Friday, January 17, 2014

Douglas Smith's Former People

Douglas Smith's book, Former People:  The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy, is a wonderfully well-researched account of the tragedy that befell Russia's nobility during the Revolution and the subsequent decades. Smith acknowledges the fact that aristocratic political traditions and economic practices alienated peasants and workers, and even goes so far as to say that most nobles predicted a revolutionary apocalypse even before World War I.  Nevertheless, Smith also helps readers to understand that noble-born Russians suffered grievously.  Indeed, Smith makes a compelling case that the Soviet Union's brutal treatment of nobles foreshadowed the racial cruelty of the Nazi regime.  For the Soviets harassed and hounded anybody with even the slightest biological ties to the Old Regime's nobility, and that included even the children and grandchildren of former nobles. Although the Bolsheviks used class rather than biological terminology to attack their perceived enemies of state, they clearly came to believe that any level of cruelty and coercion was justified if it meant that the Russian people could become purer, less burdened by unproductive and potentially dangerous counter-revolutionary classes.

Smith's book is a compendium of suffering but many so-called "former people" struggled to maintain at least some of the traditions and practices of their past lives.  In some case, former members of high-society met to participate in elaborate balls.  Sadly, Soviet informers caught wind of the events and eventually used them as evidence of an aristocratic conspiracy to undermine socialism.  Smith's treatment of some of the rapid decimation of Russian aristocratic culture is heart-wrenching.  Peasant violence against former aristocrats who tried to survive in the countryside was often deadly, propelled as it was by a desire to ensure that former landlords could never again return to their lands. Of course, all Russians suffered during the Civil War, and most suffered during Collectivization and the Great Terror.  Former aristocrats suffered more than most. Interestingly, Smith's analysis of the letters and diaries of individual families reveals the extent to which many noble families refused to consider emigration.  While some nobles did escape the Soviet Union, many others preferred systematic persecution and even repeated jailings to the idea of "betraying" Russia by emigrating abroad.

In the end, the spirit of the Russian aristocratic culture did survive Bolshevism, and even Stalinism.  That spirit was weakened and bloodied, but alive. Smith's greatest contribution to the historiography of the Soviet Union in general is to remind us that aristocratic culture wasn't always a bad thing.  Undoubtedly romanticized by many in the Russian diaspora, Russian noble culture was often educated, modern, international, phlegmatic, and, to a surprising extent, liberal.  Many Russian nobles even supported the idea of revolution, even suspecting that Bolshevism was a form of cloaked counter-revolution. As Smith reminds us, even Lenin was a product of noble culture, and in fact Lenin claimed noble privilege on more than one occasion in his eventful life.

Some quotations from the book are below:

"For many Russian nobles the revolution came as no surprise."

"Today there are more Golitsyns in North America than in Russia."

"...between 1861 and 1905, the rural nobility lost an average of 1 percent of its land a year through either sale or foreclosure."

" 1900 the working class numbered roughly 1.7 million, about 200,000 fewer than the number of Russia's nobles."

"Exiled to Siberia in 1897 for his political activity, Lenin claimed noble status in order to soften the harshness of his punishment."

Smith quoting Nabokov's father:  "To be for the tsar meant to be against Russia."

Smith quoting Nicholas II:  "Do you meant that I am to regain the confidence of my people, or that they are to regain my confidence?"

Smith quoting a 1917 peasant song:

"And from the bitter aspens shall we hang
Every last lackey of that Vampire-Tsar."

"The children of Count Pavel and Natalya Ignatiev saw the February Days as a "wild street carnival that they could not wait to get outside to see."

"We shall not get out of it this time!  one landowner said.  "What will become of us without our rent-rolls?"

"The next month, the eighty-year-old son of Ivan Kireevsky, one of the founders of Slavophilism, was murdered together with his wife at his estate in Moscow Province..."

"She stroked them, reassuring her littles ones it was nothing to worry about.  "It's just the revolution," she whispered, and they turned over and "went blissfully back to sleep.""

Smith citing Gorky.  "Oh, how hard it is to live in Russia!  We are all so stupid--so fantastically stupid."

Smith citing General Ruzsky.  "Great Russian Revolution.  All I can see is nothing but one great robbery."

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