Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy by Douglas Smith – review

Russian aristocrats were still a stiff-necked and arrogant lot at the beginning of the 20th century. The days when they could buy and sell serfs were long over but most still drew their money from land which they did not manage well. They lived, often beyond their income, in luxurious townhouses and on magnificent country estates. Some worked in the state bureaucracy and the army. Others were mere playboys. Most clustered around the sadly incompetent and obstinate Tsar Nicholas II, and shared his limited views about the destiny of the nation. By any reckoning they were already becoming an anachronism that would be swept aside as their country developed. Unlike the British aristocracy, they never learned that it was better to bend than to break.

  1. Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy

  2. by

    Douglas Smith

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Behind them a new class was emerging, people they despised, the merchants and the former serfs who were the embryo of a modern entrepreneurial bourgeoisie. If other things had been equal, it would have been these people, not the aristocrats, who would have carried the future of their country.

But other things were not equal. Revolution and civil war brought the Bolsheviks to power, men who were determined to wipe out anybody who might conceivably oppose them and their Manichaean ideology. Neither the aristocracy nor the new bourgeoisie survived the reign of terror that Lenin unleashed upon them.

In his well-researched, fluent and substantial account, Douglas Smith describes what happened to the aristocrats, and especially to the numerous Sheremetevs and even more numerous Golitsyns, two of Russia‘s grandest and oldest families. Through memoirs, diaries, letters, interviews and documents he builds a detailed picture of these people both before and after their lives were changed for ever by revolution and a barbaric civil war.

In these tumultuous events all sides behaved with equal savagery. But it was the victorious Bolsheviks who institutionalised terror as they tightened their grip on a devastated country. Many aristocrats were killed or driven into exile. Many who stayed behind – the “former people”, as the Bolsheviks called them – perished in the purges or survived by concealing their origin. Some saw what was happening as a just retribution for their own sins of commission and omission. Prince Vladimir Golitsyn, who had been a liberal mayor of Moscow, wrote in his memoirs: “We, the people of the present century, are paying for the sins of our forefathers, and particularly for the institution of serfdom, with all its horrors and perversions… Who is to blame that the Russian people, the peasant and the proletarian, proved to be barbarians? Who, if not all of us?”

But however blind the aristocracy as a class may have been to the consequences of their selfishness and political ineptitude, the fate they suffered as individuals went beyond all measure. Their fall from privilege to desperate poverty and worse was steep and final. By concentrating on them Smith perhaps gives the unintended impression that the quality of their suffering was unique. It was not, of course. As Lenin was followed by Stalin, millions of their fellow countrymen – the bourgeoisie, the intelligentsia, the workers and peasants in whose name the new regime had been proclaimed – suffered at least as badly, and in far greater numbers.

With the decline and fall of the Soviet regime, the survivors began to emerge from hiding, to reassemble their scattered families and to reassert their place in the history of their country. In the new Russia it became respectable, even snobbishly desirable, to be able to call yourself a Russian aristocrat. There was even some passing talk about restoring the monarchy. But the aristocrats, unlike the reconstituted bourgeoisie, never had a hope of resuming a role in the new body politic. It was a poor substitute for a happy ending.

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