Review: Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy - Spear's Magazine

Review: Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy

Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy
Douglas Smith
Macmillan 464pp


Reviewed by Mark Le Fanu

What is it like to be a member of a class of people doomed to historical extinction? The Russian aristocracy hasn’t had a very good press. It’s common to meet people even these days whose attitude to the travails of the Russian upper classes at the time of the Revolution, and afterwards, is that they probably brought it down on their own heads. Those centuries of oppression — of wielding the knout on the backs of the poor — had to end in tears, didn’t they?

Serfdom was formally abolished in 1861, but no concerted move was made to give land back to the peasantry and thus encourage them to take a patriotic stake in society. Russia had no middle class to speak of, to act as a buffer or shock absorber. In its lack, peasant and nobility peered at each other over an unbridgeable gulf of hostility and misunderstanding.

‘It is understandable and it is forgivable that they hate us,’ remarked Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, one of the more prescient of the last generation of aristos, ‘for in fact we hate them with the same unyielding malice.’ This was written in 1917, in anger and despair. Douglas Smith’s book aims at — and succeeds in — providing some nuances around this epigram.

" /></p><p> Right from the beginning of his absorbing new study (the first ever of its kind in any language) we have an interesting discrimination, one that I confess I had never thought much about. And this   is that there is a subtle difference between aristocracy and nobility.</p><p> The term nobility covers a much wider catchment area. One could put it by saying that all aristocrats are nobles, but not all nobles are (or were) aristocrats.</p><p> ‘Aristocracy’ proper here refers to the 50 or so really ancient and powerful princely families that traditionally ruled Russia. The nobility as a class was much more numerous —   indeed, in the years up to the Revolution there were as many of them (Smith calculates around two million) as there were members of the industrial proletariat.</p><p> Lenin — himself descended from minor nobility — vowed extinction to all of them. If he and his malign successor eventually succeeded, it was a painfully long, drawn-out business, and   much of the pathos of Smith’s book lies in the way he locates ‘breathing spaces’ when it seemed one might have survived and been forgotten about, only to discover that there was   yet more torture, terror and persecution around the corner. No, the Bolsheviks never gave up.</p><p> First there was the Civil War (1917-21), during which brutality on both sides became routine. By its end, almost 90 per cent of the nobility were dead or in exile. Then came the NEP (New Economic   Policy) period, when you felt you could just about breathe again. The remnants of the nobility huddled in their palaces and even arranged parties. Times were hard, yet not necessarily unhappy,   especially if you were young and starting out in life.</p><p> All that changed, of course, with the coming of Stalin. By the end of the 1920s, these ‘former people’, as members of the aristocracy were referred to, were being thrown out of the   remaining apartments they owned and deprived of the right of employment.</p><p> And so it went on, until the Great Terror (1937-39), during which what tiny fraction that remained of the aristocracy disappeared into the black hole of madness that engulfed the entire country.   Just to remind ourselves: every day for fifteen months an average of 1,500 souls perished at the end of the executioner’s pistol. Countless more innocents were shipped off en masse to the   gulag.</p><p> That, then, was communism in its heyday, a lovely contribution to the happiness of mankind. Smith focuses and also humanises his story by concentrating on two noble clans, the Sheremetevs and the   Golitsyns, tracing their fortunes in detail from the end of the 19th century until the final pulling-down of the curtain. They were exceptionally grand families, intermarried with other grand   families (Trubetskoys, Saburovs, Obolenskys, Gudoviches etc), so it is difficult for the reader at first to get a grip on exactly who is who.</p><p> Gradually, however — aided by the family trees in the introduction, and by some carefully chosen photographs — it all becomes as lucid as it needs to be. The photographs really are   tragic, including fathers and daughters on the eve of their execution. The girls are so pretty!</p><p> Extracts from letters and diaries sprinkle the text, along with poignant prayers and snatches of old Russian poetry. How could one ever think that these people were monsters? They were gallant   souls; and Smith’s book memorialises them beautifully.<br /> <a href=
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