Anastasia Chirinsky, Bizerte's last Russian émigré

Anastasia Manstein-Chirinsky died Monday in Bizerte, a port town in Tunisia. She was the last remaining witness to the evacuation of "White Russians", via the Crimean Sea, during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1922.


Anastasia Manstein-Chirinksy, whose destiny was very much tied to that of the Russian émigré community in Tunisia, died Monday in the port town of Bizerte. She was 97.

Eighty-nine years before her death, almost to the day, eight-year old Chirinsky was a fugitive from the Russian Civil War born out of the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917. She escaped with the remnants of Russia's imperial fleet and spent the first few years of her life in exile on board a torpedo boat, followed by a battleship, in the bay of Bizerte.

Chirinsky spent the rest of her life in this costal town. After finishing her studies, she became a teacher of mathematics.

One of her students was the current mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, who grew up in Bizerte. He told, “Babou, as she was known to us, was an extraordinary person, a genius of life. Her personal story reads like a novel, that of a young Russian émigré – full of history, culture, curiosity and creativity, but above all, love.”

'A place of pilgrimage'

Chirinsky wrote a book in 2000 dedicated to the memory of Russian émigrés in Tunisia. “Final Stop: the century of a Russian exile in Bizerte,” (French title: "La Dernière Escale. Le siècle d’une exilée russe à Bizerte), written in French and published in Tunisia (Sud Editions), earned her Russia's Alexandre Nevsky literary prize.

But the greatest recognition in her life came in 1997 when she finally obtained her Russian passport. She had refused French citizenship, at a time when the French government was naturalising certain minority communities in Tunisia. She did not seek Tunisian nationality either, for fear that it would hinder her pursuit of Russian citizenship.

A voluntary caretaker at the Bizerte cemetery for Russian sailors, she became the living memory of a history scarcely known. Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud, director of the documentary "Anastacia la Bizerte" (1996), said, “The cemetery was wilfully ignored during the former USSR, every bit as much as by post-colonial Tunisia.”

He added, “She carried with her the memory of pre-Communist Russia as well as Tunisian history for nearly all of the 20th century."

Furthermore, she became a "must-see" for Russian tourists, who wanted to visit her.

"Her home became a place of pilgrimage," he added. "The passengers of Russian boats that travelled to Bizerte went to see her. She also received mail from Russian émigrés from all over the world.”

Chirinksy’s name is forever tied to Bizerte. For several years now, a square in the town has born her name.

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