbul, Smirnoff and a Black Russian
Aleksander and Zinaida Smirnoff, a Russian couple from St. Petersburg, were living in Kopytow when the Nazis invaded Poland.

Entrepreneur White Russians

Russia is a cold country, and many people consume vodka to break the cold air. Vodka, which has become a national drink, was introduced with the Russians. The Smirnoff Family, who has been producing vodka for the Russian Tsar for exactly eight centuries, was one of the other refugees. Vladimir Petrovic Smirnoff, a member of the famous family who took refuge in Istanbul, continued the vodka production that he learned from his father in Istanbul. Smirnoff Vodka, which reflected the family name, was produced in the manufacturing factory in Istanbul and then exported to all of Europe. In addition, Vladimir Smirnoff opened and operated a drink house called the Parizyen. After a while, he moved to Paris with the secret of vodka that he did not share with anyone. Soon after, Smirnoff Vodka was heard all over the world.

A Black Russian in White Russians

White Russians in Istanbul, Smirnoff and a Black Russian
Frederik Bruce Thomas

The Black Russian among the White Russians is an interesting person who is still remembered for his story and legacy in Istanbul. The Black Russian, named Frederik Bruce Thomas, was born in Mississippi. He lost his father during the persecution of blacks. He did not want to stay in Mississippi, so he went to Europe. However, the inhuman treatment we call racism continued in Europe too. Then he passed to Russia. For the first time in his life, he felt safe because Russia did not treat hem oddly in its cosmopolitan structure. He got married twice and was active in the entertainment industry with the name Maksim Casino. After he arrived in İstanbul, Frederik Bruce Thomas worked in many jobs and then reintroduced Maksim Casino in Istanbul again. At that time, interestingly, Yıldız Palace served as the gambling operator, and Thomas took over its operation through an auction. One day, when someone committed suicide in front of the gambling house, Thomas was arrested and all of his possessions were seized. He got sick after a couple of months in jail and lost his life at the age of 55.

Vladimir Alekxandrov, a professor at Yale University, researched and published the life story of this interesting personality. The book is called The Black Russian.