Some twenty pages into Nabokov’s first novel, Mary (1926), the protagonist, Ganin, an émigré displaced by the Russian Revolution who has found a precarious home in Berlin, returns to his pension—“a cheerless house in which lived seven Russian lost shades”—and sinks into despair. In that moment, “the whole of life seemed [to him] like a piece of film-making where heedless extras knew nothing of the picture in which they were taking part.” Despair is the characteristic mood of the so-called White émigrés, who fought against or simply opposed the Bolsheviks and ended up scattered across the cities of Europe, Asia, and the Americas; it is also the title of Nabokov’s seventh novel. The image of dispirited Russian-speakers wasting away in the boarding houses and smoke-filled cafés of Paris and Berlin is indeed something of a cliché. Like most clichés, it has a basis in truth.
When Nabokov’s Ganin reaches for a cinematic metaphor to express his ennui, he alludes to something that became another cliché of Russophone émigré life—one to which he returns later in the novel. At the deathbed of the poet Podtyagin,
he looked in the old man’s face, and once again he remembered these flickering, shadowy doppelgängers, the casual Russian film extras, sold for ten marks apiece and still flitting, God knows where, across the white gleam of a screen.
Ganin knows firsthand whereof he speaks. In emigration, asserts Nabokov’s narrator,
Nothing was beneath his dignity; more than once he had even sold his shadow, as many of us have. In other words he went out to the suburbs to work as a movie extra on a set, in a fairground barn, where light seethed with a mystical hiss from the huge facets of lamps that were aimed, like cannon, at a crowd of extras, lit to a deathly brightness. They would fire a barrage of murderous brilliance, illuminating the painted wax of motionless faces, then expiring with a click—but for a long time yet there would glow, in those elaborate crystals, dying red sunsets—our human shame. The deal was clinched, and our anonymous shadows sent out all over the world.
It wasn’t just Nabokov’s protagonist and narrator who had sold their shadows. The émigré author’s chief biographer, Brian Boyd, tells us that on March 12, 1925, Nabokov himself “left [Berlin] at 7 a.m. for a day’s work as a film extra [and] returned at 5 a.m. with ten dollars in his hand, greasepaint on his brows and klieg-light spots in his eyes.”
This wasn’t the only day Nabokov spent filling out the background on Weimar film sets, nor was he the only Russophone émigré to sell his shadow and write about it. The translator Bryan Karetnyk recently unearthed and published, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, a short story titled “Extras” (1940) by Yuri Felsen (né Nikolai Freudenstein, 1894–1943), who settled in Paris in the 1920s and whose prose, once compared to Proust’s, languished in obscurity for decades after his death in Auschwitz. The story begins:
Petrik, my dearest friend, recently offered to fix me up as an extra on a film-shoot. Not without some embarrassment did I accept his offer, knowing full well that it would mean degrading myself, capitulating somehow in life’s struggle, since I should be obliged to settle for the sorriest part in it.
It’s no surprise that Nabokov and Felsen, deprived of agency and chased from land to land by forces far larger than themselves, would find the experience of playing “the sorriest part”—that of mute foreigners in foreign films—to be a fitting figure of the broader existential predicament of their fellow émigrés.
It’s also fitting that Karetnyk’s translation appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, which is headquartered in the movie capital of the world. Even in the first half of the twentieth century, when Nabokov and Felsen were hawking their shadows on the cheap to the then thriving German and French film industries, Hollywood was indisputably the mecca of the silver screen. And although the vast majority of the nearly two million émigrés who fled the collapsing Russian Empire in the 1910s and 1920s wound up in Europe, Asia, New York, and San Francisco, a small number—no more than five thousand—eventually made it to Los Angeles. Here they tried to capitalize on the brief vogue for all things “Russian” (Cossacks and Romani ballads and impoverished nobles) by opening restaurants with names like the Volga Boat, the Russian Bear, and the Double Headed Eagle, and also, inevitably, by offering themselves up to the studios.
By far the most memorable and “meta” exploitation of the interwar “Russian” craze is Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command (1928), in which the German actor Emil Jannings plays a grand duke living in poverty in Hollywood, waiting for a call from Central Casting. Sternberg based the character in part on an actual (or perhaps soi-disant) White Russian general-turned-extra-cum-restaurateur named Theodore Lodijensky (1876–1947), shortened to “Lodi” for Central Casting’s convenience, who was also one of the most colorful informants for George Martin May’s The Russians in Hollywood: A Study in Cultural Conflict (1934). The long passages of oral history in May’s book are the closest one can come in English to a horse’s-mouth account of White Russian life in sunny Southern California. There were frustratingly few authors among these Hollywood émigrés.
A longtime Angeleno, I myself am a Russian-speaking émigré from Odessa, Ukraine, and for well over a decade I’ve been gathering, with some success, the scant literary traces left by my predecessors. Not long ago, I struck the mother lode.
Alexander Voloshin has not gone unmentioned in the few existing accounts of Hollywood’s White Russian colony, but when I finally acquired a fragile, hard-to-find copy of his slim collection of poems and prose, Na putiakh i pereput’iakh (“On the Tracks and at Crossroads,” 1953), and read it cover to cover, I was astounded that he hadn’t received more attention. Then again, the copy had been extremely hard to find. Even the best volumes of émigré writing were often vanity productions, printed cheaply in small numbers. By these standards, On the Tracks received rather respectful treatment at the hands of its publisher, Delo. The book is laid out well and features a poignant watercolor of a ragged exile clutching a stamp-covered suitcase at a train station at twilight on its paper cover, as well as a frontispiece sketch of the author. To tell the truth, the stories and many of the lyrics in the book are little more than charming, but the titular poem, which occupies fifty-eight of the book’s 148 pages, is to my mind nothing less than a tragicomic masterpiece. First, let me summarize what I’ve been able to reconstruct of the life that went into the making of the great mock epic of White Russian Hollywood.
Born into an artistically inclined petty gentry family in Ananiv, Ukraine, about a hundred miles north of Odessa, in what some sources claim was 1892, but was more likely 1886—or perhaps even 1884—Voloshin was drawn to the theater at an early age and, apparently, had some success as an actor before the start of the First World War. Like many officers of the Imperial Army, after the revolutions of 1917 he joined the anti-Bolshevik Volunteer Army, with which he took part in the infamous retreat known as the “Ice March,” eventually sailing to Gallipoli from Crimea. Soon he found his way to Berlin, where he returned to the stage and also edited an anthology of Russian poetry.
Voloshin arrived in New York in 1924 and, by 1926, was in Hollywood, working as a waiter and—what else?—an extra. Some of his roles can be found on imdb, under the name “Alex Woloshin.” They include those of “Assistant Bartender” in Destry Rides Again (1939), of “Janitor” in The Case of Lena Smith (1929), of “Hotel Clerk” in His Private Life (1928), and of “Russian General in Jail” in You Can’t Take It With You (1938). Most of his appearances offered no screen credit, and some of the films that did—like Sternberg’s The Case of Lena Smith—are now lost. One that survives and streams free on YouTube is The World and the Flesh (1932). Like Sternberg’s The Last Command, the film taps into the craze for stories of fiery Russian revolutionaries and déclassé nobles, and the Paramount Pictures publicity department knew just how to exploit the real-life White émigrés crowding the set.
“Among the Extras: War Veterans, Russian Expatriates, Authors Furnish Atmosphere” ran a March 20, 1932, headline in The New York Times. That anonymous piece was only partly devoted to the Russians-acting-Russian in The World and the Flesh, but “Hollywood Extra Once Played Chess with Czar,” from the April 24, 1932, edition of The Boston Sunday Globe, was a fuller profile of the film’s Russophone cast and of the whole Hollywood émigré community by Mayme Ober Peak. The pioneering female reporter lays it on thick: “Names that were once [famous] are just numbers on pink cards at Central Casting.” The omnipresent Theodore Lodijesnky, “of the Imperial Guards, who served through three wars,” is described as having “accepted a position as head waiter at a sea-side restaurant, specializing in $1 dinners.” Most valuable to us, however, is her clear identification of the author of On the Tracks in a key scene from The World and the Flesh, in which the impoverished revolutionary masses intrude upon the well-heeled beneficiaries of the ancien régime: “The unshaven workman—the first to break into the exclusive hotel to confront Miriam Hopkins, is Capt Alexander Woloshin, winner of four of the highest military decorations—now locked away with the past.”
His grin shifts almost imperceptibly, registering awe, resentment, lust, and hunger.
The scene, which starts about fifteen minutes into the film and lasts only a few seconds, is quite powerful. Bundled in a thick leather jacket, Voloshin slowly enters the bustling dining room and fixes his gaze on Hopkins’s glamorous ballerina. Barely turning for a moment towards the small bespectacled man who runs up to scold him nervously, he plods over to Hopkins’s table. “Who are you? What do you want?” asks the lady’s male companion. Voloshin says nothing. Instead he lowers and raises his stubbly face, feasting his eyes both on Hopkins and on the delicacies laid out before her. His grin shifts almost imperceptibly, registering awe, resentment, lust, and hunger. Après lui, le déluge. A stream of peasants flows into the room, plopping down in plush armchairs, plucking at the musicians’ strings, and striking horror into the hearts of the moneyed revelers. None of these peasants says a word, of course, because the studio hasn’t paid them to talk. Extras don’t get lines. Yet here, at least, the limitations imposed by Voloshin’s contract help him deliver a standout performance. After all, what does his character have to say to these men in coattails, these women in gowns? His silence speaks volumes.
For all its effectiveness, the casting of Voloshin, Lodijensky, et al. reinforces the White émigré cliché of a tragic reversal of fortune: decorated imperial officers reduced to playing revolutionary rabble. It is exactly this cliché that gets such fresh ironic treatment in Voloshin’s On the Tracks. Divided into halves of eleven and fifteen chapters and furnished with a prologue and epilogue, the poem might be called a “novella in verse,” as it was likely inspired, at least in part, by Pushkin’s novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. Our poet eschews the sonnet-like Onegin stanza, however, opting instead for Hudibrastic
couplets—an ideal form, both in Russian and in English, for his satiric presentation of the plight of Imperial Russia’s vanquished warriors and humiliated refugees. I began translating portions of On the Tracks into English almost as soon as I finished reading it, mostly maintaining the couplets but sometimes, where it felt appropriate, adopting alternating or envelope rhyme. I hope the excerpts below will leave Anglophone readers hungry for more.
In On the Tracks, Voloshin generalizes his own via dolorosa into a communal narrative. We follow him and his countrymen as they bravely resist the Bolsheviks in what is now Ukraine, suffer crushing defeat, and take flight—first to Europe, then to New York, and, eventually, to Los Angeles. It’s in the chapters devoted to the Hollywood emigration, which Voloshin knew so well, that we find the most picturesque passages, such as:
Just about half the émigrés
are in the movies, where they play
jigits and knights, both noblemen
and jolly serfs who work the land,
soldiers and officers and sailors,
both men of means and simple tailors,
both courtly ladies and their maids . . .
Early each morning, at the gates
of studios, our crowd amasses—
mothers and fathers, lads and lasses—
a proper family affair . . .
Friends, I won’t lie: you’ll find me there—
not very often, no, but still . . .
Why be ashamed? What’s the big deal?
I earn a little pocket money,
which keeps my disposition sunny . . .
Not many Russians “break through,” though.
Believe me, it’s a thorny road
that leads up to the starry skies . . .
You’ll need some “pull” here, otherwise
you’ll have to squirm and beg and wail,
hold on to someone else’s tail,
keep beating down producers’ doors,
give gifts on holidays, and more . . .
You’ll have to sweeten every pot
or you won’t even have a shot.
Those who don’t give, who play it straight,
are asked to wait . . . and wait . . . and wait . . .
The sad thing is, they’ll never get it,
poor fools—they might as well forget it . . .
Reader, it’s time you understood:
there’s no free lunch in Hollywood!
The repertoire of tones in these couplets— pseudo-ethnographic and ironically sentimental, self-deprecating and self-justifying, angrily jaded and jokily hortative—is sustained and expanded throughout the poem. Another characteristic feature is the inclusion of demotic English words, like “pull,” which not only add a delightful pinch of local color but also help to date the poem, at least roughly. Other evidence suggests more strongly that, though published in the 1950s, it was composed in the late 1930s and early 1940s. One of the most illuminating, skillfully constructed, and, ultimately, touching passages in the epic depicts a day in the life of a Russian extra, whose face winds up on the cutting-room floor—as Voloshin’s must have done, time and again:
It’s seven-thirty—bored, depressed,
he eats his breakfast, then gets dressed,
but still has plenty time to kill . . .
Some coffee, then—he’ll drink his fill,
peruse a newspaper or two.
Here’s one more cutlet he can chew
while catching up on world affairs . . .
Look, “Lindbergh’s taken to the air”
and “Mrs. Simpson cracks a smile,”
“Blum weakens; publicly reviled,
Front populaire goes down the drain,”
while “Ethiopians, in vain,
have pled with Europe for fair play.”
The League of Nations? “Disarray.”
“Edward VIII is on the beach
in France.” “The Fuhrer gives a speech . . .”
And then he scans a different page:
“Arts—Cinema—News of the Stage.”
He reads the adverts, line by line,
for Lux soap, whiskey, gin, and wine,
and learns that Smith has cut the price
on his Vienna sausage—nice.
Such awful boredom . . . He sucks down
another cigarette, then frowns
and asks himself: “Where might I get
some money, pay off all this debt?”
Six fifteen for the gas alone;
four twenty for the telephone;
two eighty-five for power; soon
the rent is also coming due . . .
Oh, how he’d like to cry and shout,
“A Russian suffers—help him out!”
He washes . . . Slips in his false teeth . . .
Maybe a chat will bring relief?
Picks up the phone and dials a friend—
no answer on the other end:
“Figures . . . Always at work, that one . . .”
Nothing to do but sit and yawn.
Turns on the radio and sighs,
“Maybe somebody will drop by . . .”
His dog is groomed . . . His tailcoat’s brushed . . .
“Time certainly is in no rush . . .”
It’s twelve o’clock . . . And so at last he
decides to dial up Central Casting . . .
“GA” for “Garfield” (of all things),
Three . . . seven . . . one . . . one . . . And it rings.
“Hello”—then, with a stifled groan,
“You call back later.” Click. Dial tone.
Evening is here . . . No calls at all—
now it’s too late for them to call.
“How sad . . . Maybe tomorrow, then.”
At least he can go out again . . .
Frustrated, feeling quite defeated,
he dines, drinks wine, heads to the theater . . .
At the Apollo they’re now screening
the film on which, for four demeaning
days, he worked (at seven fifty
per)—oh, that was heavy lifting . . .
The set was hot, stuffy, and stale.
Swallowing lukewarm ginger ale,
he sat behind the bar each day,
landed one closeup . . . flew away.
Others had paychecks for three weeks!
Just think—some folks get all the breaks . . .
Alas, there is more pain to follow . . .
Watching the screen at the Apollo,
he finds he’s nowhere to be found!
They’ve cut him out of it, the clowns . . .
He didn’t count on such a blow—
they didn’t even let him know . . .
It’s all right there—just not the bar:
the “fist fight” and the “tearful star,”
the “scandal” and the “intrigue” too,
but for a hundred smackeroos
you wouldn’t spot a sign of him!
Another victim of fate’s whim . . .
How rude! You suffer for your art
and in the end they scrap your part . . .
He trudges home . . . There, at the door,
a telegram awaits! What more
could he have hoped for! Not too wordy:
“At Fox in tailcoat seven-thirty,”
signed “Casting.” Yes, an urgent “call”!
He nearly dances up the wall!
A tender yearning warms his heart!
Indolence flees! Sad thoughts depart!
A “tailcoat” means fifteen a day!
A ten-day shoot? Then they will pay
one hundred fifty! That may climb
to two, if they run overtime!
He gets in bed, sets the alarm . . .
Sleep settles on him like a charm . . .
Tonight, joy sheds its radiant beams
over our Russian extra’s dreams!
Voloshin’s litany of the day’s political tensions is clever in itself, but were it to stand alone, it would be merely that—a clever piece of newspaper verse, of which Voloshin wrote his share. Embedded in the extra’s morning routine, however, it becomes an ominous subtext, underscoring the utter helplessness of him and his fellow refugees. Barely scraping by, they dream only of seeing themselves on film. Meanwhile, storms gather on the horizon; the whirlwinds they’d narrowly escaped threaten to sweep them up again.
Our own era’s “doomscrollers” know just how the extra feels. And this is far from the only passage in Voloshin’s epic that remains sadly relevant today. The poem’s final chapter carries two epigraphs, a sentence about the U.S. declaration of war on Japan and a line from Ecclesiastes: “The wind returneth again according to his circuits . . .” It begins:
Nothing in life is new, or lasts . . .
Beginnings fade into the past,
ends weave themselves into beginnings . . .
There—crowns go flying off and spinning
into the void and thrones are razed;
here—laws are trampled and some crazed
loony takes on the World entire!
War, with its bloody wind and fire,
again has set the globe aglow . . .
One thinks: “There’s simply no salvation!”
And wonders: “Where am I to go?
What route is safe these days? What station?”
Well, we have had these thoughts before,
those of us born in Russian lands.
Even our children understand.
We well remember that long war,
and how we languished, how we bled,
how our whole families then fled,
leaving our homes for evermore . . .
One might expect an émigré poet confronted with the prospect of yet another migration to go on in this lachrymose fashion, reliving past trauma, but what Voloshin gives us instead is a sardonic paean to the Russian Revolution, which had freed him and his fellow refugees of their burdensome possessions:
There we had been the slaves of things—
slaves of our pots for cabbage soup,
our vodka glasses, favorite cups,
ladles and skimmers, frying pans . . .
. . .
We had all dreamt of this or that,
sought things and bought them, piece by piece.
Our faces flushed and dripping sweat,
we kept acquiring without cease!
We were so confident, so proud,
and unafraid to say out loud:
“My gramophone, my samovar,
My cigarette case, my cigar,
My painting in my private home,
My chair and table in my room!”
Abandoning their “tailcoats, pianos, family homes,” these “liberated slaves” roamed foreign lands for “five long years,” then “settled down,/ and—yes—went back to our old ways”:
Ladies again pursue their whims:
they want fine china, by the dozen,
and hats and dresses and perfumes . . .
Their closets overflow with clothes and
all sorts of rubbish, of no use . . .
One hears the same old conversations:
she craves a shawl for all occasions;
he went and bought himself a coat;
these built a farmhouse on some land,
while those, a Russian restaurant . . .
At last, their losses are forgotten, and it’s “as if they’d never tasted woe—/ a taste, what’s more, they’ll never know!”
For them, the sky is purest blue—
yet they have been enslaved anew:
they’re drowning in the things they own,
are literally overgrown!
But then war rears its head, ready to liberate them once more. A new “time of losses” begins:
The circle’s closed . . . Our wounds are aching . . .
Well, get your suitcases, start making
preparations—and then wait . . .
Don’t think, don’t guess—it’s far too late.
If we must go, then let us go.
We know the drill—we’ll hit the road.
No sense in sounding the alarm . . .
We’re Russians—we won’t come to harm!
They have been cruelly “liberated” by a senseless war.
That closing couplet struck an ironic note in Voloshin’s time, after so many Russians had come to great harm, but the irony is doubled in ours. Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24 of last year, I’ve given a great deal of thought to what the Russophone émigré poets I translate would have made of it. How would Voloshin, an Angeleno exile who had been born in the territory of Ukraine and fought against the Bolsheviks, identify himself now? It’s clear that he thought of himself as Russian, but early in On the Tracks he writes with such warmth and pride of Ukrainian folkways that I have to wonder: would he, like most Russian speakers in Ukraine today, draw a firm line and declare himself Ukrainian? I suspect he might, but I can’t be sure. What I am sure of, however, is that the plight of Ukrainian refugees would remind him of his own experiences in the 1910s and ’20s. He would, I venture, see these refugees as his true “compatriots”—not simply because they come from the geographic region he himself called home, but because, like him, they have been cruelly “liberated” by a senseless war.
As vivid a picture as Voloshin draws of his and his fellow émigrés’ life in the Hollywood of the 1930s, filling in the details of his biography has proved challenging. Public records show that he was naturalized in 1929. The previous year he had married the German-born Bertha Ehrlich in Los Angeles, but the union was short-lived. A second American marriage, in 1931, to a younger woman named Ruby Holloway, a native of Indiana, must also have ended in divorce. On the Tracks is dedicated to his third American wife, Helen, who outlived him by two years, dying in 1962.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Voloshin was a frequent contributor to the leading Russophone émigré newspaper in the United States, the New York–based New Russian Word (Novoe russkoe slovo), acting as its not-always-well-informed Hollywood correspondent and also publishing endearing memoirs of life in pre-Revolutionary Russia and in European exile. In 1947 he put out a theater journal, At the Footlights, which seems to have folded after two issues. His literary activity slowed throughout the 1950s, likely due to worsening health. His death certificate reveals that he died of a heart attack at the Los Angeles County General Hospital on November 23, 1960, having suffered for some time from heart disease and emphysema. He was likely seventy-four, although the certificate gives his age as eighty-four—an indication that the years had not been kind to him.
His occupation at the time of death conforms to another cliché of the White emigration: taxi driver for the Yellow Cab Co. “One knew that every taxi driver,” Anaïs Nin wrote, reflecting on life in Paris, “was in the past a Russian prince who had lived in a palace and had chauffeurs of his own.” Voloshin had not been a prince, but in at least one major work he had been a genuine poet—an original and compelling verse chronicler of a colorful community in exile. His accomplishment should not remain locked away with the past.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 8, on page 23
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