Every great adventure story has a clichéd start. Something happens. Man sets out on adventure. Something happens. This story is the same. The turn of the twentieth century heralded a new European era. With themes of nationhood and state identify fully ingrained in political elites’ decision-making processes, states pursued aggressive, nationalistic foreign policy. The thirty year period between 1890 and 1920 resulted in more distinct European conflicts than at any point in the preceding three hundred years.
Alexis was probably born the 25th March 1895 in the village of Stanitsa Slavyanskaía. At that time the settlement was probably little more than a small village on the banks of the Kuban river. Stanitsa simply meant Cossack village and it seems probable that’s all it was. Founded in 1865 by Don Cossacks migrating from the Crimea, the village grew over the next thirty years into a small town; in 1897, “the stanitsa was inhabited by 17.7 thousand people, and there were 3 churches and 80 commercial and industrial establishments, including 1 steam and 21 wind mills, a winery, 2 creameries; there was trade in grain, 2 schools, a post and telegraph office, an army hospital.”
Alexis’s early years were probably typical of the vast majority of Russian families. Struggling to earn an income, he would have worked with his father from an early age. His father earned a living taming wild horses. They probably also farmed the land or raised some livestock as did most other families in the area at the time. It would be nice to think that he might even have attended one of the village schools.
When war hit Europe in 1914 Alexis was not directly involved in the conflict. Though of the right age, his family was situated far enough from the front-lines and Slavyansk was on the periphery of the empire, so he was not called to fight. Subsequent generations held no recollections of Davidenko involvement in the conflict so it seems possible that the entire immediate family avoided direct involvement.
1914, however, was only a prelude for more significant internal strife within the Russian Empire. The tsardom was on its last knees, a disastrous performance on the Eastern front and various other societal factors were leading to a situation where conflict was inevitable. Even the peripheries of the Empire were unable to avoid being embroiled in the all-pervasive revolution.
Alexis, and his family, were Tsarist supporter, as, it is believed, were most of the Kuban Cossacks. Arguably, under the tsar, the region had been allowed to charter its own course with relative autonomy, a lack of oppressive taxation and with relatively minimal fallout from the First World War, which was atypical for much of Russia during the period.
As conflict broke out, Alexis responded to summons and joined the tsar’s army to protect his land and earn an income. At the time it probably felt like a considerable opportunity that would provide a steady income. Whether that transpired into reality is however unknown.
The deteriorating political situation within the empire manifested itself in institutions with no unified command structures and an army in disarray. At the periphery, the effects were worse. Isolated units fended for themselves and though for many months units were in conflict with Bolshevik forces, strategy, tactics and conditions were noticeably awful. Alexis daughter Julia recollects her father talking of living in forests, sleeping outside and even being forced to eat leaves to survive. The disorganisation was probably epitomised by the fact that the confusion often resulted in allied groups of soldiers fighting each other, sometimes for extended periods, incorrectly believing they were fighting the enemy. After one such incident, Alexis later found out that he had been in conflict with Andrij his brother, who was also a member of the tsarist army.
Revolutionary conflict continued on-off throughout the next few months gradually turning in favour for the Bolsheviks with even the peripheries eventually becoming engulfed in anti-tsarist fervour. Sometime during 1917/1918, Alexis was forced to flee with his brother. Like thousands of others, their escape route was across the Dardanelles, probably towards the isle of Límnos. Approximately 20,000 Kuban Cossacks attempted that treacherous journey to try and avoid persecution. Whilst they successfully crossed the waters without sinking or being sunk by communist agents, at the Turkish border, their ship was refused entry.
The ship which Alexis and his brother were taking was returned back to sea, where the travellers were either ordered over board or voluntarily jumped ship to avoid returning to Russia. Interpretation of such actions, must be undertaken contextually: Turkey was deeply mistrustful of Russian émigrés, fearful that they intended to infiltrate and spread revolutionary Bolshevik messages and notions of asylum were yet to secure real footholds.
Both Alexis and his brother managed to swim to the Turkish mainland where they lived for the next year. According to his daughter, his memories of his experiences in Turkey were limited to pretty women wearing Yaskhmaks, distrust of foreigners (including spitting when crossing paths), and the locals chewing of garlic before using it in soups and other prepared meals.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, Alexis’s time in Turkey would come to an end. The Turkish government were unwilling to grant him neither a work permit nor asylum and so, as a refugee, he faced deportation. However, the effects of the First World War here played to his advantage. During the 1920s, throughout Europe there were Labour shortages. With a reduced male population, many western European states looked to recruit able-bodied individuals to assist with agriculture. Through the Swiss Red Cross Alexis was able to obtain a work permit and transit to Corsica.
In Corsica, they were employed as shepherds, watching a flock of sheep, sleeping outside by night. The work was hard, manual labour and the pay took the form of subsistence; one loaf of bread and a jug of sheep’s’ milk, daily. It was in Corsica that Alexis caught malaria, which might have killed him, were it not for quinine which he was eventually provided. The debilitating symptoms from the malaria would persist for two years and even much later in life would occasionally return.
Come 1923, realising he had no real future in Corsica and that he was not suited for a shepherding lifestyle, Alexis accepted an offer to cross the sea and work on the French mainland. His brother travelled with him to France however shortly after he decided to return to the Ukraine. Whilst his brother was a tsarist during the Russian Civil War, his negative experiences of French capitalism alongside Soviet propaganda and a longing for his homeland proved an attractive proposition. Alexis would not subsequently see or hear from his brother and nothing is known of his fate in the Soviet Union.
In France, Alexis was employed by Monsieur Berge, a Jew who lived not far from Paris. His employment was dangerous and hard; he would walk the fields clearing debris left over from the First World War, like barbed wire, which would then be recycled for a profit whilst the field would be returned to the land-owner in a usable condition.
It was around this time that he met his future wife, Anna Sasiadek. He had been told that a Ukrainian woman lived in a small village several kilometres away from where he lived. After his first visit a relationship would blossom. The farmer, for whom Anna Sasiadek worked, was extremely strict and would not allow her to invite anyone to stay over at the farm and limited her ability to see visitors. Therefore, once her contract was terminated, she took the opportunity to leave and find employment elsewhere with Alexis. Together, they began working at a paint factory, just outside Paris.
Employment in a paint factory was as harsh as employment on a farm. Noxious fumes resulted in unpleasant working conditions, the hours were long and the work was stressful. With Anna probably pregnant, Alexis made a decision to move away, to find work elsewhere and a more family-friendly lifestyle. Together they moved to a little village, Vis-en-Artois, situation near Monchy-le-Preux (itself a very small village) reasonably near to Arras, Pas-de-Calais. There he found work in a friendly, local brick factory. As soon as was reasonably possible, they found their own lodgings before marrying (February 1927).
The marriage was a smaller affair at Monchy’s parish church with Alexis’s boss taking them there by cart. His boss subsequently joked about the small scale of the event! Their first child, Nicholas, was born in the June of 1927.
Whilst Alexis’s relationship with his boss was friendly, he would only work at the brick factory until 1931. In July 1931, the first Davidenko café and épicerie was opened. Situated in Saint Laurent Blangy, La Cité Davaine, the café was a very small affair in a building (barrackment) constructed by Alexis. About the same time, their second child, Jeanne was born and subsequently in 1933, Julia. The café and shop proved extremely successful and, by 1937, 250kg of meat and sausage was being sold weekly. Nonetheless, the physical limitations of the site started to have an impact on the family. The living quarters were small with only one main room and the furnishings very basic. Petrol drums were used as tables and the chairs were a basic metal variety.
The primitive kitchen facilities also limited the food available to guests: Anna would cook pork soup for guests but beyond that, no prepared food could be served. As a result, typically, the clientele would visit for traditional lunch foods like prepared meats, cheeses and bread, alongside drinks.
They would continue to run the café for the next two years until it fully outgrew the building. On 1st January 1939 the family moved to 90 Avenue Roger Salengro, where they opened a café, épicerie (grocery shop) and hotel with 11 bedrooms towards the rear of the café. The move was a gradual affair; the accommodation and wooden outbuildings needed to be constructed and only once they were finished did Alexis and Anna fully re-locate. The new café, now called Café Davidenko, was a significant improvement for the family. The épicerie, however, would close soon close due to the difficulties associated with having to manage two different stores at the same time. The café was at the front of the building whereas the epicerie was towards the rear, partially separated by garden. Alexis initially operated the café, however, when busy Anna needed to provide assistance which meant the epicierie was left unwatched. Being easy to break into, items were repeatedly stolen from the epicierie when left unwatched. A decision was therefore taken to merge the café and the epicerie. Whilst it made the main café slightly more 'full', the additional room which had previously been the store, could now be rented out to visitors and lodgers.
Nine months later, the Second World War would commence. The café, recently decorated, with the newly build accommodation and fully stocked cellars had not been cheap. Though France was not immediately embroiled in the conflict, for the Davidenkos, this was a period of particular worry. Moreover, Alexis was still a political refugee. Whilst he lived legally in France and was entitled to work, he was not a French national or French citizen. Also, as a proprietor, Alexis engaged with a broad variety of individuals. A long-term lodger at the café had spread propaganda about him been a supporter of communism and whilst untrue, it had made his position slightly more precarious.
Still, it was only once the invasion of France began, that the real consequences of the War began to be felt by the Davidenkos. The Pas-de-Calais bore the brunt of the initial invasion. Within days, bombs fell on Arras. Julia remembers the first, and probably one of the largest, was a 300kg explosive which landed near the railway station at the other end of town. Though it did not detonate, it created a huge public spectacle. Alexis took Julia to go visit the bomb, though they were unsuccessful as the police maintained a cordon! Unfortunately, the bomb did detonate later that evening resulting in around 15 casualties. Fortunately, few bombs fell near the café. The closest being one which fell on the same road which caused a scorching piece of metal to land at the entrance to the cellar where the family had been sheltering. During raids, all the family, except Alexis, would hide in the cellar below the café which offered very minimal protection. Alexis refused to hide in the cellar as he believed it would offer no protection. Subsequently, a trench / shelter was dug in the garden which they family, including Alexis, would use for shelter during raids.
As the front-line shifted towards Arras, the family faced a difficult decision. Fearing for his family’s lives as a result of the rumours denouncing him as a communist, the decision was taken to evacuate. Mr Laloux, a good family friend, agreed to watch the house and café after the family left. He was to watch the café and, that evening, he was to ensure it was closed and locked once customers had left. There was no electricity or running water so the café could not really remain open. They did, however, have vats of stored water and very extensive food supplies.
Everyone packed their own suitcase with the items they would need for an indeterminate stay away from the house. Juliette remembers principally filling hers with chocolates and sweets from the café (of which there were many) whilst everyone else packed theirs more sensibly! Whilst Mr Laloux’s intentions were certainly good, his age and his preponderance for drink meant that once the family had left; around 10pm, the café was robbed.
The family, meanwhile, continued on their flight from Arras. Alexis, Anna and Nicholas all had their own bikes whilst Juliette sat on Anna’s and Jeanne on Alexis’s. No one was really able to cycle, however, because of the suitcases and bagged which they were carrying. Whilst passing the cobbled streets around the cathedral, Juliette’s suitcase opened spilling most of the chocolate. In the dark, and trying to make quick progress, it was not possible to pick them up.
The café did close the night they left with some of the food and drink, however, stolen. After their departure English soldiers were garrisoned there and supposedly took good care of the premises. After their retreat, however, the locals return to ‘take advantage’ of the café’s stock. Having only recently moved into the café, Alexis had invested considerably in long-term provisions like meats, wines, spirits etc. which they had obviously been unable to take with them. Local sentiment against commercialists, capitalists and communists fuelled the further thefts.
The family fled northwards towards the Belgian border, not realising the German army was also coming from that direction. Rumours circulated that the Germans were advancing though there was little knowledge of the actual situation. Previously it had always been assumed the Germans would advance from the East so it was assumed that was still the case. Along the way they were joined by several members of the FFI (Free-French forces), however they would lose their uniforms once news reached them of the hopelessness of their cause. Around 10-50km from the Belgian frontier, they first encountered the German Army. Julia remembers being sheltered in a café, near the main road as several FFI exchanged fire with German troops outside. Given they were trying to avoid the oncoming German army; Alexis made the decision to return towards Arras.
Alexis had a difficult decision to make. His experience in Russia had taught him that leaving property isolated would always result in its loss so he wanted to return home as quickly as possible but at the same time he feared both the Germans and the French. Upon returning to Arras via a circuitous route (ultimately taking longer to do so than the advancing German army) they were informed by German troops in the area that it would not be safe for them to return to their home. They were informed that German troops were still engaging resistance fighters in and around the city centre and cathedral and that it would therefore be too dangerous for children to cross the centre (as they had to do).
It was around this point that Alexis was separated from his children who were sent into the village church (South Arras). There they would remain for half an hour, panicking over the circumstances of the separation and not believing the German troops’ claims that they were being held for their safety. After half an hour they would, however, be released and reunited with Alexis. At that point, the Germans claimed that even the church was too dangerous for families to take shelter in. Thus, they were sent to a camp further from the town. Julia remembers that en route, German soldiers shot several elderly individuals who were unable to maintain the pace with their loaded wheelbarrows. Her recollections of those early soldiers are not particularly positive: they were the most ruthless and aggressive, committing the excesses which would subsequently haunt the German army. Moreover, as voluntary serving soldiers they fully believed in Hitler’s German Supremacist ideology and their racial superiority. Those soldiers would remain until the middle of 1942, after which they would be sent to the Eastern front.
En route to the camp, the family abandoned many of their possessions in preference to having them confiscated by the German troops, which was what rumours stated was happening. On arrival at their destination, Alexis was once more taken for questioning. He was questioned for over three hours by the Gestapo at their local headquarters though he was eventually released to temporarily see his children and family. At that point, he took the opportunity to flee. The entire family left immediately and journey with pace towards a farm on the outskirts of Arras near Achicourt.
The farm was the closest farm to Arras which was not in the town and Alexis somewhat knew the owner. The owner did not mind the family staying there as he had several farms in the area and Alexis promised to secure the property, milk the cows and tend to the crops. There they would stay for two more weeks before once more attempting to return to Arras. This time, there were no restrictions on them returning as the fighting had to all extents finished and most other evacuees had already returned to their homes around the town.
Alexis and family would remain in Arras until spring 1943, when hostilities would once more start to increase to the extent that it was clear that the family could not continue living at the café. Throughout the year, the family continued to spend a lot time at the farm (on Rue de Feuchy), though their relationship with the owner's children would eventually deteriorate. They therefore went to stay with a Polish family at Monchy-le-Preux. At Monchy there were two Officers’ establishments, situated in the castle, where recuperating German officers would be stationed, though they would never be seen around the town. Julia remembers that after the war, those women who had worked for the Germans as nurses were stigmatised and had their heads’ shaved.
Later that year, Alexis Davidenko was held and faced trial by the Gestapo at Arras Town Hall. A Russian friend of his was suspected of leading a complex resistance movement in the area and thus Alexis was also under suspicion. There was some truth in that Alexis had been involved with helping Russians and Ukrainians, who were often disliked by the locals and the Nazis, in the area by providing free accommodation and food. In the morning the gestapo politely collected Alexis from his home, in a Citroen with tinted windows. The court proceedings were in French and Russian and lasted the entire day. His friend was sentenced to death, but commuted after he volunteered to serve for Germany on the Eastern front, which he did. Alexis was acquitted.
As the war progressed and the Western front moved towards Arras; albeit except for Alexis who would spend much of his time at the café in Rue Roger Salengro with his son, Nicholas. He would only return to Monchy during the day to see Anna and the children. Anna and most of the children stayed in Monchy throughout the remainder of the war. From Monchy, the family could see the area where their café was based and on several occasions believed the café to have been hit. On one occasion, returning American bombers from Germany incorrectly released their bombs on Arras which set a majority of the city on fire but their house survived the huge raging fires. During this period, the family obtained coal and supplies using ration tokens though also through bribing German officials. Julia remembers that one of the café's most expensive three vintage bottles of champagne (1937) was used to provide hospitality to a German officer who in return provided them with a van full of coal. The others were used for her wedding.
At Monchy, most of the German soldiers were from Silesia and thus considered themselves more Polish than German. This meant they were much more amenable to the locals and willing to provide food on the black markets. The black markets were essential to the livelihoods of everyone: Alexis, being a café owner received increased rations. The family would take some for themselves and then sell the excess to buy other essential provisions. Even so, there was scarcely enough food at many times. Nicholas would always supplement his food and drink through theft. He earned himself a reputation as a 'real bandit'. Whilst in Monchy, Julia's bedroom was shot at by a drunk German soldier one evening. As a result, Alexis complained to a local officer and he was stood down for a fortnight. Having access to scarce commodities the Davidenkos could have influence.
Guests who stayed in the rooms attached to the café, throughout the war, were all involved in the black market. One guest would steal tyres from German vehicles and convert them into other products. Others were involved in trading goods and stockpiling provisions.
On the day of liberation, Monchy fell extremely easily to the Allies: only a couple of elderly soldiers remained to defend the town and they abandoned their weapons immediately and were sheltered by local villagers who compassionately provided them civilian clothes, after successful lobbying by the influential owner of the local garage. They had initially intended to make a stand and had assembled a machinegun nest on one side of the village, but realised the futility of such an attempt considering their age (over 55) and the overwhelming opposition.
Following the liberation, the café would open fully once more. Alexis could not, however, evict refugees who had sought accommodation in the rooms behind the café. Following the war many of them would remain as leaseholders with very minor rents. Only once the tax burden from being a hotel was larger than the rents were rents raised and some were forced to leave. This proved extremely problematic, however. Immediately following the war, the French tax authorities requested hotel tax for the War years which Alexis was unable to pay, having received little rent throughout the war from the long-term lodgers. Moreover, as they had lodged throughout the entire period they had paid rent rates as opposed to hotel rates. This required Alexis to almost double the rent following the war. One resident, a dodgy Pole (who had a prisoner of war brother) refused to pay the increased rent or leave as he claimed he had nowhere else to go and no money. The resident escalated the issue to the police but when the police were call, Alexis showed them into his room and revealed the resident's secret store of grain and goods. Also, his brother had never paid to stay there. The police therefore immediately evicted him.
The café remained open in Arras until 1961 when Alexis Davidenko fell ill. The house still exists, now, however it has been greatly modified and is now entirely residential. What were once outbuildings made from corrugated iron have now been demolished and all that remains is the brick front building. The plot of land has also been greatly diminished with a second house being built towards the rear of the plot and the land divided.