Self-education and self-information :  a look at Russian educational migrations in the elite French schools between 1800 and 1940

Irina Gouzévitch and Dmitri Gouzévitch

L'étudiant étranger. Préactes dela journée d'études du 8 février 2002

Some ten years ago, research on Franco-Russian relations in the area of engineering put us on the trail of Russian students in the elite French educational institutions. Our first studies in this area dealt with the 1800-1840 period. The bicentennial celebrations of several of the prestigious national schools known as the ‘Grandes Ecoles’ (Polytechnique, Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées, Ecole des Mines ) gave us the opportunity to study their archives from this point of view. These initial findings, albeit incomplete, allowed us, on the one hand, to attempt a typology of migrants coming from the Russian Empire according to the motives and aims of their displacements and, on the other, to extend this research to other kinds of French academic institutions (universities and provincial technical schools). The case of the CNAM [National Conservatory for Arts and Engineering] turned out to be particularly significant for this line of research. The registers of its auditors, in spite of the limited period they covered (1922-1935), showed us, first of all, that this was already a mass phenomenon and second, that between the first half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, the nature of this migration from Russia underwent a change. The Russian visitors and trainees of the first period (quintessential envoys of the State) gave way to emigrants of all kinds during the second. An examination of the lists of students in provincial technical schools such as the Institut électrotechnique in Toulouse or the Ecole de chimie in Mulhouse, confirmed the first hypothesis and helped to refine the typology of migrants and fill in chronological gaps (notably for the last third of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth).

The example of Nancy turned out to be the most instructive in all respects, however. And we shall therefore develop this example in our presentation, for its interest goes far beyond the context of a simple case study, and the analytical grid that it offers is applicable to all the institutions studied or to be studied in the future.

Indeed, the first students arriving from Eastern Europe appear at the Institut électrotechnique in Nancy (IEN) just after its founding in 1901, and their numbers continue to increase over the next thirty-eight years, from 1902 to 1940. Attempting a collective portrait of this group seems pertinent to us from several points of view. First of all, it will allow us to integrate the phenomenon into the broader context of the French government’s long-term policy with regard to the educational migration and to obtain a better idea of the short-term fluctuations in this policy over four decades. This study is also useful in that it relates to several areas of current research of interest to French and foreign researchers working in such varied fields as the history of technical education and educational policies in the countries concerned, the history of Russian and Polish emigration or gender studies.

The particular value of the case of Nancy stems, however, from the availability of an extremely rich corpus of primary and secondary sources from different origins, beginning with those of the Ecole itself, which are among the most extensive. Its document collections offer a homogeneity and continuity of information which has permitted original statistical and sociological analyses. In combination with the alumni newsletter, the statistics thus established offer the rare possibility of retracing, through the statistics thus established, the profile of a student population of some one thousand individuals. The information provided permit us to reconstitute the broad outlines of the foreign students’ existence, notably in relation to their personal itinerary prior to their arrival at the Ecole, their stay at the establishment and their subsequent professional history. Various aspects of their student life—enrolments, schooling, extracurricular life, diplomas earned, labour-market openings—also become more transparent through these documents. A systematic study of them permits us to establish the social composition of this population, whose common origins in no way exclude an extreme ethnic, religious and social diversity. Thus, the study confirms the hypothesis previously advanced, namely that the so-called Russian student population in the technical schools (in Nancy as elsewhere) turns out to be mainly Jewish (a conclusion that is consistent with the results obtained from the examination of other cases). The numerical importance of the Russian Jews among the foreign students at the IEN may be explained both by the French technical schools’ open admissions policy (here, the concern for the expansion of French-speaking culture played a pre-eminent role) and by the particular historical context of the Russian Empire (its simultaneously assimilationist and discriminatory policy relative to the Jewish minority). But the IEN also welcomed representatives of other ethnic and religious minorities coming from Russia, including natives of Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Ukraine and the Baltic States. The typology of migrants which can be established on the basis of the documents suggests that the motives for their migrations were variously economic (poverty), political (opposition), ethno-religious (persecution of minorities) and administrative (access to education). In order to obtain a better idea of this diversity, which is specific to academic migrants from Eastern Europe, we have drawn on another group of sources coming at once from other disciplines and from another historiography (Russian-language). The materials collected in Russia allowed us, among other things, to establish the different layers of the migratory movement from that country and to draw explicit connections with Russian government policy towards its young student population, its political opposition and its ethnic and religious minorities (the legislation in these areas often brings out all kinds of concrete circumstances and phobias). The study also highlights a specific difficulty tied to the complex political history of twentieth-century Russia, whose state organisation (which conditioned the motives, intensity, direction, and composition of the migratory flows) was not the same before and after October 1917. Our analysis will thus take this complexity into account.

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