20th century tumbrils –
the first victims of the Bolsheviks
EDWARD DUTTON enjoys a rare insight into the melancholy fate of the Russian nobility
Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy
Douglas Smith, Pan Books, 2013, pb, 464pp., £8.99
History, as Douglas Smith points out, tends to focus on the winners. But history’s losers can be just as fascinating. This is especially so if they were once dominant themselves and experienced a fall from power and privilege that would not be out of place in a Shakespeare tragedy. The Russian aristocracy, whose story is skillfully told for the first time in a work of popular history, appears to have many of these ‘tragic hero’ qualities. There was much to admire in the Russian nobility – pretty much all Russian high culture was associated with this class. However, their tragic flaws – a romantic attachment to Mother Russia, a naive belief that the former serfs were somehow content, and a failure to understand how fundamentally their world had changed after 1917 – led to their destruction.
In telling the story of the “former people”, as these class enemies and outcasts were officially known in the Soviet Union, Smith makes the sage choice to focus on two prominent families – the Sheremetevs (who were counts), and the Golitsyns (who were ‘princes’) – and the various families into which these clans married. This method gives Fomer People a much needed personal touch and adds to the sense of poignancy. We follow these families from the 1860s, when most Russians were still serfs, right up to World War II. We become absorbed in the unfolding saga as we gradually discover which characters survive and how long they survive for in the face of relentless Soviet persecution. We read their worried diaries and self-deluding letters from the beginning of the last century as they gradually notice that things are going very wrong.
Before 1905, although there were occasional rebellions, the nobility were unquestionably in charge in autocratic Russia. Anybody who was important in politics or the arts hailed from the noble class and peasants would drop to their knees when members of this class rode through their villages. Making up 1.5% of Russia’s population, many of them were Westernized and lived in incredible opulence while the peasants were so unhealthy that three quarters were rejected for military service in 1891. Even Lenin, the arch-persecutor of the nobility, was himself a nobleman and took advantage of this status while in prison for subversion, in order to get a better quality cell. Smith gives us tantalizing hints, however, that even at this point some nobles intuited that the situation could not last: they knew that it was deeply unfair and some of them even supported reform (and were sacked from government positions for so doing).
Through the diaries and letters of the nobility, we witness the combination of events which brings down the old regime at incredible speed. Liberal reforms brought in by one Tsar (including abolishing serfdom) are substantially undone by Alexander III, leading to a police state and massive resentment from the nascent middle class. Revolutionary movements flourish in this oppressive, reactionary atmosphere. Alexander III dies and is succeeded by his incompetent, vacillating, Romantic son Nicholas II. Losing a war with Japan in 1905, he exposes himself and his regime as weak, encouraging uprisings, breakaway nationalist movements, and riots. World War I leads to mass starvation at home, Nicholas loses the support of the army and nobility, and must abdicate.
Once the Communists take power, however, changes are somewhat less subtle. The nobles’ estates are attacked by vengeful mobs, with many of them being injured or killed. Those who escape this fate hide out in St Petersburg or other towns, aiding the Whites in the Civil War, but eventually the Reds win and come for them wherever they are. Those who escape being killed this early on are stripped of their privileges and most of their property. Officially “former persons”, they are compelled to do degrading work and sell their jewels just to get enough food.
Interestingly, Smith reveals comic dimensions to this adversity. Some of the former people recall their pride in learning to cook and being self-sufficient for the first time in their lives. In one case, a bloody-minded insistence on not fleeing their house until a particular wedding-ring is found leads to survival, because they would have been massacred if they had arrived in the village earlier. The Communists are forced to rely on nobles to paint their propaganda posters, because nobody else has sufficient artistic skill. And at one point, persecution of the Former People is briefly halted because it is realized that society cannot function without them, as most of those who are educated enough to be doctors or teachers are from the noble class. At the beginning of the revolution (with state encouragement), people steal from the bourgeoisie, only to be themselves branded bourgeois, and so become legitimate targets. In one instance, a noble is relieved of everything he has on him but thieves feel so sorry for him that they give a fur coat so he doesn’t freeze. He finds money in the pockets more than reimbursing him for what’s been stolen.
The families tenaciously cling to life however they can, disguising their status, always at risk of being exposed and sent to the camps – which many of them eventually are. Between 1917 and 1945, there are periods of calm, during which they manage to eke out a living, fearful though relatively undisturbed, and periods of intense persecution where their presence is used as a means of uniting the workers, distracting them from the failure of Communism, and focusing their hatred on those associated with the former regime. Smith charts this process all the way up to World War II. Some of the family members even conclude that the revolution is God’s punishment for the wrongs of serfdom.
Unfortunately, Smith goes into unnecessary detail. Around two thirds of the way through, Smith has essentially made his point and even though a useful discussion of Stalin’s terror is still to come, the book might have been improved by turning to the members of these families who did escape abroad. Those who stayed did so because of a romantic attachment to Russia or because they feared for their families if they left. But it would be interesting to know more about those who did leave. For example, a Princess Praskovya Obolensky (1883-1942) married one of the Shermetovs, and a Prince Alexis Obolensky was the first ever president of the Russian Nobility Association of America, which was established in New York in 1933.
There is also something annoyingly sentimental about the way in which Smith justifies the need for his book. It is apparently “a testament to the resilience of the human spirit”. The book is well-written, thorough and absorbing, so there really is no need to justify it in such a mawkish way. And, if anything, it is a fascinating indictment of the fundamental problems of extremist politics and a testimony of the need to get the balance right between equality and hierarchy. Too much hierarchy, as under Alexander III, and resentment spills out into a vengeful revolution. Too much emphasis on equality means that people dare not innovate or make money or even assert facts which might counter the doctrine that all are equal.
The other problem is that Smith is unclear on what he means by ‘noble’, a word he uses a great deal. On the one hand he claims that the two families he examines “both belong to the highest level of the nobility; the aristocracy” and he subtitles his book with “aristocracy” rather than “nobility”. He claims there were 1.9 million “nobility” in Russia in the nineteenth century, and that they were a diverse group. At the top of the nobility were around 100 families which he defines as “aristocracy”. This is confusing because, surely, aristocracy is defined as the ‘highest level” and is thus broader than the nobility, a class which tends to have a specific kind of ancestry or honor bestowed by the monarch. He also refers to “aristocrats and landowners” (were landowners noble?) and even “gentry”, especially odd as this is a uniquely English concept referring to those who on the continent are known as “untitled noblemen”. The system is not as complex as Smith suggests. There is purely hereditary “ancient nobility” (male line descendants of princes of certain areas, subsequently under the Tsar’s control), titled nobility (which can be bestowed by the Tsar), and nobility for life (given to certain government appointees). These titles pass to all male heirs, meaning that many Russian ‘princes’ are really only ‘gentlemen’ by English standards.
However, Smith has provided an engrossing and detailed account of an area of history that has been too little explored in English. For anybody interested in Russian history it is certainly worth reading.
Dr. EDWARD DUTTON is an academic and author based in Finland