To Russia with ‘Spain’: Spanish Exiles in the USSR and the Longue Durée of Soviet History

Article appearing in Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, Vol.15 (2)

  • Author:
  • Glennys Young
  • Publisher: Slavica Publishers, Indiana University
  • Date: 2014
Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History

To review statistics on Spanish exiles in the USSR is to assume their minimal impact on Soviet socialism. As a result of the Spanish Civil War, only 4,221 Spaniards came to the USSR before World War II began. Nearly 3,000 were children evacuated during the Iberian conflict in five expeditions over stormy and dangerous seas. The remaining exiles, almost all catapulted to the USSR by Francisco Franco’s victory, included political refugees, among them leaders of the Communist Party of Spain (PCE) such as José Díaz and Dolores Ibárruri, as well as doctors and medical personnel who had cared for Spanish Communists and Republican officers. A subgroup became exiles because they were stranded in the USSR: such was the predicament of the 157 Spanish pilots who had studied at Soviet aviation schools in Kirovabad and Khar′kov, and the 69 sailors from the nine Republican ships in Soviet ports at the end of the Iberian conflict. From this small number there were, of course, subtractions. About 200 Spaniards died fighting for the USSR during World War II. Hundreds of other noncombatants perished from disease and other factors. Spaniards died in the Gulag, among them a few evacuated as children, and approximately 100 of the Republican pilots and sailors. Others went “home”: during Khrushchev’s “thaw,” nearly 1,900 Spaniards returned to Spain—in some cases, to migrate back to the USSR after a few years. June 1961 marked the arrival in Cuba of a significant contingent of approximately 200 Soviets of Spanish origin, who served as Castro’s advisers. They, and subsequent installments of Soviet Spaniards who came to Havana in the 1960s, stayed for a few years and, in some cases, even for decades.

Yet it is important, as suggested by a close reading of the works under review, to question the reasoned conjecture that the small and dwindling number of Spanish exiles made them marginal to Soviet socialism. Numbers do not tell the whole story, even concerning demographic statistics on the Spanish Civil War diaspora in the USSR. They eclipse the fact that Spanish Civil War exiles and Spaniards in the USSR were not the same thing. The broader category of “Spaniards”—those who regarded themselves as part of the disparate Spanish community in the USSR, even if they were not born in Spain and mostly spoke Russian—encompassed not only the exiles but also the children, grandchildren, and sometimes extended family members of the exiles themselves. That the most expansive definition of “Spaniards”—including the Civil War exiles—would likely not yield more than 15,000 at any point in Soviet history does not mean that they kept a low profile. This is because Spaniards occupied virtually all walks of Soviet life, from factory workers to soccer stars to party cadres. They also lived, and moved, throughout the USSR. The 22 “homes for Spanish children” (casas de los niños or doma ispanskikh detei) created for the young refugees during the Great Purges were located throughout European Russia and Ukraine, with wartime evacuations sending the youngsters throughout the USSR’s vast expanse, including the Caucasus and Central Asia (for details, see Colomina Limonero, 70–71). After the war, Spaniards settled throughout the Soviet Union, thus perpetuating the possibility that they and other Soviet citizens would rub shoulders. They were more prominent in Soviet culture than their small number might suggest. To this day, no pasarán is part of the Russian lexicon. Another example of their cultural presence is the Spanish Civil War footage in Andrei Tarkovskii’s Zerkalo (Mirror, 1975), where a newsreel of Basque children departing for the USSR from Santurce in 1937 follows the horrific bombing of Madrid in 1936. Nor have interactions between Spaniards and other Soviet citizens ended. A few Spaniards still live in Russia and Soviet successor states. Moscow’s Spanish Center (Ispanskii tsentr, El centro español de Moscú)—launched in 1966 as a “voluntary” organization with ties to the PCE and the CPSU—still operates, although its financial situation is dire. No matter when, where, or how encounters between Soviet Spaniards and other Soviets occurred, their significance usually…