If you've spent time at the Davis Center recently, you may have noticed a pair of weathered flags hanging on the wall: one Russian, one American, tied in a knot at the corner. What a powerful metaphor, you may have thought, for the work of cultural mediation that goes on in our halls!
But where do these flags come from, and how did they get here?
Their story begins in 1898, when Helen Tisdel, a Washington D.C. debutante, married Grigorii De Wollant, who was serving as Chargé d'Affaires at the Russian embassy. De Wollant, a Russian of Belgian descent, was already a distinguished diplomat and author. Married in an Orthodox church in New York, they went on to live in Washington, Mexico, St. Petersburg, and later Yalta, in Crimea.
Helen, a well-traveled polyglot, quickly fell in love with her adopted homeland and mastered the Russian language. After her husband’s death she continued to live on their Yalta estate, where she would find herself stranded when the bloody civil war broke out in 1918. For three years she endured fear and deprivation as Crimea passed between the Bolsheviks and the Whites. Rescued by an American vessel, she returned to the United States in 1921 and set about turning her civil war diaries into a memoir for an American audience. It was never published, but on her death in 1955 she left the manuscript and other papers to her beloved niece Anne Humstone, whose daughter Elizabeth Humstone donated them to the Davis Center Collection in 2015.
Among the most surprising objects found among Helen’s papers were the two flags, still tied together, and stuffed into a small envelope on which she had written: "American and Russian Flags. (May) June 8th New Style 1898. Father Alexander Hotovitzky married us in New York and tied these two flags together, holding them above our heads and blessing us at the wedding breakfast.”
Helen had held on to the flags her entire life because they represented for her a union not only between herself and her husband, but between their families, cultures, and nations—Russia and America. Today, many years and political upheavals later, they remain a powerful symbol of the mutual understanding the two countries can achieve.
Learn more about the Helen Tisdel De Wollant Papers and other special collections held at the Davis Center here.