The Secret Russian Family History of Famous Britons
The recent migration of Russian Oligarchs, professional people and ordinary workers to London has been well-documented and written about. But what is less well-known are the Russian family backgrounds of British celebrities, businessmen and politicians. Mark Hollingsworth reveals the Russian ancestries of prominent Britons and the history of Russian migration to London.
When the late great Amy Winehouse died, very few tributes mentioned her Russian family history. For the talented singer has a Russian-Jewish ancestry which even her family knew little about. Her paternal great-great grandfather Abraham Grandish, was a Russian immigrant. He was born in 1855 in Russia and moved to the UK in the late 19th century. At the time of the 1911 census he lived with Winehouse’s great-grandmother in Spitalfields, in the heart of the food markets in East London. He cited his occupation as a ‘fruit hawker’ – meaning he travelled around selling fruit – and it was from his marriage to a Russian woman that began the dynasty which resulted in one of Britain’s greatest-ever singers.
Ironically, Mark Ronson, the producer of Winehouse’s greatest album, ‘Back to Black’, is also the great-grandson of Russian Jews. His family emigrated to London from the Pale of Settlement (the area of the Russian Empire where Jews were permitted to reside and located in present day Lithuania, Belarus, Poland, Moldova, Ukraine, and western Russia) in the late 19th and early 20th century. In a remarkable coincidence, his Russian ancestors emigrated to London at approximately the same time as Winehouse.
The Russian connection does not end there. Mark Ronson’s uncle is Gerald Ronson, the controversial property tycoon who was convicted for fraud offences during the Guinesss take-over of the Distillers company in the 1980s. Gerald Ronson’s paternal grandfather, an Orthodox Jew called Maurice Aaronson, emigrated to Shoreditch, East London, where he worked in a furniture workshop. His maternal grandfather, Leib Shimelevich-Davidovich Rein, was an illiterate coach driver from present day Lithuania. He arrived in London via Hamburg in 1898 and lived off Commercial Street in London’s East End, working tending to horses at a diary farm in Whitechapel. He anglicised his name as Louis Raine and earned the nickname ‘Milky’ after he set up a business selling traditional Russian cottage cheese to other Russian immigrants.
In 1936 Milky’s daughter Sarah Raine married Maurice Aaronson’s son Henry, who changed the family name to Ronson by deed poll in 1943. Their eldest son was Gerald Ronson and their second son was Laurence, Mark Ronson’s father. Since his conviction in the 1980s, Gerald Ronson has made a comeback and is now one of the UK’s most successful property developers.
But Ronson is not the only successful entrepreneur with a Russian past. Sir Stuart Rose, who was Chief Executive of Marks and Spencer from 2004 to 2010, is the grandson of a (White) Russian Army officer who fled to China with his wife after the 1917 Russian Revolution. His grandparents subsequently separated and his father, Igor Bryantzeff, was from a young age supported by a spinster, Nona Ransom, who paid for him to attend Bootham School, a Quaker boarding school in York. The young Stuart Rose was educated at the very same school. Rose’s father changed his name to Harry Rose, joined the Colonial Office and worked as a civil servant in Tanzania in the 1950s while young Stuart was at boarding school at Bootham – where his Russian grandfather was educated.
The Anglo-Russian connection can be traced back to the mid 19th century when London had become home to several Russian political dissidents. The most famous was the socialist Alexander Gertsen (whose name is often Germanised as Herzen, and who wrote under the pseudonym “Iskander”). Gertsen was one of the leading Westernisers in Russia in the 1830s and 1840s. The illegitimate son of an aristocrat, his criticisms of the Tsarist system led to several periods of house arrest on his country estate before his flight abroad. He first came to Britain in 1852 after a disillusioning journey through Western Europe in the wake of the revolutions of 1848, and he stayed here for 12 years. Gertsen’s book On the Development of Revolutionary Ideas in Russia, which was particularly praised and publicised by the Chartist W.J. Linton, preceded him to England and made his reputation as a journalist.
Another famous Russian exile in the 19th century was Pyotr Kropotkin, who came to London in 1866 after two spells in prison and wrote his Memoirs of a Revolutionary, in English. He supported himself by writing regularly for The Times and the Geographical Journal and was helped by his British supporters, chief among them Charlotte Wilson a former Fabian and the wife of a City stockbroker. During his thirty-year exile Kropotkin became a familiar society figure: Oscar Wilde in De Profundis referred to him as ‘a man with the soul of that beautiful white Christ that seems coming out of Russia’.
The Russian Ã©migrÃ© community comprised of a number of well-known and influential figures including S.M. Stepniak-Kravchinskiy (1851-95), N.V. Chaikovskiy (1850-1926) and F.V. Volkhovskiy (1846-1914). Stepniak, Kropotkin, Chaikovskiy and Volkhovskiy actively lobbied British public opinion in favour of the London based Russian immigrants. In 1891 they formed the Russian Free Press Fund (RFPF), and the Anglo-Russian Society of Friends of Russian Freedom (SFRF) to win over support for their anti-Tsarist movement.
In the 20th century, London continued to be a major base of Russian exiles. The congresses of Russian revolutionaries were held in London in 1903, 1905 and 1907. At the 1907 Social Democratic Congress, the New York Times reported that a warrant had been issued for the arrest of one attendant Vladimir Lenin. The headline read: ‘A FAMOUS REBEL IN LONDON. Lenin Will Be Arrested If He Returns to Russia -- Real Name Ulianoff’. Lenin was not a permanent exile in London but visited six times between 1902 and 1911. It was at the British Library that Lenin met another prominent London based Bolshevik called Maksim Litvinov, who would form the Soviet Foreign Service. He also met Trotsky in London, who had escaped prison in Siberia in 1902. Together they joined the group of Russian Social-Democrats working on the revolutionary newspaper Iskra (“The Spark”). In all it has been estimated that there were between 300 and 400 Russian political revolutionaries in London at this time.
After the 1917 Revolution, the exiled revolutionaries returned to Russia, and the old ruling elite fled. In London the Russian Red Cross in Great Britain (founded in 1893), was revitalised in 1920 to provide relief for the newcomers. However, relatively few of the exiles ended up in London. Estimates of their actual numbers vary. According to the Guardian, 15,000 Russians arrived in London in 1919 – a figure probably based on Refugees in an Age of Genocide, by Katharine Knox and Tony Kushner. One historian, G.S. Smith, refers to more conservative estimates:
“It has been estimated that their total number was 9,000 in 1922, declining through re-emigration and naturalisation by 1930 to about 4,000. This figure may represent the residue of a much larger number of Russians who had passed through Great Britain or who had been resident in one way or another since 1917, and may include some from before that date”.
By contrast, 127,000 fled to the Slavic states, 250,000 to Berlin, and 70,000 in France (mostly in Paris) Shanghai was also a popular destination where White Russians numbering approximately 25,000 set up their own Little Russia in the city.
One of the reasons fewer Russians arrived in London – compared to other countries - was the hope that the communist takeover would be short lived, and that they should therefore stay close to Russia. There were also other good reasons to choose the European capitals. Those that travelled to Berlin were attracted by its then affluence whilst France held a far greater cultural sway with Russians than Britain. There was also the fact that the British government was at that time rather fearful of its working class and mindful of the possibility of mass unemployment following demobilisation after the First World War, and therefore actively discouraged immigration.
Those that did arrive in London were a mix of aristocrats and middle class intellectuals. The Times refers to “the White Russian aristocrats who came after the 1917 revolution as the Galitzines, Vassiltchikovs, Lobanovs and Beckendorffs with their cousins and connections”.
The family of the liberal intellectual Isaiah Berlin arrived in 1919. Berlin’s father was an Anglophile and Berlin would later echo his father’s sentiments, saying: ‘I am an Anglophile, I love England. England’s my home. I have been very well treated in this country. But I remain a Russian Jew’. The philosopher’s family settled in Surbiton, a small town in Surrey but close to London. Many of London’s new Russian arrivals settled mostly in Chiswick, Ealing and Acton. Remnants of the old Russian immigrant community can still be seen there today. Recently the Russian community in Chiswick built a cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church that split away in 1917.
These more recent Russian Ã©migrÃ©s have produced some accomplished individuals. The renowned British actress Dame Helen Mirren, who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Leo Tolstoy's wife Sofya in The Last Station, is well known for having Russian ancestors. She was born Ilyena Lydia Petrovna Mironov and her name was later anglicised by her father, Vasily Mironov, after the death of her grandfather, Pyotr, in1957.
A nobleman and diplomat, Pyotr Mironov was working in London supplying weapons to the Russian Army when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Tsarist regime. His six sisters and elderly mother were later thrown off their estate in Kuryanovo. Pyotr Mironov remained in London and worked as a taxi driver, later losing touch with his family during the Stalin era. Helen Mirren, who won an Oscar for her performance in ‘The Queen’, still has relatives in Russia since three of her grandfather’s sisters married and had children. She was put in touch with her relatives in 2007 after the Mail on Sunday was able to trace her family there and she was overjoyed to meet them.
In political circles, the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Skidelsky was for many years regarded as the most prominent with a Russian ancestry. He was born on 25 April 1939 in Manchuria, China, where the family firm L. S. Skidelsky, leased a coalmine from the Chinese government. His father Boris Skidelsky was from a Jewish Russian family and his mother, Galia Sapelkin, a Christian family. According to their son, Robert Skidelsky, now a highly respected historian and biographer of the economist Maynard Keynes: “The Skidelskys were ‘oligarchs’ of the far east before the Revolution: my father was born in Vladivostok on the Pacific coast. One of my mother's ancestors, so family legend has it, had been signed up from Germany as a skilled workman by Peter the Great, and had prospered modestly. Both sides of the family had prudently left Russia in 1918”.
Today, Lord Skidelsky comments on UK-Russian relations for newspapers and magazines and is an eminent academic at the London School of Economics. He founded the UK-Russia Round Table, has worked as a consultant for the Russian Investor Protection Association and is a board member of Lena Nemirovskaya’s Moscow School of Political Studies.
However, in the past two years Lord Skidelsky’s Russian roots have been superseded by the Deputy Prime Minister no less. For Nick Clegg has a Russian aristocratic grandmother. Clegg was born on 7 January 1967, the son of Nicholas P. Clegg. His paternal grandfather was Hugh Anthony Clegg, a medical writer who in 1932 married Baroness Kyra Engelhardt, the oldest daughter of a Russian Baron, Arthur von Engelhardt of Smolensk. Kyra Engelhardt’s mother, Alexandra Moullen, was the daughter of Ignaty Zakrevsky, a former attorney general in the imperial Russian senate who lived on a large estate in what is now known as Ukraine.
Intriguingly, Ignaty Zakrevsky’s other daughter, Baroness Moura Budberg, is suspected to have worked as an intelligence officer and spy for the British and the Soviet Union in the early 20th century and was once described by the British Embassy in Moscow as ‘a very dangerous woman’. She was the ex-wife of both a Tsarist diplomat count and a Russian baron and was a mistress of HG Wells, Maxim Gorky and Robert Bruce Lockhart, a former MI6 officer. Lockhart was a British spy posted to Moscow during the Russian Revolution and was involved in the attempted assassination of Lenin in August 1918. When Lockhart was arrested by the Russian secret police for his role in the plot to murder Lenin, he was in bed with Moura Budberg – the great-great grand-daughter of the current deputy prime minister.
And so it can be argued that the great Russian invasion of the UK has reached into the very highest level of the British Establishment.ShareThis